In Spain’s Seismic Elections, ‘It’s the Victory of David Over Goliath’

In Spain’s Seismic Elections, ‘It’s the Victory of David Over Goliath’

In Spain’s Seismic Elections, ‘It’s the Victory of David Over Goliath’

The country’s political landscape has changed beyond recognition, with left-wing parties gaining everywhere.


“It’s the victory of David over Goliath,” said Ada Colau in front of an ecstatic crowd just before midnight on May 24. Colau, the former spokesperson of Spain’s anti-eviction movement (PAH) and the country’s most visible face of popular outrage against austerity, is likely to be the new mayor of Barcelona.

Spain’s local and regional elections have changed the country’s political landscape beyond recognition. Marking an end to thirty years of two-party dominance, they have shifted majorities everywhere to the left. The unprecedented rise of two new political forces—Podemos (“We can”) on the left, and Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) on the right—has siphoned traditional votes from the Socialist Party (PSOE) and, especially, the ruling Popular Party (PP). The PP, although it remained the largest party, lost some 2.5 million votes and, with them, the ability to govern in the majority of Spain’s autonomous regions as well as the cities of Madrid, Valladolid, and Valencia. The PSOE, for its part, has positively spun its otherwise unremarkable electoral showing by proclaiming itself the “top political force on the left.” Among the casualties of the seismic shift are a handful of longstanding smaller groups, including the United Left (Izquierda Unida).

To be sure, the new situation will take some getting used to. Spain now has four major national parties. Throughout the country, coalition governments will be the new norm. And looming over the difficult negotiations to build governing majorities are this fall’s national elections. Spain’s future hangs in the balance, and any misstep could prove costly.

The story of the election centers on the two progressive women who are poised to take charge of the country’s two largest cities. In Barcelona, Colau emerged triumphant as the head of the leftist coalition Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). In the national capital, it was Manuela Carmena, representing another leftist coalition, Ahora Madrid (“Now Madrid”), who will likely become the city’s new mayor. Both women come from humble, activist origins. Colau, a 41-year-old longtime social activist, in 2009 helped found the grassroots organization PAH to fight evictions—initially in her native city, and later across Spain. Carmena, the 71-year-old “miracle grandmother,” is a retired judge who during the Franco era was involved in the clandestine activism of labor lawyers and, more recently, has defended the rights of Spain’s prisoners and worked to secure social housing for those evicted in Madrid. Beyond their opposition to austerity, they share a belief in the public good and an understanding of democracy as a system that shouldn’t be left to the whims of so-called professionals. If these elections are any indication, local governments across the country are ripe for a progressive rethinking of the status quo, led by a change of the political guard. The new mottos are confluencia and transparencia: people and parties joining forces in order to end the corrupt, paternalistic politics of backroom deals, self-enrichment, and hacer la vista gorda (“turning a blind eye”).

At a regional level that is more impervious to change, the two newest parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, still managed to dent Spain’s two-party system. Over the past three decades, support for the right-wing PP and center-left PSOE combined often exceeded 80 percent of the total vote, with both parties achieving absolute majorities in different regions. This year’s elections have witnessed that total come down to 50 percent. Podemos and Ciudadanos came in third and fourth, respectively, in most of the country’s autonomous regions. In Andalusia, whose elections were moved forward to March, Podemos won 15 percent to Ciudadanos’s 9. In the city of Valencia, meanwhile, a progressive regional upstart party founded in 2010, Compromís, holds the keys to forming a broad, left bloc that would include Podemos and the PSOE—unseating the PP from one of its oldest strongholds.

Podemos, led by the 36-year-old political scientist Pablo Iglesias, presented its own candidates in each of the 15 elections for “autonomous communities” or regions. In municipal elections from Madrid to Zaragoza, by contrast, the party forged or joined broad coalitions of “popular unity” that incorporated many of the horizontalist values associated with the indignados movement, with a focus on direct, local democracy. The decision not to run independently in the municipal elections, and to instead form joint lists like Ahora Madrid, resulted from heated debate within the party. The final decision was made on pragmatic grounds: the party leadership felt it did not have the resources to thoroughly vet thousands of local candidates, and argued that broad alliances were less of a risk to the party name. Others wanted instead to give the “circles”—Podemos’s thousands of local assemblies that are its lifeblood—more power and responsibility in the electoral process. The clear success of the local alliances will no doubt fuel further debate on the party’s way forward.

Flying in the face of recent pre-election polls that spelled Podemos’s downturn, these results confirm the party’s swelling support and its ability to outpace its fellow newcomer, Ciudadanos. Still, the elections were a reality check: polls in December and January had predicted that Podemos would actually beat both major parties at the ballot box. Over the past five months, however, its numbers dipped and the party faced challenges ranging from massive attack campaigns to mounting internal tensions. At the center of both was Juan Carlos Monedero, a political scientist who helped found the party and was its third-most-visible member. In January, Monedero was revealed to have done high-fee consultancy work in Latin America, using his earnings to support the leftist media company that launched the career of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias. The party’s response to the allegations of shady financing was widely seen as late and inadequate.

In early May, Monedero voluntarily stepped down from his leadership role in Podemos, issuing a mixed message. While he criticized Podemos’s tactical abandonment of its principles in its search for an elusive broad-based appeal, he also pledged continued allegiance to Iglesias and the party. The crisis has abated, and during the party’s final act on the day before the jornada de reflexión, Spain’s compulsory day of rest before the day of the election, the party’s political secretary, Íñigo Errejón, ceded the stage to Monedero in an impromptu act of solidarity. “Monedero is, for lack of a better term, a free spirit,” says Tania González, one of the party’s five Members of the European Parliament. “He’s an intellectual who feels comfortable in a space where he can express himself freely according to his own standards, and that’s why he decided that the best way he could support the party was to have other roles outside the leadership,” she says. In practice, says Ariel Jerez, a political scientist who sits on Podemos’s Citizen’s Council, a liberated Monedero will help revive the “circles” and “help us attend to [the] debates” about the party’s organization.

It may also relieve tensions within the party between what some see as a more horizontalist, assembly-based approach embraced by Pablo Echenique and Teresa Rodríguez, who were among the party’s first European parliamentarians, and the more centralized program of Iglesias and Errejón. Some in Podemos think Errejón is too willing to sacrifice political or organizational principles for the sake of expediency and a broader electoral appeal. Rebuking the supposed limitations of the assembly model, Echenique’s candidacy for the leadership of his autonomous region, Aragon, was among the most successful: there, Podemos won 20.5 percent of the vote, less than a point away from the PSOE, and has the chance to govern by coalition.

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“You don’t take heaven by consensus,” Pablo Iglesias proclaimed at the Podemos Citizen’s Assembly in October, echoing Marx’s famous phrase about the Communards. “No, you take it by storm!” This kind of idealism has perhaps spawned Podemos’s biggest challenge to date: managing outsized expectations—and their counterpart, all-too-easy disenchantment. As the novelist Isaac Rosa points out: “It was its leadership which repeated time and again that Podemos had been born to win, that its only reason for being was to govern. I know of many supporters that took this literally. Dreamers or not, they believed it. Now, go and tell them that heaven is going to have to wait.”

Those within Podemos, like Jerez, have a different reading of the ballooning poll numbers. “The artificial inflation and deflation of expectations is one of the establishment’s strategies against us,” Jerez says, “something with which, sadly, the media has gone along.” He adds: “Let’s not forget that our results have been historic. We’ve been able to change the dominant trend in political opinion and create a nation-wide organizational structure in record time.” Moreover, he says, these and the upcoming elections in the fall will give Podemos “institutional resources that in other contexts would be considered the successful result of two decades’ worth of work.”

Indeed, it’s important not to minimize the real electoral success that Podemos achieved this week in the country’s most important cities and regions. Many of its local and regional candidates were as new to parliamentary politics as they were veterans of civic commitment who brought in significant cultural capital. Colau in Barcelona and Carmena in Madrid are cases in point. In both cities, Podemos formed alliances with other leftist groups like Ganemos, Equo, and Esquerra Unida. Forging these partnerships across different political cultures and traditions was a process fraught with tension and doubt, but the experiment paid off. Colau’s 25 percent of the vote ousted sitting Barcelona mayor Xavier Trias, whose center-right party Convergència i Unió has spearheaded Catalonia’s independence efforts in recent years at the same time that it, too, has been embroiled in a corruption scandal involving its longtime leader and former Catalan president, Jordi Pujol. In the Spanish capital, where the PP has ruled for a quarter-century, Carmena’s 32 percent nearly overtook PP candidate Esperanza Aguirre. Thanks to the relatively poor showing of Ciudadanos, Carmena is now the favorite to become mayor in a coalition with the PSOE.

“Manuela Carmena was a brilliant choice,” says journalist Jacobo Rivero, author of two books about Podemos. “Her candidacy connects various generations, and she’s a prestigious professional who played an important role in the fight against Franco and the construction of democracy.” Her candidacy, which brought the Colau-led Guanyem party (part of the Barcelona en Comú coalition) together with Podemos under the banner of Ahora Madrid, he says, “represents a kind of ethics that few people associate with today’s politicians—right when the establishment was trying to prove that Podemos was just as corrupt as the rest.” For the autonomous region of Madrid, the Podemos candidate was José Manuel López, a middle-aged agricultural engineer with a strong track record in social and humanitarian work. Both candidacies, Rivero says, “break with the stereotype of Podemos as a party of radical young leftists without experience.”

“We have no use for plastic or cardboard campaigns that make it look like we’re selling laundry detergent or something,” Carmena has said. For Spanish voters, her genuine modesty and staunch refusal to adopt the rhetoric of political theater came as a breath of fresh air. Carmena’s attitude also disarmed her opponents—particularly “the Countess,” Esperanza Aguirre, a wealthy PP stalwart in Madrid who married into nobility and is known for her arrogance, ambition, and Tea Party Weltanschauung. “What Podemos has done in Madrid represents a whole new way of thinking about politics,” says José Luis Villacañas, a political philosopher at the Complutense University of Madrid. “It conceives of the party as a platform at the service of citizens, represented by those who at any time are the most involved in social struggles. And it calls for ties of cooperation, loyalty, and support that are not based on hierarchical, bureaucratic structures but on ideals, conviction, and thought.”

Podemos’s success is all the more noteworthy given that it only had a fraction of the other parties’ campaign chests. Campaigns in Spain are limited to two weeks, and elected parties receive an amount of public funding based on the number of seats won. Podemos ran all its campaigns on an innovative system of micro-credits supplied by individual voters, to be repaid right after the elections. The other parties stuck to the traditional method of bank loans and corporate or individual donations—a system that, according to Podemos, leads to corruption while making political parties beholden to the interests of capital. As if to illustrate this very point, on May 21 Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy spent $16,000 to rent a private jet from corporate magnate and Real Madrid FC president Florentino Pérez, just to make it in time to a PP campaign rally in Valencia. “We have shown it’s possible to run a major campaign on practically no funds,” said Manuela Carmena recently in an interview. “We used a different currency. Not the PP’s checkbook, but individual initiative, optimism, spontaneity, and the thirst for change.” Carmena pledged that, if elected, she’d cut her mayor’s salary in half.

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In an ironic twist of fate, Podemos’s relative drop in the polls in the months leading up to the elections were the direct result of its successful transformation of Spanish politics. The rise of Ciudadanos, led by the clean-cut Catalan Albert Rivera, would not have been possible without Podemos having paved the way. Ciudadanos started out in Catalonia nine years ago as a resolutely anti-independence party. In October, when the party announced its transformation into a nationwide organization, the right-wing media was quick to hold it up as a slicker, more conservative alternative to Podemos that “wouldn’t jeopardize all that [Spain has] achieved,” as Rivera put it. But, at the same time, Ciudadanos has copied key pieces from the Podemos playbook: It has benefited from media coverage and focused its message on corruption, transparency, and renewal. The party so far has successfully appealed to the center despite its hardline stances on immigration and abortion, as well as revelations about candidates’ past connections to the PP and neo-fascist groups.

But unlike Podemos, Ciudadanos has little to offer beyond political opportunism. In an interview with El País in May, Rivera said that Ciudadanos would be “willing to form a government with the PP, the PSOE, and even with Podemos,” making it a “hinge party” par excellence. Journalist Jesús Maraña thinks this is self-defeating. “Hinge parties that assemble or hold together government coalitions are a tradition in [politically and economically] stable countries,” he writes, referring to nations like Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. But in Spain, he argues, history indicates that “hinge projects have resulted in doors slammed shut.” “The question is whether Rivera will help the PP stay in power or actually join the forces of change,” says political philosopher Villacañas. “I’m pessimistic. We’re all too accustomed to seeing the non-nationalist Catalan bourgeoisie play a short-term, ambivalent game.”

Coalitions have indeed already proven to be tricky in this new political landscape. The months following the early Andalusian election of March 22 have been a nightmare for Susana Díaz, the PSOE’s leader in the region. Podemos, led by former MEP Teresa Rodríguez, a schoolteacher from Cádiz, became the third-largest party in the region overnight, landing 15 seats. More importantly, they proved that the days of single-party rule were over. The PSOE maintained all 47 of its seats in a region often considered its stronghold, but remained just shy of eking out the majority needed to govern alone. Since the elections, however, Díaz has not been able to form a governing coalition and on May 14, she failed a historic third vote of confidence. With all other parties holding a firm oppositional line, Andalusia, one of Spain’s poorest regions, may face another election later this year, giving Podemos a chance to regroup and contend for an even bigger slice of the electoral pie. Rodríguez, for her part, has stipulated three conditions the PSOE would have to meet in order for Podemos to even consider joining in a coalition: removing corrupt former PSOE officials and funding anti-corruption investigations, divesting public money from banks that condone evictions, and drastically reducing the number of high-paid senior officials in the Andalusian parliament. As Rodríguez told the online newspaper InfoLibre, “The citizenry has asked us…that we be open to dialogue, which we are, and that we be firm [in our demands]. We’re not asking for the moon.” The need for real coalitions will be good for Spanish politics, says Villacañas: “It will favor politicians who are able to manage complexity. And that will inevitably erode the verticality and simplicity of Spain’s political organizations, their reliance on authoritarian caudillos.”

Meanwhile, the ruling PP, which long seemed immune to erosion, has suffered massive losses across the country. This has undermined the legitimacy of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose celebrations of economic recovery ring hollow to the millions of Spaniards who have yet to notice any improvement in their lives. “If the PP ends up in the opposition in Madrid and Valencia, and Colau becomes mayor of Barcelona,” says Villacañas, “the PP will quickly lose the loyalty of its remaining voters. Then the picture for Rajoy will begin to look very ugly indeed.” Endless corruption scandals marked the months leading up to the election, including revelations of decades-long illegal financing and the arrest of former IMF-director and party-icon Rodrigo Rato. The party also made a slew of desperate attempts to preserve its dwindling political power, even going as far as rigging the electoral process: leaking tax records to cast suspicion on political opponents, limiting the voting rights of the 2 million Spaniards who live abroad, skewing news coverage on state-owned media, and adopting a controversial “gag law” (ley mordaza) that limits citizens’ right to protest and to be protected from state violence. Eerily reminiscent of a Texas bill introduced several months ago, the gag law also criminalizes taking pictures or video of police officers.

But Spain’s thirst for a new kind of politics has undeniably hurt the traditional left as well. The PSOE lost almost 700,000 votes. And the months leading up to the May elections saw the United Left (IU) almost completely disintegrate thanks to a mix of corruption scandals, infighting, and the departure of one of its most promising candidates. The group never recovered from the revelation that prominent IU leaders, serving as board members of a national bank, had benefited from lavish illegal expense accounts. Attempts to purge the culprits led to a public dispute between a national leadership who wanted everyone out and the regional leadership in Madrid who insisted on keeping implicated party members around. In February, Tania Sánchez, a charismatic young politician who was slated to represent IU in its bid for the Community of Madrid, left the party to create her own out of disgust at the corrupt old-boys-club. Under her leadership, the party might have celebrated a respectable if not remarkable result. Instead, IU failed to reach the 5 percent threshold and lost all 13 of its representatives in the Community of Madrid. Across Spain, IU roughly matched its municipal representation from 2011, though it lost almost 400,000 votes in the process. But it suffered huge losses at the regional level, where it held only nine of its 35 representatives in the parliaments up for election. Such is the party’s disheveled state that Alberto Garzón, the young economist often appearing as the voice of reason alongside Pablo Iglesias during late-night weekend tertulias (political debate shows), hasn’t yet been given the reins of a party desperately in need of a shakeup to its old guard.

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The next months will prove crucial for Podemos’s chances in this fall’s national elections. Having won 5 seats in the European Parliament last year and 15 in the Andalusian elections in March, it now has 134 representatives in autonomous parliaments and thousands more on the more than 8,000 city councils across Spain. This presents an organizational challenge for the young party, but also an opportunity to finally effect real political change. The agenda at the local and regional level will include a push for transparency, restructuring public debt, mortgage relief, more progressive taxation, and public-utility subsidies for low-income families, in addition to free textbooks and daycare, and investments in education, research, and development to reverse the country’s brain drain. Podemos will also work to institute forms of direct democracy, including citizen-initiated legislation, referendums, and a “citizens’ seat” in each parliament.

Podemos’s success at the national level will depend on its ability to govern locally. But its future will also hinge on what happens beyond Spain’s borders, particularly in Brussels and Athens. Since January, the European tide has turned. The victory in Greece of Syriza—like Podemos, a leftist party firmly opposed to austerity and corruption—has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Syriza’s success belied the doomsayers who predicted a massive economic and political disaster. On the other, changing the course of EU economic policy has proved harder than imagined.

The Podemos of the European parliamentary elections necessarily looked different from the Podemos of the Spanish local and autonomous elections, says Podemos MEP Tania González. One thing is certain: the Podemos of the Spanish general elections will be different too. Referring to the power difference between the European Parliament and a local municipality in Spain, González says, “You have to know whom you’re asking things of and what you can ask of them.” The national platform for November will likely focus on broad measures to ensure that economic recovery leads to more than the sharp increase in income inequality and short-term, low-pay contracts that so far have marked Spain’s “overcoming of the crisis.” Yet how Podemos will deal with the thorny issue of Catalan and Basque aspirations for independence remains to be seen.

“The media will translate any coalition agreement [today] into a litmus test for the elections this fall,” says the party’s Citizen’s Council member Jerez. “And the calendar ahead is dizzying—especially if the elections are moved up to September, which is still possible though increasingly less likely.” Even if a major victory remains out of reach this fall, Podemos will have gained a strong foothold from which to push for change. The fact that the party proved strongest where it joined forces with others and stuck to its activist origins should help define the road ahead. Still, rather than relying on Marx’s “storming of heaven,” the party will have to return to its favorite Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who argued in the Prison Notebooks that revolution in modern democracies requires a “war of position”—in other words, patience.

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