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Josep Maria Antentas* on the disappointing results for the radical left Unidos Podemos – an alliance of Podemos and the Communist-led United Left.
Undoubtedly, we expected a better night. From sorpasso to sorpresa (surprise), the elections of June 26 definitively marks the end of the first stage opened with the emergence of Podemos in the European elections of 25 May 2014 which, in turn, is a product political cycle, not mechanical, of the eruption of the indignados movement of May 2011. The results of Unidos Podemos were unprecedented historically, but remained clearly below expectations and the possibilities.
Why did the predicted Sorpasso of the Socialists (PSOE), not happen? The fiasco caught us all by surprise. The purpose of this article is not to lecture after the horse has bolted, explain a failure that nobody saw coming, but at least try to understand why it happened. Some thoughts, without prejudice for more detailed analyses of voting behaviour in due course.
1.There is unanimous agreement that Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party (PP) are the real and symbolic winners of the election. The traditional right has been shown to have a robust electorate. The causes lie beyond conjunctural issues in underlying sociological trends, in Spain’s culture and in the changes in the country’s social structure, after decades of consumerist and speculative bricks-and-mortar neoliberal capitalism. And also, in the weight of political clientelism in many regions. We must not forget, however, that in generational terms the electoral support of the PP is especially strong in among the older generation, which highlights their loss of contact with the younger population and poses a problem for the party in the future. A campaign of fear waged against Podemos by the Right was effective and fomented a constant mobilization of its electorate, much more than vice versa. To this was added the effect, on the final stretch of the campaign, of Brexit that, presented in apocalyptic tones by the media, reinforced a vote for order and based on fear. The ability of PP to concentrate ‘useful vote’ on the Right, at the expense of the upstart Ciudadanos (Citizens) shows, moreover, that the ‘Podemos of the Right’ as the latter has been characterised, has from the beginning been a much more superficial phenomenon than Podemos, lacking a strong social, active and rooted social base.
2. Despite getting its worst result in history (22.66%, or 5,424,709 votes and 85 seats, compared to 22%, 5,545,315, and 90 seats in the elections of December 20 2015), the Socialist Party avoided what could have been an irreversible catastrophe, enduring what seemed an inevitable Sorpasso by Unidos Podemos. If this happened, the PSOE would be today in an impossible situation. It perhaps has avoided a serious immediate internal crisis, but it cannot hide the basic problem running through it: the absolute lack of a differentiated economic project from austerity and the Right against the backdrop of the historic exhaustion of European social democracy. In a scenario where it cannot command the majority to be the leading political force in the country, a lack of concrete project pushes it into a subordinate position with respect to the PP and prevents a real discussion with Unidos Podemos. If the expected the new Rajoy [minority] government is formed with the abstention of the PSOE, it will face the dilemma at some point in the future of whether to support a new round of cuts and neoliberal reforms that the government of Rajoy will undertake under the supervision of Brussels. If it does, the PSOE will pay a political price for it. And if it does, the legislature will be politically unstable. The PSOE would instead be able to withstand an electoral campaign against Unidos Podemos, but it is unclear whether it would be able to stand the everyday parliamentary confrontation of a new legislature marked by cuts, if in some way it would have to be partially “understanding” of them, for the sake of governance.
3.A short term seems more likely scenario is that of a PP government facilitated by the abstentions of PSOE and Citizens. In the latter did not agree a new election might be most lethal for the subsequent new batch of helpful vote to the PP. The PSOE could face greater guarantees another election cycle, having reaffirmed to United We Can, and perhaps his leadership would dare to go towards this horizon. But their party interests collide there with the reason of state that requires quick government in a scenario of European instability. There may be an internal, real or staged pulse between the apparatus less direct party and organically linked to and more inclined to reason party financial capital, and those sectors most closely interwoven with the economic world and the state apparatus. But the predictable, except surprise (and live frights time), is that ultimately the PSOE passively provide a government of Rajoy abstain in the investiture. If this is your orientation, it would be wiser before reiterating Podemos its offer of “progressive” government including citizens, to pretend that he is forced to propitiate governing the PP to the alleged intransigence of United We Can and sense of responsibility to avoid new elections. Anyway, the PSOE needs to build a story and dramatization of their decisions on an unprecedented scenario for him.
4. Unidos Podemos, has unexpectedly failed in its aim of overtaking the PSOE and challenge the PP for victory. The alliance between Izquierda Unidos (IU) and Left obtained the same number of deputies that they did separately (71, 69 + 2), but lost 1,100,000 votes (21.1% and 5,049,734 votes against and 6,139,494 24.28% votes in December. The causes are multiple, and, identifying them is an admittedly complex task. We should, however, disavow those self-serving interpretations that attribute the poor election results to the alliance between Podemos and IU, arguing that this created an imaginary radicalized “Left Front” that scared moderate voters. Although it is not possible to write counterfactual history, it is reasonable to imagine that without this alliance, the results of Podemos and IU would have been much worse. A first explanation of the unexpected fiasco can be found precisely in a very watered-down campaign, devoid of concrete proposals, designed not to mobilize and stimulate the real and potential social base of Podemos Unidos, so as not to scare voters farther. A content lite and “patriotic campaign” laced with anachronistic references to social democracy baffled many and does not seem to have raised the necessary emotion and mobilizing epic. The tepid messages, did, however, contrast with the militant capacity showed by the candidates, whose public events were important but did not transcend the two parties’ existing social base. A second explanation of the fall off in support must be sought in more substantive reasons which lie in the limits of politicization raised by the cycle opened in 2011 and fluency of a situation where old loyalties are dissolved but new ones are not irreversibly crystallized. Many of the voters of Podemos and Izquierda Unida of the December elections may have stayed at home or voted for extraparliamentary options, or “returned” to the PSOE. And all that for an infinite number of contradictory reasons, “right” and “left”: apathy, particularly among the electorate from IU, in response to a weak campaign, puzzlement by the “social democrat” and moderate turn of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, incomprehension of the the refusal of Podemos to support PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez against the PP, in the case of the most moderate voters or, conversely, a fleeing to a PSOE that appealed to the Left confronted with a patriotic Podemos by the more traditional left electoral base. In summary, Podemos opened an important political-electoral space that is here to stay, but not all of it is solidified and the peripheries thereof are still unsteadily faithful and faithfully unstable.
5. Podemos issued too many contradictory messages. Since its founding, voters have seen Podemos say and do one thing and then the opposite. They have seen it strongly reject uniting the (radical) left and then make a pact with IU; it announced that it would never govern with the PSOE as the the minority party and then make a proposal [as the smaller ally] for government; reject the label of “Left” and laterally embrace the discredited “Social-Democracy”. This creates a double problem. First, the multiplication of mixed messages cause misunderstanding in the most diverse ends of the electorate itself and, in the case of this election, it is likely that it would have caused confusion among both the “left” and “right”, combining messages and gestures that were poorly articulated and incoherent. Second, beyond perferences for one position or orientation or another, contradiction and permanent change in the messages in the end reinforces the perception that Podemos are a force of weak principles that adapt their discourse to suit the polls. This is trued of Podemos as as party but in particular Iglesias who, permanently harassed by the media, appears more like an excellent communications robot, programmed to respond to changing circumstances rather than a principled leader. Far from being a defect only attributable to tactics purused for the last six months since the elections December 2015, the problem comes from afar, and is the result of a political strategy based only communication techniques subordinated to opinion polls and that doesn’t depend on its (what turned out to be liquid and changing) electoral program, and policy proposals.
6. Between 20 December and 26 June elections were negotiations on the formation of a government Podemos’s offer of a coalition with PSOE. There was a great success there, and two errors. The success was proposing unity with PSOE, a decisive move if they wanted to overtake a force with which they were almost tied, in terms of the level of support. No one had ever challenged a unitary offer the PSOE in this way. Proof of this was the internal disarray in the ranks of Pedro Sanchez’s party after Podemos threw down the gauntlet. However, the proposal of Pablo Iglesias’ party was accompanied by two major errors. First, the proposal of forming a coalition government with the PSOE itself was a mistake. It would have been much better to offer a pact based on a programmatic agreement. The effect of providing unity, from outside the government, would have been the same. And the hysterical reaction among the barons in the PSOE would have been the same, because they would in no circumstances have permitted a parliamentary agreement with Podemos that would have implied an anti-austerity program and a referendum on independence in Catalonia. In turn, an offer of an investiture pact “to oust the PP” would allow them to continue marking a distance from PSOE, as a party of the establoishment, and maintain consistency with what was said before 20 December. The proposed government with the PSOE involved an unnecessary rehabilitation of the socialists as a party of change, and ending the axis of pro-regime forces of the casta (elite), versus constituents and popular forces” that had worked well, and instead promoting a sudden uncritical comeback of the left-right axis, at its most superficial, ie, based on relations with the PSOE. The second problem is that, with the exception of the referendum for Catalonia (for all to see in black on white, thanks to the Catalan branch of Podemos, In comú Podem), Podemos failed to articulate a concrete and concise list of measures on which to base joint negotiations with the PSOE that would habe highlighted how the latter was opposed to any serious program of anti-austerity policies and for a democratic revival in Spain. Beyond a PR error in negotiating with the PSOE, Podemos had a fundamental problem in policy terms: the underestimation of the need for a program and a refusal to get clear and firm programmatic commitments. The communicative-discursive conception of politics relegated the program to irrelevancy in order to always keep the hands free to adjust what he is said and proposed. The result has been the inability to popularize demands as a mass mobilizing lever (such as mortgage debt forgiveness, in the case of the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, an Catalan independence referendum, as demanded by the sovereignty movement of that region, or the eight hour day, as was demanded by the labour movement in its day). Indeed, having achieved a project of “change” in clear demands, that were “common sense” but inpermissible for the PSOE, it would have facilitated public understanding of the rejection of support for a government and would have reduced the space for demagoguery Pedro Sanchez to present itself as a party of “change” and a victim of Podemos sectarianism. It is not clear that by avoiding these two errors there would have been a positive impact on the election result, but at least it would have helped to build, politically and strategically, the party’s social base.
7. The fiasco of June 26 is an expression of the limits of the model of a party understood as an “electoral war machine”, built under the leadership of Inigo Errejón after the founding assembly of Podemos in Vistalegre in October 2014, and which closed the door to any attempt at political and organizational experimentation in a democratic and innovative sense, drawing on the legacy of the indignados rising of May 2011. Podemos configured itself as a party centered on electoral competition and political communication, and completely neglected the organization and structuring of its militant base, as well as the work of imbedding itself in the country’s social fabric, and intervening in social movements and trade unions. This has led to a failure to solidify and retain its electoral base. The organizational correlative of a electoral-communicative war machine was the adoption of a highly hierarchical and centralized structure in which local and regional / national leaderships were very dependent (materially and symbolically) on the central leadership, and which local organisations (circulos or “circles”) played no role, nor had any function. The majority and plebiscitary method of choice of internal organs served only to exclude minorities; in each locality the party forms operates as the majority faction rather than being a place of plural synthesis. The in effectiveness of the regional / national leadership, politically weak and often based on loyalty to the central leadership, has often resulted in political and organizational paralysis. The result of all this has been an organization with an inoperative and blocked structure, plagued by recurring crises in the local Citizens Councils, lacking dynamism in the grassroots and almost no activity outside of social media networks and election campaigns. Undoubtedly, the anti-pluralist “electoral war machine” model is not responsible for all the problems, but it has helped to aggravate them.
8. Given the limits of the “electoral war machine,” Errejón himself has announced several times the need to move to a second stage of the “popular movement”. The main problem of such a step is that this is essentially conceived in terms of cultural and social work complementary to elections. The risk is that moving from the cold election (and communicative) war machine to popular mobilisation that it will rebalance the the electioneering with the cultural / social implantation activity but it will not correct an electorial conception of social – political change but rather be used to bolster the electoral activity and build a less volatile electoral base. We would then have an electoral war machinery built upon on a passive social-cultural work and hierarchically structured around the political-electoral vertex. The result could be not very different, but it would be still much more limited than the great reformist parties of the historical labor movement: a political mass organization (but in this case with the masses as potential audience and not as an organized force), complementing a network of social and cultural associations … but without unions (or any kind of movement to replace it) as levers for mobilization. The weakness of this approach lies in that between the electoral war machinery and the popular movement, understood in a cultural sense, the role of social mobilization (let alone self-organization) is absent. It does not play a strategic role, beyond internal mobilizations of the popular movement (such as the “march of change” January 31, 2015). Although we understood that the indignados uprising opened a new period and new possibilities, paradoxically Podemos did not add the social struggle as a variable in its strategy, as if the thrust of the indignados was destined to last forever or could be replaced in aeternum by electoral marketing. Between the electoral and cultural, there was no mobilizing and self-organizing that linked them. If they were, however, the party model that would result would no longer be the cold ” electoral war machine” focused on election campaigns and flanked by a network of cultural schools, but a socially embedded, “party-movement” oriented towards participation in social struggles and independent social movements, active in the cultural battle and not purely centered in institutional-electoral activity (without in any way underestimating the latter)
9.The political-electoral cycle that begun in 2014 has reached its peak and has given all it could give. And it was not insignificant. First, a drastic transformation of the party system and a crisis of the traditional two party system, of the PP and PSOE, in which bipartisanship has been hurt but has not been sunk. Second, the consolidation of an alternative force with a 5 million votes, not far below that of the PSOE. And third, the electoral victories of parties left of PSOE in the municipalities on May 24, 2015 in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Zaragoza, Cadiz, La Coruna and other cities. But the thrust of the political phase of that opened in the crisis after May 2014 has not been enough to allow a force like unifos Podemos to govern. The challenge now is to open up a second phase of the political crisis and to that end, the determining variable is the relaunch of the social struggle against the battery of adjustment policies that are ahead. A new push is the streets is necessary to complete the journey that remains. The outcome of the battle on the social front will be decisive, though not automatically, to the outcome of the general political struggle.
10..Podemos, even with a conventional structure, is not a typical party. The parameters that of the internal debate after the disappointment of June 26 are unpredictable, given the highly centralized and hierarchical political structure, an authoritarian political culture, and the lack of a tradition of real political debate in the organization, beyond the small group in the leadership. In this regard, the main challenge is for Podemos to manage the debate on its future in a a way that is pluralistic, democratic and respectful of all positions. If this happens, Podemos will emerge stronger and better able to mount opposition to the new government of Rajoy that will have to manage the next round of cuts demanded by Brussels and a new economic recession predicted by all international organizations. So maybe yes, a second stage, as Errejón has called for, could begin. The road to social and political change is not a straight line, like a triumphal march by on the (electoral) highway of history. It is full of setbacks, successes, slowdowns and accelerations. The question is to understand the difficult moments, to excit get them quickly and prepare for the next assault.
Josep Maria Antentas is professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)