Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Four-Way Fight: Podemos

If you look closely at Pablo Iglesias and were the facial hair to be removed, you will appreciate just how youthful he appears. He may have reached the grand age of 37 but he gives the impression of an older adolescent, earnestly clutching a set of 1970s Krautrock albums and preparing to enter college to study graphic design. But these looks are deceiving. Firstly, he isn't as earnestly without humour as a right-on project of the left suggests that he should be and secondly, his non-political career has found him rise to the rank of interim professor in political science.

There is, though, a sense of the student rebellion (circa the 1960s and 1970s) about him. A member of the Spanish Communist youth wing at the age of fourteen, Iglesias is an idealist for whom any revolutionary tendencies have been modified in the pursuit of more pragmatic political evolution and social change. And it has found expression in Podemos - We Can.

It is worth being reminded that two years ago Podemos didn't exist. It was in early 2014 that the social movement bearing the name was first presented, with Iglesias a co-founder. From nothing then and via stunning gains at the European elections last year and Spain's regional elections in the spring of this year, there is now the prospect - according to the polls - of Podemos securing up to sixty seats out of the 350 in Congress. If Ciudadanos, as noted yesterday, was the first example of a social movement achieving parliamentary representation (in Catalonia), the Podemos example has been vastly more dramatic: the C's, in their original form, are almost nine years older than Podemos.

But Podemos had to have come from somewhere, and in the case of Iglesias this was television as well as academia. A reason he is now such an adept performer with the media is that he has experience of the camera and of production. He began to make a name for himself as a political analyst and presenter and shortly before the announcement was made of the launch of the Podemos social movement, he received an award from the Carlos III university in Madrid for his journalism.

As for Podemos itself, it was a project that was, in a sense, the consequence of the collision of different social movements, a notable one being that of Ada Colau, now the mayor of Barcelona, who had been campaigning against evictions since 2009. The "indignados" movement, otherwise known as 15-M (to mark the date 15 May, 2011 when protest burst out in Madrid and then elsewhere), was another major factor. Unemployment, corruption, austerity: these were all to add weight to what had been a gathering momentum towards a coherent political force. Aided by a co-founder with media skills, Podemos arrived on the scene, kicking and screaming and threatening to tear down the very structure of Spain's political institutions, the Partido Popular and PSOE - the despised "casta" - in particular.

The original Podemos "manifesto" (from January 2014) was entitled "converting the indignation into political change". There was more than just a touch of the left-wing about it, but to the beliefs of the anti-capitalist left and Trotskyists (among others) have since been added those which aren't quite so strident. There are red lines for Podemos, such as on debt restructuring, but the vastness of the election programme - 394 separate manifesto items - allied to the essential participatory nature of its existence and, possibly, a requirement to form a pact following the election, might well lead to a watering-down.

One says might, but although Podemos have taken on some of the trappings of the establishment by bringing into their midst a Balearic High Court judge and a former chief of defence staff, there is little sign of there being a willingness to "sell out". Podemos support for government, as evidenced in the Balearics, is on Podemos terms, not on others. But for Iglesias and Podemos to be truly pragmatic - in the sense of a political force - they may find that there have to be some trade-offs. The greatest risk for them is that, if they don't find their way into government via a pact with strings, they may fade away.

This said, there were plenty of observers who thought they would have already faded. True, the level of support may have peaked, but it is the very nature of this support which has allowed Podemos to reach and retain a position of electoral strength. This support is eclectic and it can draw on voters who might not consider themselves left-wing but are wanting a reason to get even with the PP in particular because of corruption and/or, for the middle classes, the vicissitudes of austerity. And for others, there is the very fact that Iglesias doesn't look like your everyday politician. Herein lies much of the appeal: different, very different.

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