Political entrepreneurs on the populist wave: the rise of Podemos

By Javier Martínez-Cantó.

Unlike the rest of Europe, with the exception of Portugal, Spain remains immune to the rise of populist radical right parties.[1] But since the 2014 European election Spain is experiencing its own populist phenomenon – one that has emerged from the left side of the political spectrum.[2] The birth and consolidation of Podemos in less than 2 years is one of the most remarkable political achievements in recent European politics, and it has shaken the whole Spanish political system.

The intellectual and strategic backbone of Podemos

Early in 2014, a group of political and social scientists based at Madrid’s Complutense University founded Podemos with the aim of competing in the upcoming European elections. Pablo Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero, Iñígo Errejón, Carolina Bescansa and Luis Alegre formed the party core at that time. Remarkably, Iglesias and Monedero have been prominent participants in political TV talk shows for a long time and their role must be understood as political entrepreneurs who see a niche in the political market that they seek to fill.

On the one hand the group was closely linked to the traditional Spanish communist party IU (Izquierda Unida – United Left), to whom they have been advisors in the past. In the first place they tried to modernize IU and run within it for the 2014 European election, but they were unable to move IU away from its traditional standings. Therefore they joined forces with the minor Trotskyist party Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anticapitalist Left, 0.13% in 2009 EP elections). The alliance proved successful as the latter supplied a number of experienced party activists all around the country while the former provided political strategy and media access. The dependency of Podemos’ early days on the leadership is further emphasised by the fact that Pablo Iglesias’ face was used on ballot sheets instead of a common party logo.

Populist rhetoric and a surprise result in the 2014 EP elections

To everybody’s surprise, Podemos achieved 8% of the vote and 5 MEPs in the 2014 European Parliament elections. The pre-electoral poll, conducted a month before the election by the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research (CIS), had only predicted one MEP and 1.8% of the vote. Prior to the election, the party’s campaign was based mainly on social media; the party enjoyed limited presence in the mainstream media. If at all, it was gained by the previous participation of some of its leaders. The party manifesto contained traditional radical left policies like support for public banking, basic income or free trade restrictions in addition to new concepts like participatory public budgets or citizens’ public debt audit. Overall, the party’s political message for the 2014 EP elections was populist in the sense that it was one of the “people” against the “corrupt elite” – something that is termed la casta (the caste) in Spanish.[3] According to Cordero and Montero [4], it was mostly a lack of confidence in politicians and democracy as a general principle that motivated Podemos’ voters during the European election. Even though Podemos was founded, in particular, to make its first appearance in the European election, the party does not have a strong anti- or pro-EU position. On EU affairs the party does not take stronger positions than a general support of anti-austerity measures, as a significant share of the Spanish electorate does not challenge EU integration or membership. The party considers itself close to the Greek leftist party Syriza.

Policy moderation and widespread electoral support

Since the 2014 EP elections, polls show that Podemos has steadily gained support. Less than a year after its foundation it became the largest party according to some polls, like one commissioned by the Spanish broadsheet El Pais. At the same time the party started a process of policy moderation, from radical-left policies to traditional social democracy, although without leaving aside its populist claims. Additionally, the party kept promoting means of social participation, especially referendums, which it also practices internally. Party members vote online on internal offices, candidates and coalition policies. Actually, and unlike other parties, party membership only requires online registration – no fees or sponsorship. Fernandez-Albertos [5] argues that in the process of this policy and procedural transformation of the party its core voters changed from highly mobilized anti-austerity protesters to people harmed by the crisis, either directly or by lack of opportunities.

From March to September 2015 the party ran in local and most of the country’s regional elections. It achieved, on average, 13% of the vote.[6] Especially for the local elections the party had a peculiar strategy: instead of running with their own candidates in local constituencies, the party promoted the so-called “popular unity candidatures”. These were ad-hoc candidatures formed by Podemos in combination with social movements, local grassroots organizations and other parties such as the Greens or IU. Each platform composition varied from city to city. Today, Podemos participates in the government of main cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Zaragoza. Podemos argued, that due to its early development as a party, they were unable to run in all municipalities by their own means. These successes were stepping-stones for the December 2015 national election. Podemos received close to 21% of the votes, despite the fact that the party ran in pre-electoral coalitions with other forces in three regions. The party became the third biggest political force in Spain, only 2 percentage points behind the socialist party. This marks the best result for a third party in Spanish democratic history.

Early elections and new strategies

New elections were called in Spain due to the political blockage that has deterred the formation of a new government since the December election in 2015. But this time, Podemos will run most likely in a broad pre-electoral coalition with IU, which received nearly one million votes in the December election. This cooperation may allow Podemos to surpass the socialist party and become the second biggest party in Spain. Although the party is experiencing its first organizational crisis, its electoral prospects remain good. This, in combination with their presence in local entities as well as in regional parliaments, secures the party’s continuity in the short, and even medium, term. And even further electoral support is not beyond reach: the party could use citizens’ possible future discontent to its benefit, especially if the next government turns out to be either a center-right or a grand coalition.

About the author

Javier Martínez-Cantó is doctoral fellow at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences in Germany. He is currently working on candidate selection, party leadership and party transformation in comparative perspective.

 Notes

[1] Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542–563.

[2] These parties are defined by their authoritarianism, pro-nativist policies and populist approach. Later Podemos suggested a more general interpretation of society. In their eyes, their society was divided between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”. Alonso and Rovira Kaltwasser argued that Spain provided ideal conditions for the appearance of a populist radical right-wing party. Before the economic crisis, growing political distrust and anti-immigration sentiments could be observed from the demand side. But the supply factors did not meet the demand ones. The competing visions of central and peripheral visions of identity (Spanishness vs. regional identities) prevented the development of nativist policies. In addition, the mainstream conservative party PP (People´s Party) continued to attract right-wing voters by appealing to Spanish identity. Usually populist radical right parties frame their discourse in “then (immigrants) vs. us”. But in Spain political actors failed to clearly define the “us”.

[3] In recent years Spain has been shaken by several corruption scandals in local entities, regional governments and national parties. The term “casta” is a catch-all concept referring to banking elites, corrupt politicians and extractive elites. As Rodon and Hierro explain, the term refers to “a priviledged political class”.

Rodon, T., & Hierro, M. J. (2016). Podemos and Ciudadanos Shake up the Spanish Party System: The 2015 Local and Regional Elections. South European Society and Politics, 8746(March), 1–19.

[4] Cordero, G., & Montero, J. R. (2015). Against Bipartyism, Towards Dealignment? The 2014 European Election in Spain. South European Society and Politics, 20(3), 357–379.

[5] Podemos’ rise cannot be explained without the 15-M movement. This was a series of anti-austerity demonstrations that took place during May 2011. The movement politically mobilized a growing number of people. Most of them were hit by the crisis. Although the movement demonstrated that  Spanish opinion and attitudes were changing due to the economic crisis, its political consequences were for a long time not visible.

Fernández-Albertos, J. (2015). Los votantes de Podemos. Del partido de los indignados al partido de los excluidos. Madrid: Catarata.

[6] In Spain, all local elections take place on the same day. Regional elections took place in all regions of the country in this period, with the exception of Galicia and the Basque Country. For Galicia and the Basque Country, the next elections are scheduled for autumn 2016. At the moment, Podemos is supporting five socialists, or socialist and regionalist, governments and is part of the Balearic Islands’ government. In total, they facilitated the end of 7 conservative regional governments.

Rodon, T., & Hierro, M. J. (2016). Podemos and Ciudadanos Shake up the Spanish Party System: The 2015 Local and Regional Elections. South European Society and Politics, 8746(March), 1–19. 

Title picture: Podemos List during 2014 European Parliament elections, by Javier Martínez-Cantó

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