The traditional party of the radical left Izquierda Unida is facing a takeover by upstart party Podemos. Jesús Sánchez Rodríguez* analyses the dynamics within and between to the two organisations and the prospects for economic, social and political transformation in Spain
The political project of Podemos began to be articulated about a year ago and since then the pace of political change in Spain has accelerated; the most discussed of the changes that have occurred, and especially those that are likely to occur in the coming months, are the breakdown of the traditional two-party system and, therefore, of alternation in government between the conservatives (UCD and PP) and Social Democrats (PSOE), which has been the case since the beginning of the transition from the Franco dictatorship to the situation in Spain today. A third party is in the running to be a part of local, regional or even national government, changing in the political sphere the social balance of power in favour of the popular classes. This new political force proposes an alternative to the classic offer of the left, which would, if it gets into government, be a political earthquake.
For now, what’s undeniable is that there’s already been a profound change in the situation over the past 12 months within the political left in Spain, which can be condensed into two phenomena ; the first concerns Izquierda Anticapitalista (a Trotskyist party that left Izquierda Unida in 2008) that for the first time secured, on the one hand, political influence and social and institutional positions and, on the other, transformed from a party into a movement, in January, to avoid the veto imposed at the entry of its members into the governing bodies of Podemos. The second phenomenon, more far-reaching, is the predictable electoral marginalization of Izquierda Unida (IU), with a sudden stop to its growth, and the creation of strong tensions within it, which could bring it to lose some of its activists and leaders and that could end up even further deepening its irrelevance to the point of endangering its very existence.
We must recognize, first, that the analyzes made of this developing process have in many cases become obsolete faced with the fluid transformation of conditions on the ground.
Podemos, the anti-party party
The first view of the Podemos phenomenon from the Left perspective was that it was trying to politically represent the spirit of the 15-M Movement (the indignados that exploded onto the streets and occupied town squares in May 2011) and that, its emergence onto Spain’s political scene would have created a new division in the left, a fragmentation that would have take away some political space from IU, without endangering the hegemonic role on the left of the PSOE. Its origins and the way of doing politics that it promised, it was thought that Podemos would have a role similar to that of the German Greens at their beginning, a political organization (Podemos initially presented itself as anti-party) with new horizontal forms of participation and direct democracy; the justification of its existence would be found in the way it behaved, not in a programme that was very similar to that of IU.
The first surprise was the result of the European election of May 2014: Podemos practically equalled the representation obtained by IU; the fragmentation of the left came to pass but, despite the halting of IU’s growth trend, it tripled its score in these elections. Given the division of the left, organizationally and in terms of representation, it made sense to think about the possibility of pacts that would paper over the cracks. The situation was such that IU could not continue to think in terms of hegemony in the left and, despite being the doyenne among the organizations in this field, would have to come to terms with Podemos; the outstretched hand from IU came almost at the same moment as the results of the European elections were revealed, but Podemos decided, on the basis that it was now on a strong upward trend, to reject pacts between organizations and to continue independently.
Podemos, catch-all party
From that moment, two evolutions in Podemos began to profoundly change the situation. The first evolution was a phenomenon internal to Podemos: first, the consolidation of a project for a classic political party, abandoning the initial anti-party position and, second, the crystallisation around a core leadership group of university professors who were promoting this project and were challenging, for total control of the organization, Izquierda Anticapitalista (the other epicenter and initial promoter Podemos), totally marginalising the latter from the party leadership. In this process, the initial and ephemeral identity traits that bound Podemos to 15-M were abandoned: Podemos wanted to present themselves now as the representative of larger collective, all those who were injured and disillusioned by the effects of the crisis and the system of generalized and rampant corruption; it quickly turned into a catch-all party that tried to fish electorally across the political spectrum, to reach a majority in order to become a real option for government. The hope of winning with a ‘regenerating’ project replaced the hope of representing the 15-M and its manifestations and Podemos saw its electoral support grow dramatically. In turn, this change implied the accentuation of a discourse defined neither as left nor of right, but rather of ambiguity, with an emphasis on its aim to regenerate Spanish politics and society.
It was a success: different sections of the electorate began to support it, sing what they wanted to see in Podemos. Areas of the left saw it as left-wing, those in the centre or social democrats preferred to focus in on its regeneracionista policies. The point is that with this strategy, its fortunes grew exponentially and in a short time not only Podemos tore ahead of IU in the opinion polls and further marginalised the IU, but it surpassed the socialists (PSOE) and, in some polls, is now the leading political party.
In this situation, the problem of alliances changed drastically. In a relative sense, IU was to Podemos what it had been before with PSOE, in a clear minority position, no ability to influence the terms of a pact or even to secure any pact at all with the rising star in the Spanish political landscape.
Even the positions in other political organizations of the left changed according to the evolution of the electoral fortunes of Podemos. As we indicated above, Izquierda Anticapitalista was one of the central promoters of the Podemos project; it is an small organization, of committed activists but absolutely electorally marginal; it split from IU when its European counterpart, the French New Anti-Capitalist Party began having some success, that later proved ephemeral. It believed it was possible to use Podemos as a vehicle to connect, from its minority position, with the impulse coming from the 15-M movement and succeeded, but its situation within Podemos began to encounter difficulties: the other central promoting forces, gathered around the ‘hyper leader’ Pablo Iglesias, decided to exert iron and exclusive control over the organization and sideline Izquierda Anticapitalista from the governing bodies through the expedient of prohibiting dual membership, which has forced IA to convert from a party to a movement.
Currently Izquierda Anticapitalista has some of its most popular leaders within Podemos and its biggest success, so far, has been to get its militant, Teresa Rodríguez, elected as MEP; she will also head the list of the next regional election (in March) in Andalusia. At the organizational level, Izquierda Anticapitalista lends Podemos a left-wing identity and seems faithful to its own roots as a movement derived from the 15-M, as shown by the mass assembly for the foundation of Podemos in October 2014, in Plaza Vista Alegre. And Izquierda Anticapitalista’s position, despite having suffered the attempted marginalization within the new party, is much better than a year ago.
The situation in IU has become, however, even more dramatic. From the hegemonic organization to the left of PSOE, with hopes of significant growth on the back of the malaise and mobilizations produced during the crisis, it now risks electoral disaster and we have seen how the rise and rise of Podemos in the polls has triggered new tensions that were latent within it; having had its proposed alliance rejected, is threatened by a takeover bid by Podemos, and its very existence.
IU has always suffered from internal problems that, in recent months, sharpened, as in the case of Andalusia with the division on the alliance in government with PSOE or, in Madrid, with the credit card scandal in Caja Madrid but, although these are serious problems, the principal stresses come from the existence and evolution of Podemos. Reduced back to a marginal role, unable to establish alliances and witnessing Podemos transformed into a major party with the possibility of governing at various levels and to initiate a profound change in power relations and social policy at local, regional and national level, IU’s leading activists and militants are faced with a distressing dilemma.
IU strengths, Podemos weaknesses
With all its internal problems, IU is a stable organization with a political project and a programme discussed and embedded among its members, it has clear identity traits of the left, established links with trade unions, membership of the European Left Party and connections with other organizations internationally. This is the result of work of many years of militancy and cadres who are well prepared, qualified and experienced through all these years of activity in the organization, in society and in institutions, but by political circumstances and errors they face marginalization from the possibility of genuine economic , social and political change in Spain.
On the other hand, the party that can drive this change, Podemos, is very heterogeneous, unstable, ambiguous in its positions, with an indeterminacy that is a sometimes deliberate and sometimes imposed by the speed and magnitude of events on a variety of key issues, with a shortage of experienced activists, whose fragility could take it down unexpected paths when they find themselves in important institutional positions and will have to define themselves in response to many problems and challenges.
It seems that members, militants and leaders of IU face a serious dilemma; the question would be easier if there was the possibility of an alliance with Podemos or to enter it as a party (that would be allowed by the IU as it is a federation) but Podemos has blocked these two possibilities and has launched from its position of strength, a ‘takeover of United Left’. The transfer of IU members, activists and leaders to Podemos has begun.
If we leave aside the simple defence of individual parties, the dilemma is summed up thus:
- on the one hand, defend IU and stay inside it with the double risk of seeing the organization reduced to a mere witness of events while in Podemos the ‘regeneracionista’ position consolidates, and not necessarily a left-wing version, due to the lack of a sufficient number of convinced and capable leftists, which would mean wasting a historic opportunity that is unlikely to be repeated. The historical example of this situation is that of Greek Communist Party (KKE) which remains outside SYRIZA and the historic change that is happening in Greece and which did not even offer its support to form a Syriza-led government.
- on the other hand, choose to transfer to Podemos (concluding the experience of IU and, perhaps, the Spanish Communist Party, PCE) as a political organization, to provide irreversible Left identity traits and practices in Podemos, participating directly and from within to a change in power relations and the hopes of economic, social and political transformation in Spain; the risk, in this case, is that in the end Podemos will not live up to hopes of on left and that, after a long period, the left will be reduced (in electoral terms) to close to nil.
The historical example, in this case, would be the fate of the communists in Italy (PCI), which dissolved itself (in 1989-91) to form the post-communist PDS (and through successive changes, PM Matteo Renzi’s Democrats) and the plight of the Communists and the left in Italy today.
*Doctor in Political Science, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, where he is currently professor. Regular contributor to Fundación de Investigaciones Marxistas
Translation/edit by Revolting Europe