During campaign season, there are two kinds of political parties in Spain. One has enormous posters that hang from their designated areas, flooding the country’s cities and villages with unavoidable propaganda. The second, due to their lack of representation when the campaign officially begins, tend to paste their posters on walls or find other creative ways of making their presence known. This year has been a good one for the latter.
They may not have obtained the most votes, but it is clear that Podemos are the big winners of Sunday’s general elections in Spain. In many ways, they have been winning for a while now. Since bursting onto the scene during the 2014 European elections, Podemos have transformed the Spanish party system.
Over the 2015 election cycle, they have dismantled the two-party arrangement that has dominated Spain since the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. They have also taken over city governments in the country’s major urban areas and made it much more difficult, mathematically and politically, to govern the country from a large majority.
Podemos’ success has many asking whether a similar resurgence of left-wing politics could happen in their own countries. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the United Kingdom and United States seems to suggest that there is a desire, among a substantial part of the population, for progressive parties to own their leftism.
Analysts like The Guardian’s Owen Jones have stressed the importance of effective communication in mobilizing support for the upstart party. But this approach, which often refers to Podemos as a “political” translation of a “social” movement (the indignados) misses the point.
One of the main ideas guiding Podemos, as expressed by Pablo Iglesias’ speechwriter Jorge Moruno, is the notion that politics is not just something that politicians do. Rather, it is something people engage in every day. This idea is consistent with the affinity for Gramsci often expressed by Podemos’ leadership: transformative political and social change is ultimately a cultural question.
From this perspective, the indignados movement that overwhelmed Spain’s plazas and streets was an example of a society in movement. It politicized aspects of life that had been deemed untouchable. They even had a name for the cultural framework they confronted: la Cultura de la Transición, referring to the agreements that structured Spain’s transition after Franco’s death in 1975, which birthed what Podemos would later refer to as the Regime of 1978.
The indignados substituted those agreements with the consensuses they established in the years following their emergence during the wave of protests that shook the shores of the Mediterranean in 2011. As their massive movement spun off into dozens of autonomous, issue-oriented platforms, their practices remained rooted in direct action, mutual aid and solidarity.
By defending the universality of human rights and needs like housing, healthcare and education, movements like the PAH, the mareas (citizen tides) against austerity, and Yo Sí Sanidad Universal broke down the borders between natives and immigrants, suppressing the reactionary xenophobia that the far-right has so successfully exploited in other countries.
This is the scenario in which an upstart leftist party makes sense. The right wing also tried to pounce on the deterioration of the de facto two-party system through the post-liberal Ciudadanos party. And despite their massive presence in the media and their inflated poll numbers, support for this party dwindled as the campaign wore on.
Meanwhile, support for Podemos surged, as they emphasized the authenticity of their project, with Pablo Iglesias dedicating the entirety of his speech during the final act of his campaign to thanking all of the social movements that made their rise possible.
These virtues notwithstanding, it is nonetheless important that those who are excited about these results do not get their hopes up. Podemos will not change society. At best, they can be an expression of a society that is changing and maybe break down some of the existing institutional barriers to social justice and democratic praxis.
What has emerged in Spain is a situation that is, in many ways, ungovernable. Any possible coalition will be fragmented by competing dichotomies: left-right, old-new, centralist-regionalist (the latter being the result of the four stateless nations contained within the Spanish state). Podemos is unlikely to govern, and even if they do, SYRIZA’s experience reminds us that exercising power at the level of the state has many pitfalls.
It is a scenario in which radical emancipatory movements have the potential to exert a tremendous influence on what takes place in the formal institutions and how people are affected by that. There will be disappointment. There will be times when the gap between our reality and our aspirations will harbor a profound feeling of hopelessness. The challenge for the social movements is to guarantee that this does not become despair.
Every politician will try to sell us hope. Some are more convincing than others. But hope is just a promise, a delegation of initiative, trust and responsibility. When there was no hope that the government would do anything about the housing bubble, the Spanish housing movement emerged. When the idea that the political class could be meaningfully challenged seemed ludicrous, the indignados emerged. The most emancipatory responses to the ongoing crisis of representation always take place when ordinary people abandon all hope and organize their needs.
Carlos Delclós is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. His research interests include international migration, social stratification, fertility, urban sociology, social movements and cultural theory.