In the London Review of Books, Dan Hancox reviews Politics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of a Democratic Europe by Pablo Iglesias, the head of the titular left-wing Spanish political party, which has gained a startling amount of support since it was founded a few years ago. Hancox assess the party's chances in the upcoming Spanish elections on December 20, while also highlighting the tensions inherent to a nominally grassroots party led by a small group of intellectuals and activists. An excerpt:
Once the PP had been eclipsed, it was inevitable that the Spanish media’s attitude to Podemos – a mixture of fascination and scepticism – would quickly give way to hostility; since the turn of the year, Podemos has had to weather a sustained backlash. It has had disappointing results in regional elections in Andalucía and Catalonia; Syriza, its fellow traveller, has all but collapsed in the face of pressure from the Troika; and it has struggled to resolve a fundamental contradiction: that its origins are in the grassroots, leaderless indignados movement, while it is guided by a small central core of intellectuals. The relationship between the centre and the base grew tense almost as soon as the euphoria of the party’s initial success had passed. In October 2014, the party finally gathered at the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid to vote on a formal structure. The Iglesias bloc, Claro Que Podemos, faced a rival proposal from a slate including three of the party’s MEPs designed, according to one of them, Lola Sánchez, to ‘ensure diversity and prevent monopolies’. It proposed three party leaders rather than one, and devolved more decision-making power to the círculos. For Iglesias, the commitment to pluralism and decentralisation had clear limits. ‘Heaven is not taken by consensus, it is taken by assault,’ he told the assembly. ‘You don’t defeat Rajoy or Pedro Sánchez with three general secretaries – only one.’
Of the 205,000 people registered at the time as supporters on the Podemos website, 112,000 voted on the proposals; Claro Que Podemos won with 80 per cent of the vote. But the tensions didn’t abate, and in April this year, one of the party’s most prominent figures, Juan Carlos Monedero, resigned. He had been on the Claro Que Podemos team with Iglesias, but appeared to have changed his mind, calling for the party to ‘go back to its origins’, not to pursue electoral success at all costs and become ‘hostage to the worst aspects of the state’. While insisting that Podemos were still ‘the most decent force in politics’, Monedero worried that it was ‘falling into these kinds of problem because it no longer has the time to meet with the small círculos, because it is more important to get one minute of TV airtime’. The selection of Podemos candidates for the general election has led to further problems at local level: in the Basque Country and Aragon, candidates have resigned as a group. ‘The new Podemos,’ a spokesman said, ‘with its vertical structure, which they began to construct at Vistalegre’, had implemented a ‘shameful and undemocratic’ method in its selection of candidates...
Such tensions are the symptom of another contradiction at the heart of the Podemos project: the attempt to provide an outlet for Spain’s great well of untapped radicalism, while at the same time exercising a ruthlessly unsentimental realpolitik. In the opening pages of Politics in a Time of Crisis, Iglesias dismisses the ‘infantile disorder’ of ‘leftism’, pointing out that the most striking victories for radical politics in Spain since 2008 have come not from the communists, or ‘the lonely prophets of revolutionary purity’, but the family-friendly, ‘reformist’ PAH, which has blocked evictions, been creative in its use of direct action and changed the country’s housing laws – and all with the support of the vast majority of the Spanish population. Yet for all Iglesias’s optimism that there is a progressive, essentially socialist majority out there (if only his party could find the right formula to tap into it), it is unimaginable that Podemos could achieve anything close to the popularity of the PAH, who have been fighting manifestly unjust housing legislation in the context of a housing crisis that affects everyone (in one opinion poll the PAH received the backing of 87 per cent of PP voters). Instead, Iglesias has to hold together a delicate populist coalition containing old and young, perennial non-voters, disenchanted PSOE supporters, and anyone else disillusioned with la casta.
Image of Pablo Iglesias via elconfidencial.com.