Spanish elections: ceiling or turning point for the ‘new politics’?

It was the fault of the media, the weather, the Brexit effect, a fear of change. These are just some of the theories that have been bounced around on the left to explain the third place of Unidos Podemos and its regional allies in the re-run of Spain’s general election on 26 June. Not only did the coalition’s number of seats in Congress stagnate, it lost a million votes compared to the result six months ago, and was the biggest victim of the overall fall in turnout.

According to Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, his party’s ambitions were frustrated by the voters who got cold feet when faced with the credible prospect of a Podemos-led government. Fear won. But this hypothesis doesn’t explain Podemos’ failure to mobilise non-voters, an ability that has been key to its success since its breakthrough at the 2014 European elections. It also neglects the fact that, just a year ago, citizen platforms with the support of Podemos won the local elections in many of Spain’s major cities, including Madrid and Barcelona.

So, what happened? Why has the ‘new politics’, in its broadest sense, made significant inroads locally but stalled nationally? There are a number of differences between the political processes underway at each level that might explain why.

From circles to pyramids

The first factor is that of scale. While much was once made of Podemos’ model of local ‘circles’, translating this model into a genuine bottom-up participation mechanism in a nationwide project was never going to be easy. That said, Podemos has disempowered its local circles, and thus done little to challenge the traditional model of representative democracy that was one of the main targets of the ire of the indignados.

By contrast, the municipal scale has proved to be fertile ground for citizen platforms to open up effective participation processes at neighbourhood and city level. While participation in Podemos nationally has become reduced to voting online to approve the proposals put forward by its leaders, the citizen platforms have been better able to combine in-person and online participation in a dynamic and mutually reinforcing way (for example, to draw up election manifestos). These local processes have reflected and built on the networks and practices developed by the indignados movement, which continued through neighbourhood assemblies and online activism long after it was dislodged from the squares.

If anyone wins, we all lose

Another important difference is that Podemos didn’t stand alone, or in a traditional party coalition in the local elections. The citizen platforms were launched by activists from social movements, and the parties (Podemos and United Left among them) joined subsequently.

This model served not only to unite progressive parties but also to create a new political space in which many people who had no party affiliation or previous experience of electoral politics, felt comfortable. The cost to Podemos is the invisibility of its brand and a certain loss of control over decision-making. In exchange, it gains the capacity to engage and harness broader networks beyond its core supporters. The Galician citizen platform, Marea Atlántica sums up this spirit of putting party interests aside to achieve common goals with the motto, ‘If anyone wins, we all lose.’

This more plural approach was imposed on Podemos during the elections in Valencia, Galicia and Catalonia, where municipal and regional parties made decentralised coalitions under different names a condition of their support. It remains to be seen how much autonomy these regional coalitions will demand in Congress and what kind of tensions this might provoke with the central leadership. How the relationship between the centre and the periphery of the coalition evolves will determine whether such strategies will continue to be employed in the future. Catalonia, where Podemos is currently renewing its leadership and Barcelona en Comú is seeking to replicate its citizen-led model at the regional elections, is likely to be a bellwether for the rest of the country on this question over the coming months.

From feminism to feminisation

Finally, Podemos has run up against a significant deficit in support among female voters across all age groups. While the party subscribes to explicitly feminist policies and implements gender parity in its electoral lists, its leadership remains stubbornly male. The Iglesias-Errejón tag team dominates in Madrid and there is a striking absence of women at the highest levels of the party at regional and city level.

Podemos’ male leadership has a noticeable impact on the tone of the party’s communication, which is often accused of being aggressive, or of neglecting to give due prominence to issues such as violence against women. It has also led to Podemos being seen to ‘mansplain’ feminism to the women of Spain, a phenomenon epitomised on International Women’s Day this year, when the party was widely lambasted for tweeting feminist slogans emblazoned across portraits of its male leaders.

More seriously, Podemos’ lack of feminist, female leadership limits its transformative capacity on a structural level. It is no coincidence that the most successful social movements and political platforms that have emerged in post-crisis Spain, from the 15MpaRato anti-corruption group and the PAH housing rights movement to Barcelona en Comú, have been characterised by female leadership and networked organisations. This ‘feminisation of politics’ represents a paradigm shift in both the content and form of political life.

Ceiling or turning point?

The experience of Podemos over the past two years is just the most visible element in a broader laboratory of political projects, both electoral and non-electoral, that have emerged in Spain since the occupations of 2011. While Podemos has successfully captured and channelled much of the discontent and the language of the squares, the values and working methods of the indignados have been kept alive elsewhere, primarily by civil society.

If these general elections are to serve as a turning point, rather than a ceiling for the new politics, then parties, the municipal movement, and activists must reflect on the successes and limits of the strategies used to date. The new politics cannot be a mere rebranding exercise. Creating a real democracy is about more than winning elections. It’s about changing how politics is done from below, starting with our daily lives, in our homes, neighbourhoods and cities. Electoral politics is part of the puzzle, but only if parties take up the challenge of transforming their own ways of working. If they fail to do so, any future election victory is sure to ring hollow.

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