Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Pleasant View From Podemos

The Palacio de Vistalegre in Madrid is not what one might describe as a lovely building. Unlovely might be more accurate. To the sides of its main entrance are two enormous grey slabs with poky windows. They look like some nightmarishly anonymous apartment edifices of a Brutalist East Berlin style. To the front of these are great plinths on which two bulls stand. This is a convention centre built on the site of a former bullring and which has incorporated another.

Symbolically, this curious juxtaposition of highly unattractive, functionalist architecture and national image appears to say a great deal about the occupants of the Palacio at the weekend. The bull, representative of a monarchical, Francoist, conservative Spain that plays fast and loose with animal welfare in the name of honour and tradition, is a manifestation of what Podemos reject. The Brutalism reminiscent of collective dwelling might be said to belong to a political society that Podemos hanker after.

As far as the bulls are concerned, one has to feel that Podemos were playing an ironic joke by selecting Vistalegre for the second time of asking. As for the architecture, rarely has a convention centre been more inappropriately named, but as a symbol of Podemos, is it entirely accurate? Not if you do not consider Podemos to carry the legacy of communism, and any number of "Podemistas" will insist that they do not. But such a legacy helped partly to explain why they all gathered in Madrid at the weekend.

The navel-gazing combined with internal factionalising that have consumed Podemos energies for several months led to Vistalegre II and to the votes to decide the direction in which the party will now head. And one factional aspect had to do with communism; in particular the electoral tie-up with the United Left, which is unashamedly communist.

Podemos, under the combined umbrella of Unidos Podemos, didn't do as well as had been hoped at the June election. This was one reason why Iñigo Errejón had been promoting a less scary Podemos image. He wanted the party to adopt a fluffy demeanour instead of its anxiety-engendering stony face. The Podemistas who went to Madrid or hit the online citizen participation button were torn between a rock and a fluffy place. They chose rock.

There will be those who make an assumption that Podemos are more or less indivisible from communism anyway, but the assumption is far from accurate. In the first place, Podemos do not avow established political philosophies. There may well be strong echoes of these but they are not dogmas as such. And because of this disavowal of established thinking and organisation, there was great unease that the party should have chosen to team up with an established party at the election. And moreover, that it was a party known for its communist leanings.

A key point with Podemos which is all too easily forgotten is that they appealed to a broad spectrum of society. It was pluralist. One only has to look back at opinion polls and actual polls to appreciate that support wasn't only coming from left-leaning society. Partido Popular voters gave Podemos their support as well, seduced by the anti-corruption message and their own disenchantment. In a way, therefore, Vistalegre II was all about Errejón seeking a reconnection with this wider base that had initially served Podemos so well in propelling them to where they had got. The hook-up with the United Left seemed to cause a flight of support.

Pablo Iglesias, having seen off his rival, now has the mandate to move towards what PSOE spokesperson Mario Jiménez has described as "Pabloist-Leninism", a lurch most certainly further towards the radical left. For PSOE, there is an opportunity, it believes, so long as Pedro Sánchez doesn't manage to return as its leader. The centre-left is there for its taking and any thought of accords with Podemos are now firmly out of the window.

But what of Podemos? Are they strengthened or are they weakened? Both. Iglesias has the grip he wanted. He had instilled a certain fear factor by having stated that he would have immediately resigned had things not gone his way at Vistalegre. The Podemistas, many of them, would have sensed a weakening without the most visible face the party possesses. Some may well have been swayed to back him for this reason alone. He is still very much an asset rather than a liability with greater charisma than his rivals.

Nevertheless, there is a weakening. Errejón and his supporters, according to the voting, represent around a third of Podemistas. Errejón himself faces being purged, and it isn't beyond the bounds of possibility that there might be a formal split. In which case - whither Podemos? The next opinion polls are going to be very informative.

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