Josep Maria Antentas explains the challenges for the left-wing Podemos, faced with the threat from another political upstart, Cuidadanos, that is rivalling it in the polls
The emergence of Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’) has once again changed Spain’s fluid and volatile political landscape. Finally the option of peaceful change, a regeneration of the model, without changing it. Is Citizens Podemos’ Moriarty? Its enemy, as unexpected as invincible? This has been the craving of big business and all those who have endeavoured to hoist the “Podemos of the Right”.
Ciudadanos steals the novelty effect of Podemos and above all to appear as the only pretender to the throne that the Socialist-Popular Party bipartisanship leaves semi-orphan, around which could be built a heterogeneous social majority that has been attracted to Podemos for the real possibility that it was the vehicle for political change. The circle is vicious, because the less Podemos looks like it can secure a victory, the less support it will receive. And, conversely, as a more credible alternative as the winner, you will receive more instrumental support. Although both parties are competing for a small proportion of votes and their main reservoir of support comes different ends of the political spectrum, Ciudadanos can block growth in support among the less politicized and more conservative sectors of society and torpedoes the cross-party project that aims to rapidly build a social majority that goes beyond the traditional confines of the “people of the left”.
The rise of both parties has certain points in common, in particular the role of the media and television in particular in propelling them forward, and the charismatic leadership of Ciudadanos’ Albert Rivera and Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias. But if the media promotion can be explained by the logic of audience share, Ciudadanos has been encouraged by political and business interests to be the antidote to Podemos, an option for political alternance, or indeed to shore up bipartisanship. And, beyond the TV parallels, there are two very different underlying realities. Podemos emerged out of a process of self-organization from below, often in conflict with the development and structuring of the party itself, and real grassroots militancy, much of it from recent experiences of the occupy movement of May 15 2011 (’15M’) and the citizens’ ‘tides’ against cuts and privatisation, and the social sectors who sympathized with them. None of this exists in Ciudadanos, which lacks a activist base and social anchor, despite the undeniable pull of the events organised by Rivera and his people.
The rise of Ciudadanos, as Podemos showed, certifies once again the crucial importance of the media, and television in particular, in the current crisis of bipartisanship and the formation of new political alternatives. It also shows the volatility of the situation, the weaknesses of the current processes of politicization, and the fragility of any strategy of social transformation underestimates the importance of social self-organization and is limited only or primarily to the field of communication. Paradoxically, it requires not only political solvency and ability on one’s own ground, but also strength and consistency in whatever your social territory.
To fight Ciudadanos, Podemos must be faithful to its roots and the hopes that were hatched after the European elections, and avoid any temptation to imitate their new and unexpected opponent. The search for “centre” voters if it is conceived as an adaptation of their preferences and not as a struggle to change perceptions of reality, redirect debates and reset priorities, is to begin a journey rightwards. The recent historical development of social democracy is an eloquent example of this. Their results also. Tempted by the respectability of competing for the vote of the depoliticized “center” would be a strategic error. If this is what it is to sell a superficial change, a hollow regeneration, Rivera will always win and not Iglesias. It is pointless playing a game where the candidate with tie is always better than one with a ponytail.
The emergence of Podemos modified the coordinates of the political debate, introducing new themes on the agenda and forcing the other parties to adapt to the new player. The dazzling success of the term “casta” [‘elite’] was undoubtedly the most obvious example. Podemos would make a profound mistake if it were now to allow itself to be forced to compete around the theme set by another party, Ciudadanos – that of the bland promises. On the contrary, today more than ever, Podemos must insist on the need to unite the democratic regeneration with a change in economic policies, link the critique of the two party system and corruption with the defence of a citizens’ anti-austerity bailout. This is Ciudadanos’ Achilles heel. ¿Will Ciudadanos stop evictions? And privatization? Will you bail out the banks? These are the kind of issues about which Rivera’s party should be pressed, to show in black on white that their proposals are just more of the same. If there is any would-be “casta” in Spanish politics it is Albert Rivera, whose programme of peaceful change is little more than to put himself and his people in the placeheld exclusively by the Popular Party (PP) and Socialists (PSOE) for decades.
It is not of course a question of relinquishing the effort to shake up the political agenda with cross-cutting issues, and matters that cannot be easily pigeonholed, just as it they should not allow themselves to be characterised, by Rivera, as “extremists” . Or allow themselves to be pushed into the fringes of political debate. Rather, the challenge for Podemos is to continue to set the political agenda and to place proposals on the table that highlight its uniqueness and its credibility as the bringer of democratic and social change. To want to “be like them” has historically been the weakness of any emancipatory movement. To show that being different means you can be more effective, better, relevant and reliable is the challenge of those who seek to change the world from below.
Seen from this persecutive, the battle for centrality is the fight to shift the centre of gravity around which alliances and social and institutional relations and political struggle in a favourable direction for the labouring classes (it is impossible to conceive Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ without understanding it as an articulation about class relations!). In short, the battle for control of the lever around which pivots the political and social gears. The conquest of this desired centrality is difficult, certainly, but when not confused with programmatic and discursive adaptations, it is opens unexplored doors that bring the possible closer to the necessary.
Josep Maria Antentas is Professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).
Translated/edited by Revolting Europe