Just as happened in Greece on January 25, the election in Spain later this year will transform the political landscape. At the core of this transformation is the emergence of the new political party Podemos. Founded only in January 2014, it emerged immediately as a political force to be reckoned with: in its performance in the May 2014 European elections, its leaders’ presence in the media and its ability to mobilize its supporters.

In this analysis I address both the external factors that have provided a clear window of opportunity for the emergence of Podemos (the context) and the choices made by a group of activists with the organizational skills and public exposure to take advantage of that window (the content). But we need to bear in mind that such an analysis cannot be definitive, especially when, as now in Spain, political actors confront multiple crises –economic, institutional and territorial.

The Spanish crisis as a window of opportunity

In his classic work Power in Movement, Sidney Tarrow defines “structures of political opportunity” as “consistent – but not necessarily formal or permanent – dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations for success or failure.” The Spanish economic crisis has had a profound impact on several such dimensions of the political environment.

Though it coincided with the worldwide financial crisis, the impact on the Spanish economy was especially intense because of the collapse of the housing bubble. A combination of the Spanish psyche and government policies had resulted in an exploding housing market, which underlay a rapidly growing Spanish economy. From 1997 to 2007 the country experienced average economic growth of 3.5 per cent. Despite the triumphalist statements of successive conservative (PP) and socialist (PSOE) governments (former Prime Minister José María Aznar popularized the expression “España va bien!”), household debt grew from 55 per cent to 130 per cent of disposable income, while publicly subsidized affordable housing dwindled to less than 2 per cent of the total stock.1

In Spain, as in some other countries, the financial sector got into housing in a big way, offering mortgages covering the full value of the property and using deceptive advertising to lure low-income people in no position to pay these mortgages off. Overall, government spending kept up with GDP growth which was based mostly on the housing sector. In 2006–07 unemployment hit a historic low of 8 per cent, but a dual labour market was emerging: insiders on one side (permanently employed workers enjoying full state protection) and outsiders on the other (temporary workers with little protection, often called “mileuristas,” meaning those earning less than €1,000 per month).2

The Spanish economy entered a period of contraction from 2008 until 2011, and again in 2012 in the form of a sovereign debt crisis. In response, the PP and PSOE enacted a constitutional reform, opposed by all other parties as well as popular protests, entrenching a budget deficit limit in the constitution.3 This led the PP government that took office in December 2011 to sign an agreement the next year with the EU troika, the three institutions (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) jointly mandated to deal with indebted EU members Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

The agreement provided for a “Precautionary Conditioned Credit Line” to stave off possible bankruptcy. Several financial institutions were nationalized (mostly regional savings banks) and severe cuts in services were implemented. These cuts particularly affected regional governments, the main public service providers, fuelling Catalan secessionism and regional discontent. From its historic low, unemployment soared to a historic high, reaching 25 per cent in 2012–13 (more than 50 per cent among those under 25).

The deterioration of economic conditions gave rise not only to a political crisis but also to a deep institutional crisis, expressed in a certain fatigue with the pillars of the regime established under the rigid constitution that was drawn up in 1978 during the transition from 40 years of dictatorship. The traditional parties and the monarchy were particular targets4 – though support for democracy remained stable.

Beyond survey data or electoral trends, evidence of popular discontent was to be found on the streets and squares of Spanish cities. The Indignados or 15M movement rallied more than 20,000 people in 50 different Spanish cities on May 15, 2011, calling for “Real Democracy.”5 Supported by something close to a majority of Spaniards polled, the movement occupied the main central square in Madrid, Puerta del Sol, demanding political change but refusing to support any existing political party since, as its slogan put it, “No nos representan” (They do not represent us). The movement sought changes in the electoral system and more direct citizen political participation, but avoided taking stands on specific policy issues, inviting citizens to express their views in open-air assemblies.

Members, who were typically quite young, often students, vocally denounced the corruption that was being exposed in the media at that time, implicating the main parties (PP and PSOE) but also regional parties and even the royal family. The 15M movement was dissolved after some months, its members moving to more organized single-issue groups such as Democracia Real Ya or V de Vivienda, and notably Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), which targeted mortgage foreclosures.

Podemos: Populism or new politics?

The origin of Podemos as a political party is somewhat paradoxical, though it constitutes a clear case of seizing a political opportunity. On the one hand, it grew almost organically out of the 15M movement’s grassroots mobilization that stopped short of political party activity. In this sense the first Podemos assemblies after its founding in January 2014 added a partisan dimension to established networks of activists in each city. But behind this apparently spontaneous mobilization was a small group of well-prepared and highly organized political activists from the political science faculty of Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the political organization Izquierda Anticapitalista and the student association Contrapoder. Political science professor and media personality Pablo Iglesias very soon emerged as party leader: as Podemos’s Secretary-General and at the head of its list for election to the European Parliament.

Iglesias’s leadership has been virtually unchallenged, as he has been able to manage the underlying tension between grassroots and elites. The party was officially registered in March 2014, and its manifesto was endorsed by more than 50,000 voters in 24 hours. It was thus able to place fourth in the European election in May 2014, winning 8 per cent of the vote in Spain. The electoral success then boosted Podemos’s support, with its membership surpassing PSOE’s to reach more than 200,000 before the end of the year.

Growth entailed a more sophisticated organizational structure. The original spontaneous círculos (circles) were maintained, but a new leadership structure was adopted at the first general assembly, which met in the fall of 2014. Though it claimed to be faithful to the principles of direct democracy, the party leadership firmly defended the new structure. Iglesias and his team won 80 per cent support for their position in October, and a month later, he received more than 88 per cent of the votes as Secretary-General, leading his team to a complete victory in a massive online vote in which more than 250,000 party members took part. Iglesias’s opponents, led by Pablo Echenique – like Iglesias a member of the European Parliament and elected leader of the Aragon regional branch of Podemos in February 2015 – had accused him of not respecting the autonomy of the regional circles.

Ideology: Socialist or populist? Placing Podemos on an ideological spectrum has proved complicated and controversial. The current leaders, including Iglesias, share a radical left background. Iglesias’s TV show has, since its inception in 2010, favoured critical leftist, alternative and alterglobalist political positions, sympathetically presenting Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and various Latin American radical leftist movements.

However, when it came to defining the position of Podemos, the left-right distinction was rejected in favour of an emphasis on democracy: serving the interests of the people as opposed to those of the establishment “casta.” On the basis of this constant anti-elitist rhetoric, the party’s discourse has been labelled “populist,” and it has been placed in the same category as mostly right-wing parties in the north such as Vlaams Belang in Flanders as well as left-wing ones in the south such as Syriza in Greece – and even centrist and nihilist groupings such as Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star movement in Italy.6 However, none of these categories quite fit, and neither do the traditional socialist and communist categories on the left.

Podemos leaders such as Pablo Iglesias, Iñigo Errejón and Juan Carlos Monedero embrace their leftist activist tradition and populist politics. They find political inspiration in the works of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau for a new form of politics centred on the notions of empowerment and expanding the meaning of democratic politics beyond classic forms of representation. The philosophy of Carl Schmitt inspires their mistrust of established parlamentary politics and right-left political competition. Podemos proposes to replace the traditional left-right axis with an in-out tension: the political establishment against those who are excluded from current politics. The party is also indebted to Antonio Gramsci for the notion of ideological hegemony, which their leaders use to remind supporters of the importance of controlling the dominant ideological frame, currently in the hands of the right, to transform politics.7 The slogan “Podemos” (“We can”) and the use of traditional leftist anthems and songs during their meetings combined with modern references such as TV shows suggest an effort to build their own cognitive frame.

The very term used to label the main ruling political parties, casta, which is best translated as “ruling caste,” suggests that the division is more than the usual partisan one among competing political parties, but in fact a deeper conflict between the people and the privileged class, both political and economic. Moreover, in speaking for “the people” Podemos does not shy away from references to patriotism, and it praises the democratic role of the army, a clear shift from the traditional position of leftist parties in Spain.

Public policy. The party manifesto published for the European election already gave evidence of the tensions inherent in transforming something closer to a social movement into a political party. The manifesto depicted politicians belonging to the other parties as members of a privileged minority supporting austerity policies to defend their privileges, linking the fight against austerity measures to a defence of Spanish sovereignty against international finance. Podemos was presented as a “method” rather than as a political party, stressing its online program amendment procedure as representing a whole new form of politics.

Proposed policies focused on concrete economic reforms such as: reduction of working time to 35 hours a week, retirement at 60, universal basic income, debt repudiation or debt moratorium, and nationalization of strategic sectors such as transportation, food and energy.8 However, while expressing the same anti-establishment, pro-democracy discourse, a new Podemos economic document developed by two experts, Vicenç Navarro and Juan Torres, nuanced some of these initial economic positions. This document, released to the press in November, rejected nationalization and universal basic income and proposed renegotiation of debt payments. It advocated a wider role for public banking, increased taxes on the rich and a legally established maximum salary as well as a minimum one.

12_Figure 1

Voters and potential voters. The surprising results of the European election were only the beginning. Polls showed a constant growth in support for Podemos – especially, but not only, among young, urban and educated voters.9 Some of that support came from voters for the conservative ruling PP, but most came from the socialist PSOE. According to Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) surveys, most of the potential voters for Podemos place themselves on the centre-left of the ideological spectrum, while they place Podemos on the far left, even though Podemos has refused to locate itself on the left-right axis (see figure 1).

Territorial challenges and Catalonia. Podemos, like other political parties, faces the challenge of expanding to all Spanish regions, and especially those Autonomous Communities that have their own distinct party systems and political divisions, Catalonia and the Basque Country in particular. Although the party has refused to compete on its own at the local level, prioritizing coalitions in local elections, it did take part in the Andalusian election in March 2015, and is organizing in many other Autonomous Communities to be a real force at the regional level as it prepares for the general election.10 What strategic alliances Podemos will make in the various regions will affect its chances in the general election later this year. Depending on the particular case, an erroneous strategy of alliances allowing PSOE or PP to govern (or even supporting them) could ruin Podemos’s chances of achieving its objective of governing Spain.

Moreover, the one-size-fits-all language of Podemos’s program clashes with Spain’s plurinational reality, manifested especially in the self-determination demands voiced by the Catalan parliament in recent years. Pablo Iglesias has promised a constitutional reform that would recognize Spain as a plurinational state, but remains vague about his position on allowing a referendum on secession in Catalonia.11 So far, this strategy has succeeded, as electoral support in Catalonia for Podemos, which was only 4.65 per cent in the European election, has climbed significantly. According to CIS surveys, one fifth of Catalans intend to vote for Podemos in the general election.

The prospects for the end of the two-party system in Spain

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Pablo Iglesias has declared that voting for Podemos in the next general election, which must take place before December 20, is the key to real change, in the form of dismantling the regime that developed out of the 1978 constitution. The Spanish party system is a pillar of the “78 Regime,” which has been sustained by majority governments and is based on a shared acceptance of the status quo by PP and PSOE. Indeed, the functioning of the (imperfect) two-party system in Madrid has been an underpinning of the democracy established in that year. According to recent polls the next election could mark the end of this system and a shift toward a three- or four-party system, depending on the performance of Ciudadanos and IU (see figure 2). A January 2015 CIS survey found combined support among decided voters for PP and PSOE at a historic low of only 49.5 per cent; in April it was still only at 49.9 per cent. In 2011 the two dominant parties obtained 73.3 per cent of electoral support. There is a general trend in Western democracies toward a weakening of two-party systems, but in Spain it would constitute an especially dramatic change.12

This major change in Spanish politics will make forming alliances to build coalition governments or undertake constitutional reform (which requires three-fifths or two-thirds parliamentary support) very difficult. Would a German-style grand coalition of PP and PSOE be strong enough to govern in the face of a citizenry demanding profound reforms?

And could Podemos form a governing coalition? Given its centralist orientation and centre-right policies, Ciudadanos is an unlikely partner for Podemos; so is the PSOE, labelled as a “casta” political force despite its leftist tradition. On the other hand, a PP-PSOE coalition would verify and strengthen the in-out discourse used by Iglesias’s party. Pablo Iglesias’s vision of “taking over by storm” in an election could easily turn into Podemos’s being forced to play the parliamentary political game with the “old” PP and PSOE it has denounced (or even Ciudadanos). What happens then is anybody’s guess.


1 See Vanesa Valiño, Emergencia habitacional en el Estado español (Barcelona: Observatorio DESC / Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, 2013), retrieved here.

2 See David Rueda, “Dualization, Crisis and Welfare State,” Socio-Economic Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (April 2014), pp. 381–407.

3 Article 135.

4 According to Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas data, while more than 70 per cent of Spaniards had described themselves as highly confident in the Crown in 1994, this figure had dropped below 20 per cent in 2013.

5 See Irene Martín Cortés, “Spain’s Indignados: For a Better Representative Democracy, and More,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2013, pp. 65–77.

6 See Pablo Simón, “Cuatro aristas de Podemos,” El País, December 12, 2014, retrieved here.

7 See Santos Juliá, “Gente será, más gente empoderada,” El País, August 8, 2014, retrieved here.

8 See the full party manifesto here.

9 See Kilo Llaneras, “¿Quién apoya a Podemos? Una radiografía de sus votantes,” Politikon, December 10, 2014, retrieved here.

10 See Pablo Simón, “Podemos uno y no 51,” Politikon, February 4, 2015, retrieved here.

11 See Eric Guntermann, “Catalonia’s Ambiguous Vote,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2015, pp. 101–03.

12 See Ignacio Urquizu, “El fin del bipartidismo, pero ¿dónde?”, El Diario, January 22, 2014, retrieved here.