Can Podemos Save Spanish Democracy?


Madrid—Halfway between Barcelona and Madrid by high-speed train, the city of Zaragoza proved for one day last month how simple a solution to the crisis in Catalonia should really be.

In a last-gasp effort to prevent further division and possible clashes between voters and police in Catalonia, the city, capital of the autonomous community of Aragon, hosted a multiparty conference a week before Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence. Neither of the traditional parties—Mariano Rajoy’s governing conservative People’s Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE)—was present. Nor was the separatist group that now heads the Catalan government and its bid for independence from Spain. Of the large parliamentary groups, only the new-left alternative Podemos, the driving force behind the conference, attended.

Nevertheless, the participants, a wide range of progressive regional political alliances and coalitions, represent a quiet, democratic, and plurinational Spain, concealed by the blazing red-and-yellow Spanish flag that has been draped from thousands of balconies since the improvised October 1 plebiscite and the violent scenes that accompanied it. The Zaragoza Declaration, barely covered in the media, might now prove the only alternative to permanent strife, as the Catalan crisis deepens.

The parties in attendance included Unidos Podemos, the alliance of the old-left Izquierda Unida (United Left) and Podemos that ran with mixed results in most of Spain in the last general elections, and Catalunya en Comú, their counterpart in Catalonia. The Basque nationalists were there, along with the pro-separatist Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana). Coalició Compromís, the left coalition that governs the Valencia region, attended, as did two Galician nationalist groups and the nationalist Geroa Bai, from the Pyrenean region of Navarre.

Also present were the Podemos-supported platforms that hold power in most of Spain’s large cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, A Coruña, Palma, and Cádiz. The charismatic women mayors of Madrid and Barcelona, respectively Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau, were both represented, as of course was Zaragoza Mayor Pedro Santisteve, an independent who won the city elections in 2015 with the support of Podemos in a municipality that is traditionally deeply conservative.

These new regional coalitions nurtured by the Podemos leadership over the past two years not only govern Spain’s biggest cities but have sent more than 90 of 350 deputies to the Spanish Parliament, representing 6.5 million votes—nearly a fifth of the Spanish electorate. They are what Enric Juliana, political commentator of the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia, calls “the Others”—those who are sympathetic to a referendum in Catalonia “without going into any further details about self-determination.” While less than half of Catalan citizens want independence, 84 percent now support a referendum.

The most striking feature of the Zaragoza conference was that it included Catalan, Basque, and Galician separatists alongside defenders of a Spanish federal republic. Esquerra Republicana leader Oriol Junqueras, who is at the forefront of Catalonia’s now-desperate attempts to declare independence, supported the initiative. So too did Colau and Carmena, both leftists who prefer a plurinational republic over the breakup of Spain. What united the participants was a commitment to the Catalans’ democratic right to decide whether to stay within the Spanish state or leave. The Zaragoza Declaration urged the Spanish government to enter into dialogue with Catalonia and agree to hold a referendum on independence, and said the Rajoy government’s policy of “exception and repression” should cease, since “the rule of law in a democracy must guarantee the right of free expression to the citizens.”

At a moment of extreme radicalization over Catalonia, Podemos—so often parodied as the extremist left by the Spanish media—is cleverly using the Catalan question to offer a responsible, democratic alternative to the two sets of flag-wavers. “The only parties with which the Catalan separatists say they can hold talks were all in Zaragoza,” said Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the founders of Podemos and a key figure in the Zaragoza Declaration, in an interview last week. “The separatists see Spain as a Civil Guard barracks, full of bishops and folkloric costumes,” he said, referring to the formerly Franco-ist military police and other aspects of the Franco dictatorship. “They got it right on the Spain the PP represents. But Podemos is Spanish, and we support a referendum,” he added.

A week after the Zaragoza conference, 30,000 members of the National Police and paramilitary Civil Guard landed in Barcelona from their barracks on the trans-Mediterranean ferries moored in the harbor and beat up hundreds of citizens trying to vote in the illegal plebiscite. Truncheons were raised, boots were stamped, and rubber bullets were fired. Nearly 900 people were injured. In subsequent days, tens of thousands of military-clad Spanish police occupied the streets of Catalan towns and cities, while Catalonia’s autonomous police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, looked on in their pink banded caps like a ceremonial guard. Never before, not even in Greece, has the brute force of the state been so graphically deployed to sweep aside the complexities of identity and class in a turbulent post-crisis Europe.

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