Representation and Participation: The democratic dilemma within Podemos

In order to dramatize and talk up the internal divisions within Podemos, it has become popular in the Spanish media to talk of the new insurgent party as having “two souls”, one orientated towards electoral victory and the other towards grassroots social movements. This tension was again evident when Teresa Rodríguez, the head of the party in Andalusia, criticised the manner in which Podemos conducted its recent primaries for December’s general election, claiming that efficiency and centralism had trumped meaningful popular participation. Rodríguez is a member of Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA), a small left-wing party that came together with members of various anti-austerity movements and a group of prominent intellectuals that ran the online political T.V. show La Tuerka to form Podemos in January 2014. While members of IA were instrumental in initially organizing Podemos on the ground, particularly through the novel use of social networking sites to very quickly multiply the numbers involved in the party, it was the media presence of Pablo Iglesias, the host and producer of La Tuerka, which was able to generate real national exposure for this new formation. At the party’s Constituent Assembly last Autumn, when members met to discuss and decide on a more permanent structure for Podemos after its breakthrough in the European elections, it became apparent that there were strategic differences between IA and the circle around Iglesias over how the party should go forward. Rodríguez and her fellow MEP Pablo Echenique proposed an organizational model that would have seen 20% of the positions on the party’s highest body, known as the ‘Citizens’ Council’, decided by lottery, three spokespersons instead of a single leader and sweeping powers in the policy process for the party’s grassroots organizations called ‘circles’. In responding Iglesias used a sports analogy, saying it was one thing to “bring every player on, give everyone a go” when the basketball game was already lost but if there was a real chance at victory, a team “cannot make a wrong move, nor miss a three-pointer.” As such, a year away from the most open general election in over thirty years, Podemos needed a strong leadership structure that while being more accountable and responsive than the traditional parties to their base, would also allow for a coherent campaign that could offer a credible alternative to the current neo-liberal ‘caste’.

Though it was Iglesias’ proposal that overwhelmingly won the ballot, the debate within the party continued, particularly after the stunning success of the different citizens’ platforms that Podemos was involved in at the local elections in May. With Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú succeeding in coming to lead progressive local governments in their respective cities, many party activists, particularly from IA, have been pushing for Podemos to participate in a similar coalition model at a national level, which in allowing for the participation of a wide range of independent social and political forces, would create an electoral force that was much more rooted in civil society. In rejecting this, the party leadership have tended to point both to the fact that participants from the various social movements (or mareas) already hold prominent positions within Podemos and to the fact that at a national level any such coalition would really boil down to doing a pre-electoral pact with the old Communist left, something that could damage the scope of the party’s appeal. Yet ultimately what makes these questions of organization and electoral strategy so difficult to resolve is that behind them lies substantive differences over what the democratic rupture that Podemos promises would actually look like. Trying to balance the movimientista principles of IA with the left-populist vision of Iglesias and Errejon was always going to be an uneven affair, with one having to be prioritized at the expense of the other.

15-M and Participatory Democracy

Hence on the one hand, for IA Podemos must be understood as a further part of the wave of mass collective action and democratic experimentation that, starting in May 2011 with the occupations of city squares by millions of Indignados and continuing with the rise of a number of nationwide social movements focusing on issues like housing, healthcare and education, has swept across Spain in recent years. From the beginning, activists in these mobilizations explored new types of participatory deliberation and horizontal organization, viewing the question of ‘process’ as integral to their struggles around public services and social justice. Faced with corrupt and unaccountable political institutions, this reflected their belief that democracy had to be reimagined, with new ways found both to empower community self-organisation from below and to allow ordinary people to exercise much greater control over how they are governed from above. While the initial focus was on direct action and civil society campaigning, when faced with a wall of indifference from the political mainstream and continuing brutal austerity, the debate turned to how activists in these movements could enter into formal electoral politics. In this respect, Manuel Castells, the renowned Catalan sociologist, has recently talked about the need in Spain for a ‘transformative party’, that is a party which would not merely appropriate some of these movements concrete demands into their manifestos but would be “constitutively capable” of coming to embody their democratic values and practices, even as they engage in elections.

Relating this to Podemos, according to a leading theorist with IA, Brais Fernandez, while Pablo Iglesias’s role as a charismatic figurehead was absolutely necessary to generate initial interest and support for Podemos as a project of “popular self-organization”, the key task facing the party going forward is how to combine this type of leadership with the egalitarian and bottom-up political culture that arose with the 15-M movement. Writing before the Constituent Assembly last Autumn, Fernandez claimed that as a totally new type of political formation, Podemos had to “alter the logic of representation” so that while not depriving the party’s executive bodies of their decision-making capacity, would subject them to the radical “principles of rotation and reversibility”. On the one hand, procedures such as awarding positions through lottery and putting in place a system of rotating those who hold elected office within the party after a set period would ensure a greater diversity of voices and opinions within the leadership structure and avoid the threat of a new professional elite; while on the other, giving the party’s circles veto powers and the right to recall elected officials at any time would force those within the hierarchy to continually engage with and search for greater consensus with the base. Such participatory structures aim to root the party in the daily life of the social majority, creating channels firmly binding party representatives to localities, social movements and places of work and study below them.

From this perspective the populist strategy of the current leadership has come too close to resembling politics as usual, with the party’s increasingly vertical organizational model inevitably leading towards a new elitism. For Fernandez and Jaime Pastor the core leadership around Iglesias reminds them of that of Izquierda Unida (the Communist left) a few years ago – that is distant, unwilling to listen to other voices within the party and absolutely certain of the truth of their own position. Here the impetus and initiative within Podemos is not coming from its base but instead the party has come to be structured around the relationship between a leadership who are highly skilled in media communication and a large and diffuse electorate outside the party. Rather than the party’s proposals and discourse being developed democratically through collaboration and consensus-formation with those at a grassroots level, policy is formulated from above in terms of its ability to appeal to existing ‘common sense’ and the current state of mass consciousness in wider society. Hence though Podemos has attempted to involve large numbers of people in its organization, according to Luke Stobart there is a threat that under the current model these popular mobilisations will be increasingly relegated to the role of merely “supporting the public actions of the political leadership” through, for example, electoral campaigning and fund-raising.

Progressive Populism and Representative Democracy

In coming to evaluate IA’s perspective, the first thing to say is that it is impossible not to be inspired by their vision of a participatory politics for Podemos. Furthermore when Fernandez claims that the energy of Podemos’ activists is an irreplaceable asset for the party, it is very hard to disagree. In my own limited experience attending a number of Podemos assemblies in Sevilla and Madrid two things stood out: on the one hand, the commitment of activists and the depth and range of their discussions within the circles, while on the other, their dedication towards trying to reach out so as to actively involve the wider community through events like open general assemblies in major public squares and parks. It is also true from my experience that the concerns of Fernandez and Pastor over the lack of responsiveness of party leaders to their base are shared by many participants in the circles who feel frustrated at the difficultly of getting feedback on their proposals from those above. Yet at the same time, the question remains whether the priority of a new insurgent party like Podemos who want to challenge current political elites electorally should be on instituting this type of radical internal democracy. While these theorists’ distrust of established politics is entirely understandable, in focusing here on this “transformative strategy” for a new type of bottom-up party politics, such an approach runs the risk of not so much of altering the logic of representation as failing to engage with it in a meaningful way. Representative politics requires building consensus around shared interests, values and goals across wide sections of society, which for any new electoral force of the left entails having to both be able to contest dominant political narratives and be effective in communicating a substantive alternative through a predominantly hostile media. Faced with this difficult task of winning the consent of those beyond their core base in large numbers, the problem of organization cannot primarily focus on how to best maintain the participatory values of social movements within the new party structure but ultimately has to prioritize looking outwards towards the demands of the electoral battle which has to be fought against extremely well organized and much more established adversaries.

In this respect, according to Íñigo Errejón, the party’s second in command, with the economic and political crisis in Spain having created a generational opportunity for political change, it has been necessary for Podemos to be structured much more as an agile “electoral war machine” so as to be able to take full advantage of this chance to break the Popular and Socialist parties’ 30 year hold on power.[1] For him, Iglesias and the others in the core national leadership, the wider political significance of 15M was not so much its focus on democratic experimentation but that it revealed the sheer depth of the legitimacy crisis that the country’s bipartisan system was undergoing, with the post-Franco political regime beginning to buckle under the pressure of corruption scandals and the injustice of austerity policies. Hence what was evident above all in the widespread support for 15M (68% according to an El Pais poll at the time) was a new anti-establishment common sense that was increasingly taking hold across Spanish society as people felt betrayed by their representatives and frustrated at the inability of the political system to respond to their needs and demands.[2] After decades of a stable neo-liberal consensus, which accepted the dominance of the markets and the scaling back of the public sphere as inevitable, here Podemos’ leaders wanted to capitalize on this collapse in confidence in the political establishment to turn electoral politics into a substantive hegemonic struggle over what constitutes the basic parameters and values of Spanish politics. While during times of stability, hegemonic narratives and principles, which frame and limit political debate, are difficult to contest, “almost inpregnable”, deep crises open up the possibility of offering a substantive alternative and of convincing people of the need for the country to take a new political direction. As Iglesias writes:

Winning in hegemonic politics is basically convincing people of your story. In times of organic crisis, election campaigns… represent the moment of glory or failure of policymakers who fight to impose their narratives based on a changing consensus in the very difficult environment of the media, which themselves are not neutral political operatives… The imposition of the word “caste” to mark the political and economic elites in Spanish political language is a good example of Podemos’s hegemonic politics; politics for a new crisis narrative and how to overcome it.

Yet to engage in this hegemonic struggle, Errejón explains that Podemos had to confront a number of strategic problems. The first of which was the narrow time frame within which Podemos had to try to effectively intervene – the local and regional elections were scheduled for less than one year after their initial breakthrough at the European elections in May 2014, with a general election within 18 months. Recognizing the necessity of operating and organizing in terms of this tight time frame so to take advantage of the regime crisis while it was still acute, the leadership set about instituting a party line which could connect with the existing concerns and common sense ideas of the disillusioned social majority. Those hit by the austerity policies of the crisis were a wide and heterogeneous constituency, which included struggling middle classes, unemployed graduates and precarious service workers, whom while tending neither to be politically active nor to already have a strong political identity – did generally want quality public services, job security and a break from the corruption and unaccountability of the current elites. This was key because while social movements are able to engage in patient activism around more radical and minority positions, slowly building up support and changing perceptions over the long term, this option wasn’t open to Podemos. Instead Iglesias and co. aimed at quickly constructing a new progressive electoral block from out these diverse and heterogeneous social groups by offering a narrative that would focus on speaking to their neglected concerns on these social and political issues. This required a controlled and strategic discourse which, in Errejon’s terms, could navigate the narrow path between conformism and marginality – that is could put forward policies and ideas that represent a significant challenge to the current neo-liberal order but without, at the same time, going too far and losing touch with current public opinion. Their vision for a more socially just, egalitarian Spain would have to be accepted as both realistic and desirable by these largely non-politicized constituencies.

Complicating this further was a second factor: the necessity of having to operate through the mass media, and in particular television, in order to successfully disseminate their discourse. While social networks and new online media platforms have made it much easier to connect and bring together dispersed like-minded people across society, what theorists of “networked social movements”, such as Manuel Castells, have tended to underemphasize is the role television continues to play as “the central ideological apparatus in our societies.” Iglesias explains this ideological role of television as follows:

Television… conditions and even helps to manufacture the frameworks through which people think—the mental structures and their associated values—at a much higher level of intensity than the traditional sites of ideological production: family, school, religion. As far as political attitudes and opinions are concerned, in Spain TV talk shows are probably the major producers of arguments explicitly for popular use. Most of the arguments heard in bars or workplaces are generated by ‘opinion-makers’ who appear on TV and radio.

What teaches people to think, what teaches people the name of the things, what teaches people political arguments, that’s television.

Prior to the establishment of Podemos, as Iglesias became a regular on TV political panel shows, which wanted guests who came from the same milieu as 15-M and the Mareas, he and his team from La Tuerka had to confront the difficulty of how to introduce new narratives and arguments within a media context that was very hostile to the left and its ideology. Through his prominent media appearances, he came to employ more transversal ideas like social and human rights, citizenship, illegitimate debt and la casta that allowed him to question both the logic of austerity and the viability of the existing party system in a way that spoke directly to many of the disaffected across Spain. As such, television offered Iglesias, as well as others like Ada Colau, a platform from which they could spread their alternative interpretation of Spanish politics, which in being based around the divide between the interests of the elite caste and those of the vast majority both gave voice to the sense unfairness and injustice felt by ordinary people and tried to convince them of their common interest in the renewal of the public sphere and in policies that would move away from a corporate dominated society. Yet though such media leadership has been a valuable resource for Podemos (allowing it to generate real political influence without financial weight or institutional presence), since becoming a serious electoral threat it has had to cope with a constant barrage of misinformation and a series of overhyped controversies from Spain’s very partisan press. Aiming to halt the party’s momentum in the first half of 2015, this media campaign cynically tried to cast Podemos as just as corrupt as the old parties (based on a number of rather minor incidences and gaffes[3]) and as apologists for “demagogic” and “authoritarian” South American regimes, in particular Venezuela. In response Podemos’ leaders have had to spend a lot of time and energy countering such claims, attempting to reassure voters, while at the same time trying to win back their lost initiative and to return the discussion to the core themes of their message.

These challenges are also closely related to a third factor the party is contending with – having to engage in a constant strategic battle with their political adversaries over the terms of the debate, with the differing parties manoeuvring to shift the focus of political discussion to their advantage. Key here is not getting trapped into accepting your opponents’ premises, debating on terms favourable to them, but rather in observing their movements, you attempt to take hold of the agenda and force them to follow your direction. Hence for example using an emotive term like la casta, which has managed to resonate with people, allowed Podemos to shift the political agenda towards issues such as corruption and social inequality in a way that both put the PP and PSOE on the defensive and opened up a discursive context which was more conducive to talking about the need for a “democratic rupture” from the old political elites. Yet the PSOE has been more resilient than PASOK in Greece. Since the Spring, they have waged a powerful media campaign that has emphasised Podemos’ links to radical governments in Venezuela and Greece, pointing to the threat of chaos that such populism brings, while at the same time its new young leader, Pedro Sanchez, has positioned himself as the candidate for moderate but realistic political change. Calling for the regeneration of Spain’s constitutional democracy and emphasising the need to balance economic stability with social justice, Sanchez contrasts the Socialist’s position both with the hard-line orthodoxy of Rajoy and the irresponsible rupture of Iglesias. Hence taking advantage of the various media controversies surrounding Podemos to reassert themselves, the PSOE has managed with modest success to shift the focus of debate away from the divide between people/elites by emphasizing the opposition between radicalism/ moderation, thus offering an image of a renewed party that should be seen as more in line with the real concerns of the moderate social majority in Spain than their more extreme rivals. Combined with the discourse of the centre-right insurgent party Ciudadanos, whose discourse contrasts the public interest in a German style path to growth and modernization with the vested interests of the corrupt status quo, what we have is a crowded field in which Podemos has to be able to effectively compete to impose their interpretation on events, even though the conservatism and bias of the media leaves them at a real disadvantage.

Returning now to the initial question, what can be seen here is that the challenges of operating as an effective representative agency which aims to gain a hold on wider public opinion, require a more vertical structure for the party in order to provide those at the top a sufficient degree of autonomy so as to be able to take on a strong leadership role in this hegemonic struggle. In essence, the radical horizontal principles of rotation and reversibility just don’t seem compatible with a party structure that could produce the credible coherent policies, strict message discipline and effective media presentation that are required in order to engage in such an electoral battle. Firstly as any left-wing insurgent party will face closer scrutiny in the press, as well as suspicion amongst the public, over the viability of their proposals, the party leadership needs to have the power to craft a credible and coherent electoral programme that can convince people of their ability to govern. For example the difficult decision to drop the idea of a basic income for all citizens as a concrete electoral promise has been resisted by many grassroots activists and given rise to calls of betrayal. Yet lacking extensive costings for implementing the proposal or any large-scale pilot programme and given the state of Spain’s finances, it was difficult to sell it as a credible policy that would actually work here and now and instead created an easy weapon with which to paint the party as a bunch of irresponsible radicals. While forms of democratic consultation are necessary, mechanisms that would give activist circles greater veto powers over such decisions run the risk of hobbling the party, forcing it to focus inwards towards satisfying its base’s maximalism rather than on how to offer a credible progressive alternative to the Spanish people. Secondly the need for message discipline and charismatic media presentation (so as to cut through the bias and hostility of the mainstream media) make it difficult to embrace  the ideas of rotation and the allocation of roles through lottery. Those who take up leadership roles are not merely interchangeable spokespeople of a mass movement but have to be able to hone and then communicate simple but powerful messages which connect with people. A key element in allowing formations such as Podemos and Barcelona en Comu to compete with much more powerful and well resourced opponents has been media presence of their leaders who have become focal points for articulating the indignation and anger felt by citizens. As with other populist leaders throughout Europe, people have been able to recognize that Iglesias and Colau speak for them, that they capture their concerns and frustrations in a way established politicians cannot.

Hence ultimately  I cannot but agree with Iglesias’ famous maxim against the movimientista’s method that: “El cielo no se toma por consenso, se toma por asalto (heaven is not seized through consensus, it is seized by storming it)”. Clearly the prioritising of storming the heights of the state doesn’t mean completely over-riding the need for internal democracy. In fact it must be said that Podemos’ current structure marks it out from other major parties in Spain and across Europe in allowing for greater accountability and pluralism. Firstly, it has avoided replicating the insidious relationship between money and politics that has alienated parties from the concerns of ordinary citizens and left them dependent on corporate patronage through: (a) refusing to take any corporate donations, (b) publishing all donations on their website for greater transparency and (c) agreeing all party leaders and advisors are to be paid no more than three times the minimum wage. Secondly, this lack of a role for big money has ensured that their system of open primaries where anyone can be nominated as a candidate has allowed for much greater pluralism and internal debate inside the party, with candidates openly critical of the Iglesias and the national leadership winning key positions. Most notably Teresa Rodríguez and Pablo Echenique were elected heads of the party in Andalucia and Aragon respectively. Such a system was a response to the existing closed list system within the PSOE, PP, IU that ensured a very centralized selection process completely controlled by party hierarchies; yet while also avoiding the narrowness of the US primary system where the agenda of large donors dominates. Thirdly there is a mechanism for triggering internal referendums on policy issues but with a high enough threshold to ensure it would only come into effect if there was widespread dissent not only within activist circles but also amongst the thousands of more causal members who participate more intermittingly.

These structures are far from perfect and after the general election Podemos will have to look again at how to deal with the challenge of finding ways to more meaningfully include their activists and better harness their passion and energy but without, at the same time, undermining the party’s ability to operate effectively as a representative agency. The latter is key because what the movimientista perspective tends to ignore is the democratic core of representative politics –  how it has the potential to offer citizens a substantive choice in elections between conflicting collective projects for the future of society, with each prioritizing alternative goals and aspirations. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe explains:

lo que necesita la politica es que algo sustancial  este en juego y que los ciudadanos tengan la posibilidad de escoger entre proyectos claramente distinctos…cuando uno vota, sentir que eso puedo contribuir a un cambio y que  su voto va a crear una real diferencia… Para mi la democracia requiere que existan proyectos a los cuales uno se puede identificar  y la conviccion de que hay alternativas  para la cuales vale la pena luchar.

what is needed in politics is that something substantial is in play and that citizens have the possibility of choosing between clearly distinct projects … when they vote, they feel that they can contribute to a change and that their vote will make a real difference... For me democracy requires projects that one can identify with and the conviction that there are alternatives worth struggling for.[4]

[1] Errejón and Mouffe Constuir Pueblo p. 137

[2] Iglesias explains this point in greater detail in his interview with the New Left Review in terms of weakness of the left and its inability to provide alternative vehicles of interest representation for much of society : “The squares weren’t organized or hegemonized by the organizations of the working class, but by those sectors that were precisely the most devoid of collective political or corporative representation. This of course chimes with what Laclau was saying: it’s hard to imagine the emergence of such a movement in a political space with a strongly articulated left and labour organizations. Only in the barren wasteland that the neoliberal right had created in Spain, by destroying all the social spaces associated with the left, could such a movement have traction. If we look at the regions, 15-M was very strong in places like Madrid and Valencia, where twenty-five years of pp hegemony had destroyed the public institutions, but weaker in the Basque Country and in the parts of Catalonia where the left and the unions are strong—where there was an alternative political culture to interpret and organize the response.

[3] For example on first day of the regional election campaign in Andalusia in March the university of Malaga (very conveniently for the ruling PSOE) released a report on Íñigo Errejón that claimed he had broken the terms of his €1,000 a month post-doc scholarship by not doing research on their campus. While they didn’t fault the quality of the work he produced, or claimed he missed any deadlines, the fact that he had worked from Madrid while at the same time setting up the party was portrayed as a corruption scandal – an abuse of public funds. So instead of discussing the fact that the previous two regional presidents of Andalusia were embroiled in a corruption scandal involving millions of euro, the media were talking about a minor breach of a modest scholarship.

[4] Construir Pueblo pp. 28, 56-7