How much influence does the Greek question have on Podemos and the hopes for change of the Spanish Left? The chemistry between Iglesias and Tsipras has been a constant in recent months, but will this close relationship now weaken the Iberian upstart party in the next two important elections this autumn? While it is down slightly in the polls, the dissenting voices from within the party are calling for ”unity on the left. ”
By Steven Forti
On July 8th Pablo Iglesias told Parliament that “today to defend the greek people and their government is to defend the dignity of Europe.” A phrase that sums up the position of Podemos these last six months. On that day, Greek Pm Alex Tsipras was in Brussels: it was the week of tough negotiations and high hopes after the victory of the “No” side in the Greek referendum. The signing of the “diktat” imposed by Schäuble and Merkel – with the support of Finland, the Baltic states and Slovakia – on the morning of July 13, has created many difficulties for the European left: some accused Tsipras of treason, those who remained speechless and those who supported the Greek premier, aware however, of the complexity of the European situation.
In the days that followed, the statements of the leaders of Podemos followed the last of these positions. On July 16, responding to journalists during the presentation of a book by sociologist Manuel Castells, Iglesias acknowledged that “sadly it was the only thing Tsipras could do. What happened in Greece is the truth of power. If there are new governments in Europe that apply Keynesian policies, if we can convince the Social Democrats to change their position, then there will be a possibility. Otherwise, we will have Marine Le Pen”. The number two of Podemos Íñigo Errejón reiterated the same concept: “European leaders have only postponed the problem, debilitating a democratically elected government whose objective was to demonstrate that there are alternatives to austerity. It was the only deal possible faced with the intransigence of the European leaders, the best solution to be reached, even if it is not an agreement designed for the future of the euro and the EU. We support what the Greek Parliament decides and respect what they decide. ”
A few days later, in an article published in “El País”, Iglesias added, however, that “politics is always about conflict and we should play our cards in a difficult environment in which we face very strong opponents who today celebrate the Greek agreement as a temporary cynical victory of reason and reaction to social Europeanism. However, Greece is not Spain. Our country has much more strength as a political actor in Europe and can make use of public institutions capable of reining in our corrupt unproductive and defrauding oligarchies.”. That is, Greece is not Spain, size does matter and you need to build a progressive, anti-austerity alliance in Europe.
Iglesias’ remarks are also a reply to the discourse that the Popular Party (PP) government is seeking to impose. Spanish pm Mariano Rajoy did not waste a minute in standing as a defender of the “syrizzazione” risk to Spain against a possible victory of Podemos – presented as a populist and anti-European – in the coming elections. A reading that has be adopted, consciously or unconsciously, by Eugenio Scalfari, the editor of Italian daily newspaper Repubblica, who put in the same boat Podemos, Britain’s UKIP and the France’s Front National.
The PP insists on the argument “Either us or chaos”, a line promoted for some time by Enric Juliana, deputy director of Conservative newspaper “La Vanguardia”. A mess that would be caused not only by Podemos, but also Catalan, Basque, Galician and Valencian nationalists – that have obtained important victories in local elections in May, winning control, in alliance with the socialists (PSOE), Podemos and civic lists a grassroots level, of the government in many municipalities and regions – and the risk of sliding back into economic crisis.
Rajoy is banking on winning on the back of the economy: estimates for 2015 indicate that growth of GDP by 2.8% while in the second half of 2015, according to recent data from the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE), Spain created more than 400,000 jobs, and unemployment has fallen by 1.4% to 22.3% (equivalent to over 5 million people). What the government does not say, however, it that over 70% of the new jobs are precarious and that most of the contracts last less than one week.
A delicate juncture for Podemos
For the leaders of Podemos, however, there are only headaches from the possible effects of the Greek crisis on the Spanish domestic politics. The polls are beginning to present a different picture from that of the past months where the party led by Iglesias flew above 20% and was betting on victory in the elections in September.
According to a survey conducted between 20 and 22 July by Metroscopia, PSOE and PP would dispute the victory with, respectively, 23.5 and 23.1% of the votes, Podemos would get 18.1%, Ciudadanos 16% and Izquierda Unida (IU) 5.6%. But according to another recent poll for “El Diario”, Podemos is down at 13.3% , at a considerable distance from the PP which is expected to remain the largest party with 30.7%, although losing more than a third of the votes compared to 2011, and the Socialists (PSOE) that, thanks to the leadership of Pedro Sánchez has avoided the fate of Greece’s Pasok, and has a score of 27.4%. Ciudadanos and IU would get 10.2% and 4.8%, according to this poll. If this were to be the case, it would repeat the results of the regional Andalusian election in March. An important result, no doubt, for a system of imperfect bipartisanship, as Spain has been until recently, but not really exciting. The two-party system would face some difficult times (for example, together PP and PSOE would take just 60% of the total votes in the case of the second survey, and 50% in the case of the former, while in 2008 they had more than 80%), but it would survive, avoiding what looked only at the beginning of this year like an irreversible crisis.
Also because, in what is no insignificant factor, the Spanish electoral law favours the major parties: with 13% or even 18% of the votes Podemos would get roughly between 30 and 50 deputies (as was confirmed in the regional elections in May), Ciudadanos would get 20, while PP and PSOE would, respectively, gain 115/133 and 107/120. That is to say that as was the case in the regions and municipalities after local elections two months ago, political representation is becoming increasingly fragmented even in the Cortes of Madrid. An alliance of two or even three (PP + Ciudadanos, or PSOE + Podemos, or PSOE + Ciudadanos, with external support from Podemos) would not allow the formation of a government (the majority in Parliament is 176 deputies), which in order to be formed would need to be extended also to the Catalan and / or Basque nationalist parties. That seems to be the reason for the recent agreement between the PSOE and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which was the big winner of the municipal elections in May in the Basque Country. It would, in short, mean four or five party coalitions as in the days of the First Italian Republic ( ignoring of course the role of the Christian Democrats). The Spanish parties, in short, will have to learn quickly to know how to make alliances and pacts.
Debates and internal tensions
The delicate situation experienced by Podemos is also apparent within the party. The last two months have seen criticisms of the leadership of Pablo Iglesias, not so much for the choices made before and after the regional elections (support to socialist regional governments and local councils), but the proposed strategy in view of the general elections due at the end of the year. Iglesias and especially Errejón reiterated their desire for the party to run alone, possibly with timely agreements in specific regional situations (Catalonia, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, the Valencian region and perhaps in the Basque Country and Navarre), where there are other well established left political actors, but without diluting the Podemos “brand” with a tie-up with Izquierda Unida across the country. There is different view among some within Podemos, and the majority in IU who are pushing for an agreement of all the Spanish left by creating a ‘popular unity’ electoral list.
July saw the creation of the platform Ahora en Común, the name referring to the successful experience of Ahora Madrid, Barcelona en Comú, Zaragoza en Común and the Galician ‘tides’. In Ahora en Común there’s Alberto Garzón, the IU candidate for the general elections, and a good part of his colleagues in the organisation led by Cayo Lara, some of those within Podemos who have been critical of Iglesias since the founding congress last October, some members of the aforementioned civic lists and other small leftist parties like Equo. (One cannot yet speak of the formation of a kind of “party within the party”, as is the case of the left platform of Lafazanis in SYRIZA, but it could go in that direction in a not too distant future.
Indeed, several manifestos have been launched in the past two months that criticize the centralism of Iglesias, that support a greater weight for the ‘circles’ over the party leadership – a hot issue since the birth of Podemos – and that want Podemos to open up to confluences such as were agreed in the recent municipal elections. These include: “Abriendo Podemos” signed, among others, by former MEP and leader of the party in Aragon Pablo Echenique – who has become closer to Iglesias in recent weeks; “Ahora la Moncloa: manifiesto por la unidad popular “signed by intellectuals and writers of the left such as Willy Toledo, Isaac Rosa and Juan Madrid; and “Mover ficha por la unidad popular” signed by artists and intellectuals like Pedro Almodovar and Pilar Barden, who in 2008 had supported the re-election of former socialist PM Zapatero.
Added to this are the recent similar statements of former eurodiputato Podemos Carlos Jiménez Villarejo, always very close to Iglesias, and the manifesto “Podemos is participation” around which have rallied critics within Podemos who were defeated in the founding Asamblea Ciudadana last fall that elected Iglesias party secretary (the among them Andalusian leader Teresa Rodríguez, MEPs Miguel Urbán and Lola Sanchez and the mayor of Cadiz José María “Kichi” González). Juan Carlos Monedero, has proved open to these issues, so his resignation in late April could also be read in this light.
The manifesto “Podemos is participation” is linked directly to one last issue which has divided the party in recent weeks: the primary for the Podemos candidate for the election of the prime minister and the formation of the list of the party in the house of deputies and Senate to the general elections this autumn. The strategy of Iglesias and Errejón was to be cohesive and united team, appealing to the bases of the party, but the method and the timing of the process of the primaries is causing them real problems. Critics are divided, however: the current close to the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores (SAT) of Diego Cañamero and Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo presented its own list (Utopía y Dignidad), supported by Teresa Rodríguez and the Andalusian Podemos, while the bulk of the Asturian Podemos presented their own list, Asturias Decide.
In the end, Iglesias won by a wide margin (82%), but with a fairly low total participation of members and sympathizers of Podemos who were entitled to vote (about 60 thousand people voted out of a total of 379,000 members, 16% of the total). Iglesias is therefore the candidate for prime minister and the list put forward by the leader of the party will be the hard core of the future deputies of Podemos, with the constituencies assigned to the candidates yet to be decided. This is a list of 65 people – it should be noted that according to polls Podemos would not get, even in the best case scenario, more than 60 deputies – with the top ten places occupied by people among Iglesias’ entourage (Íñigo Errejón, Carolina Bescansa, Irene Montero, Rafael Mayoral, Sergio Pascual, Ángela Ballester, Luis Alegre, Auxiliadora Honorato and Pablo Bustinduy), the former head of IU and then founder of Convocatoria por Madrid Tania Sanchez – former partner of Iglesias – and other leading figures in Podemos (Jorge Lago, responsible for Culture and the Instituto 25M founded the party, Raimundo Viejo, in charge of culture in Ada Colau’s administration in Barcelona), as well as representatives of civil society. The leaders of the Andalusian SAT union Cañamero and Sánchez Gordillo – the charismatic mayor of Marinaleda since 1979 – would occupy, therefore, the 71 and 73 places on the electoral list, since they are not integral to the list proposed by Iglesias, having lost in the primaries vote.
Catalonia as a first test of fire
The debate on alliances is however more complex. Wisely, Iglesias and Errejón were quick to show themselves open to joint tickets in some regions where Podemos is less strong, as demonstrated in the regional elections in May. While it has struggled to strike deals in Galicia, the Balearic Islands and in the Valencian region with ANOVA, the Mes and compromis, respectively, in Catalonia it has already signed an agreement with the eco-socialist and post-ICV Communists EUiA (the Catalan Federation of IU) with the formation of “Catalunya Yes Que Es Pot”, whose name recalls, translating into Catalan, the slogan “Sí se puede” (Yes, we can) of Podemos. The agreement is for the Catalan regional poll in September and the general elections by year-end, including the creation of a Catalan-only parliamentary group separate from the Podemos in Spanish national parliament (as is now the case with IU and ICV-EUiA).
The rush to close a deal in Catalonia is dictated by the early regional elections on 27 September. These are extremely complex elections because the Catalan independence parties have presented them a “plebiscite”, or referendum on independence.
Recently an agreement has been reached between Convergència Democratica de Catalunya (CDC), the party of the current governor Artur Mas who has broken up the near 40 year old federation with Unió Democratica de Catalunya – a party opposed to secession and in favour of a federal solution – and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the center-left independence party led by Oriol Junqueras that has supported the Mas executive these last two years. The name of this CDC-ERC led list “Junts pel yes” (Togther for a Yes)’, ie yes to independence), has received the support from the two separatist groups that have organized major events in the Diadas these past three years -‘Assembly Nacional Catalana (ANC) and Omnium Cultural (OC).
The agreement is undoubtedly historic and creates for the first time a broad front for Catalan independence – from which, however, the anti-capitalist party CUP, which recently made a unity pact with the Basques of Bildu and the Galician BNG – with the presence in the electoral list of media personalities such as former eurodiputato eco-socialist Raul Romeva, ICV member until last March (leader of the list for Barcelona), the historic anti-Franco songwriter Lluis Llach (heading the list for Girona), economist and former deputy Socialist Germa Bel (Lerida), as well as the former president of the ANC Carme Forcadell, the president of the OC, the former communist Muriel Casals and, even the former coach of Barça and current Bayern coach Pep Guardiola Monaco (Barcelona). Their program would be to establish the start of “disconnection” from Spain and the start of the process of secession that should be completed in a period of between nine and eighteen months.
The move by Mas was clever – so much so that he is guaranteed, according to the agreement, the election as president of the Generalitat, while appearing only fourth on the list – and allowed him to return to the field with the formation of an even larger version of what the Italian historian Paola Lo Cascio has called the “Match dels catalans” (“Party of the Catalans”), at a time when opinion polls reveal a decrease in the proportion of Catalans who would vote yes in a referendum on independence ( from 51% in the autumn of 2012 to 44.5% in July 2015). The volatility of the vote has been considerable in recent weeks, also taking account of the metamorphosis of the Catalan political landscape, but it a victory of “yes Junts pel” is very likely. But it would need the CUP to secure a majority in the regional parliament. It will also be crucial to understand what result “Yes Catalunya Que Es Pot” will secure; it has chosen as its leader Lluís Rabell, president of the community social movement Federacion of Asociaciones de Vecinos y vecinas de Barcelona (FAVB), an historical activist hailing from the ranks the anti-Franco Catalan left.
The result of the joint list supported by Podemos in Catalonia is not only important for the dynamics of Catalonia. It is also a key test to determine if Podemos has chosen a winning strategy for the general elections by year-end. As well as whether Iglesias’ project of a “new transition” – a reference to go beyond the transition from dictatorship to democracy that started in the late seventies and the reform of the Constitution of 1978 – is feasible. A project, as Iglesias explained in “El País” on July 19, which is based on the “promotion of a new pact of social and territorial coexistence that must be translated by a constitutional process […] the result of a great social debate that allows citizens, and not the political and economic elites, to be the key players.”
Steven Forti is a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Translation by Revolting Europe