Can We Really Podemos?

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

In the recent European Parliamentary Elections, a new political party in Spain called Podemos caused a sensation by gaining nearly 8% of the votes after only 4 months of existence. It was quite a performance indeed, considering the usual lack of engagement attributed to European elections and how it is thought to be the political embodiment of the 15-M movement, a grassroots, assembly-based movement born out the 15 May 2011 protests that were thought to be dissolved.

The good results for Podemos immediately led commentators around the world, including the very influential New York Times, to suggest that this outcome had managed to “shake the foundations of Spanish politics…”  and that it could very well be the end of bipartisan politics in Spain. Indeed, for the first time in its history, the two main parties of Spain would get less than half the votes.

The name Podemos means “we can”, perhaps a reference – with or without derision – to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan. While Obama’s impressive campaign did gain him the respect of the entire marketing community, Podemos does deserve some praise as well for turning in impressive numbers after only 11 weeks of existence. But impressive enough, perhaps, to raise legitimate questions about the success of a formation claiming roots the 15-M movement – the anti-austerity and anti-capitalist protests that made the cover of the Washington Post.

Indeed, is Podemos really a threat to those in power in Madrid and Brussels?

As reported by the New York Times, Podemos “…organized itself in about 400 so-called circles, or assembly points, formed around either a neighborhood or a specific sector, like a student association.” This structure, very similar to that of the neighborhood assemblies of the 15M movement, is an indication that Podemos is in fact the continuation of the Indignados protest-turned-assembly movement.

The evolution of the 15-M into such a strong political party is indeed very encouraging. So why the long face? The intense campaign, which was very much helped by the constant media exposure of its leader Pablo Iglesias raises legitimate questions that anyone familiar with party politics would ask. To put it simply, why would the powerful help a political group that aims at defeating it?

Podemos surely represents, for many in and outside of Spain, an oasis of hope in a political landscape usually fertile only to cynicism and despair. So perhaps my offering such a critical view of the sole case of participatory democracy in Europe raises the burden of proof. However, it is important to distinguish first between party politics like Podemos and grassroots movements like the 15-M.

Both approaches seek social change and both approaches require high levels of commitment. However the crucial difference between party politics and grassroot movements lies mainly in the fact that the former requires high levels of compromise and is forced to deal with the political reality in order to reach enough consensus to win elections. The difficulty with Podemos is that it is a political group run as a bottom-up democratic group yet within party politics. As an assembly based movement, their political program is entirely the product of internal debate and assembly work. They serve, in fact, what they consider to be – and rightly so I might add – important social values such as self-management and participation of citizenry in the decision making process. Nevertheless, this now poses a serious problem of compatibility with party politics: how can such movement gather enough consensus to win the majority of votes?

Anyone interested in gaining social change over political posturing must recognize this dilemma and, to make things more complicated, one must take into account the singularity of European Parliamentary Elections where a country like Spain only chooses 52 out 751 MEP’s (Members of the EU Parliament). This statistical reality – or shall I say deterrent -forces any political group in this run to accept even more so the need to achieve consensus in order to have some hope to carry some wait when trying to achieve real social change.

Having made this important distinction between these two realms, one must look at Podemos political program to determine whether there are reasons to think that a political group such as Podemos can some day in the near future win elections and gain social change. In other words, let’s look at its proposals in search for wedge issues.
What wedge issues are and why they matter

A wedge issue is one that splits apart public opinion or political groups, with little or no chance of reconciliation or compromise. A wedge issue is one where there are usually stark contrasts between black and white with little grey in the middle. Typically, one can think of abortion as a wedge issue, or gay marriage, secession of a given region, gender theory, religion, etc. These are also known as “hot buttons” or “third rail issues”.

In reality, there is no subject that will split public opinion apart into two per se. Indeed, that very much depends on where the debate takes places. For example, gun control will be a wedge issue in the US, whereas in European countries it is not considered a divisive subject.

Now, having understood this very important notion of wedge issue, one must simply look at Podemos and look for wedge issues to try and determine its prospects for victory. The rule being, naturally, that the higher the number of hot buttons, the smaller the potential electorate, hence the farther it stands from victory and real social change.

Please note that this calculation we are about to make is just standard among political analysts (though you might not learn this from reading the NYT) and all adversaries of Podemos in the election have probably made such calculations long before we did.

It would take a long essay to review every proposal made by Podemos to try and identify whether or not each of them might be considered wedge issues or not. However, we can attempt to comment on just a few. We will also try and see whether these proposals are in accordance with EU Law.

Indeed, the political program of Podemos is summed up in a 36-page proposal list. A dense document that covers most areas of human political activity, from economic issues to family rights and abortion.

The very first “problem” – from an electoral point of view, that is – is the presence of numerous proposals that would require a modification of EU Treaties.

Podemos advocates for the control of capital flow (proposal 5.2). Regardless of the soundness of this argument, one must realize that this proposal is in direct violation of Article 63 of the Lisbon Treaty that states that “…all restrictions on the movement of capital between Member States and between Member States and third countries shall be prohibited”.

Therefore, going against the Treaty like Podemos does here, implies a modification of the treaty, but not only by Podemos. In fact, the only way the EU Treaties can be modified would be by reaching absolute consensus (says the very same Treaty), meaning unanimity of all 28 member states. The chances of that happening are probably akin to winning the lottery twice in a row.

In order to achieve absolute consensus between all 28 member states, one would have to imagine a scenario where Luxembourg, whose GDP depends heavily on capital flow, would decide it is no longer in its interest to allow for capital to flow in and out. If your imagination actually reaches that far, then try to picture this happening 28 times.

Needless to say that in Podemos program, proposals that would require a modification of the Lisbon Treaty are numerous. To name just a few: the elimination of the EU’s civil servants pension privileges (5.6), Price control on agricultural goods (6.3), the extension of citizen’s initiative to draft bills (2.2), the creation of participatory budgeting (4.1), repeal of the Lisbon Treaty (sic) (5.1), exiting NATO (4.6), etc.

None of these proposals are actually followed by a modus operandi as to how they would be implemented, nor is there any mention of modifying the EU Treaties. In fact, the issue with Treaty modification is never even mentioned. Given that this would be the only legal option for modifying the Treaty short of leaving the EU – which is never suggested by Podemos, not even verbally – it is hard to see how any of these proposals would be implemented.
The wedge issues of Podemos program

There is a say here that people like to repeat: “Spain is different!”. Anyone who lives in Spain long enough understands what this means. Although Spain is perceived as progressive society in many respects, it actually remains relatively conservative and it can only be fully understood from within. All too often, activists from other countries, especially the US, try to understand foreign societies by exporting their own US paradigm. This perhaps is a more common feature on the Left, which often mistakes internationalism with one-size-fits-all prescriptions.

Present day Spain is the outcome of a tumultuous twentieth century that only managed to get peacefully out of 40 years of dictatorship by compromising. To miss this point and to ignore the existence of a large conservative portion of the country is in fact a lethal mistake in party politics. Many of the proposals that can be found in Podemos extensive program are in fact steaming hot buttons, in other words wedge issues that, combined with one another, virtually guarantee a cap below 15% of votes (to give an optimistic estimate).

To illustrate this, in proposal 2.11, Podemos advocates gender theory and assisted reproduction. These are a textbook definition of a wedge issue, at least here in Spain. That is to say that even if Podemos wrote a very consensual program – which they are not – the inclusion of gender theory and assisted reproduction advocacy alone would drive a large segment of the population not to vote for them.

Podemos also advocates for policies that are also wedge issues for traditional leftist voters, such as immigration policies. Podemos states (4.3) it wants all immigrants, both legal and illegal, to automatically enjoy rights equal to those of EU citizens. This issue is not only an unpopular measure among conservatives in favour of controlling EU as well as Spanish borders, but also among the working class who perceive themselves as being put in direct and unrestricted competition with cheaper labour. In a context where 26% of workers suffer unemployment, this is hardly a trivial question and Podemos are seen by many who traditionally favour a leftist agenda as accomplices to the neoliberal agenda.

Another wedge issue that will guarantee Podemos never exceed 10-15% of the votes has to do with their support for the self-determination of the Catalan and Basque regions, both of which run against the 1978 Spanish constitution and the vast majority of Spaniards (public opinion polls on this very hot issue are taken regularly). Ironically, there where Podemos did best in these elections – large cities from the center like Madrid – is where opposition to independentists is stronger.

This apparent anomaly can easily be explained by the fact that Podemos remained virtually silent on this topic during their campaign.

However, shortly after the elections, Podemos publicly supported two protests in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, making the headlines of the major news outlets in Spain. One can only wonder how many Podemos supporters were astonished to discover their position on this crucial issue of Catalonian and Basque independence.
Issues not dealt with by Podemos raise questions

Indeed, when I first read the Podemos political program, I discovered with dismay the total absence of proposals or even criticism towards the Euro, a common currency imposed from above by Brussels and Washington and identified by many as the single most important issue and culprit for the deep economic crisis in which Southern European countries remain.

Indeed, the impossibility for those countries to devalue their currency in order to boost exports deprives them of the number one treatment in any economics textbook: monetary policy. If Spain still had its peseta, the Spanish Central Bank would simply devalue its currency to make Spanish goods cheaper for foreign consumers. One could say that euro alone is largely responsible – though there are other factors as well – for the record-high unemployment rate (26%) and the austerity measures imposed by Brussels, the IMF and the European Central Bank (ECB).

The truth of the matter is the proposals made by Podemos would require much more political manoeuvrability, in other words it would need Spain to be retrieve its lost sovereignty. That can only be achieved through exiting the EU and the euro-zone.  Nowhere in Podemos program is there any mention of exiting euro-zone and therefore the European Union through article 50: “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”

Ironically, not article 50 would be the only proposal that wouldn’t require unanimity of all 28 member states, but this would probably also be the only proposal that is not an absolute wedge issue and around which consensus could be built.

For these reasons, I believe that Podemos, in its current form, is not a threat to the ruling elites in the EU, nor to their American sponsor.
A look at the numbers: a relative victory for Podemos

Indeed, it might be useful to remind ourselves that regardless of how well Podemos may have done, these elections in Spain stood out for another notable fact: the comfortable victory of the Partido Popular (PP) with 26% of the votes, followed by the Socialists (23%) and the Left Coalition (10%).

The right-wing party currently in power did actually win the election – perhaps a relative victory, but a victory nonetheless. This is probably a unique case in Europe’s political landscape, where parties in power tend to be punished during elections, especially when riddled with such high levels of corruption and after 3 very long years of rough austerity (dictated from Brussels, Francfort and Washington) and with 26% unemployment. Given the circumstances, things could not have gone any better for Mariano Rajoy’s government.

As political analyst Nicolas Klein reminded us in his excellent article on Podemos (in French only, I’m afraid), not only has the PP reaffirmed its position in its traditional bastions, it even managed to gain new ground in historically leftists regions like Castilla-La Mancha.

As for the PSOE (Socialist Party), it did relatively well, as expected, mainly in the South of Spain (Andalucía) and in Asturias in the North, where the leading industry of coal-mining is still largely dependent on government protection and is usually associated with Socialist policies.

Also as expected, independence parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country, which were forced to build coalitions (European elections are less favourable than national elections for independence parties), did well in their respected regions.

Podemos managed to get 5 seats out of 751 in the Parliament, in other words, a drop in the bucket. Also, those familiar with the inner workings of EU institutions know the relative impact the European Parliament has on actual decision-making. As a matter of fact, the EU institutions are unique in that its executive body, the European Commission, holds the sole power to initiate the laws.
Party-politics need us to reach consensus now more than ever…

We must unite people in every European country, in Spain and elsewhere, around the central issue of national sovereignty. In other words, the only political party that can promise us a return of power to the people is one that would mention article 50 of the EU Treaty: “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”  Any other political program is, I’m afraid, a wish-list at best or flatly deceptive.
…but now more than ever we must continue to build from small to larger scale grassroot movements that embed the change we want

Whether one thinks about projects such as the International Organization for a Participatory Society, of neighborhood-scale economies or even large scale cooperatives, we must stay involved in building the type of society that we want. It is time to understand that the XXIst century will be activist or will not be…


  1. avatar
    Paulo Rodriguez July 2, 2014 8:22 pm 

    Extremely interesting and intriguing piece of analysis, thanks David!

  2. avatar
    Paul July 2, 2014 4:37 pm 

    A correction to this sentence:

    “The name Podemos means “we can”, perhaps a reference – with or without derision – to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan.”

    Actually, Obama’s “yes, we can” was lifted from the Activist Cesar Chavez’s very similar slogan of the United Farm Worker’s of America (UFWA) – “Si. se puede” – in the 1960’s and 70’s. Not giving this slogan proper attribution to its far more worthy author is a real pet peeve of mine.

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