“The old new politics”

How Podemos rising star faded in just 5 years

“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse”, a famous line said by actor John Derek in the 1949 film Knock On Any Door (also starring Humphrey Bogart) has since then been applied to young icons from James Dean to Amy Winehouse and, maybe, soon will also suit the so-called “new politics”, the motto under which Podemos, the Spanish left party born after the 15-M widespread protest movement, marketed itself.

Podemos was born just months before the last European elections, in 2014, initially harvesting indignation from a wide ideological spectrum and unexpectedly securing five seats at the European Parlament that very same May, the first of which was for its leader and co-founder, Pablo Iglesias Turrión (named after the founder of the Spanish Socialist Party, Pablo Iglesias Posse). A year after, with the young Pablo Iglesias already devoted to national politics, the party wisely decided not to run directly for the municipal elections in May 2015, allegedly due to a lack of time to look for appropriate candidates. Instead, Podemos supported what its leaders called “candidacies of change” in all major cities and towns. As a result of what at the time looked as an astute move, Podemos could claim for itself a big portion of the success of new mayors like Manuela Carmena in Madrid and Ada Colau in Barcelona.

During the rest of 2015, Podemos sailed on tail winds: a fresh communication strategy, the benign wave that the new municipal governments in the “cities of change” casted on their national counterpart, alongside with the delicate situation of the PSOE (its center-left adversary), still severely hampered in the polls by a heavily contested management of the crisis, all pushed Podemos and its allies to gain 69 seats at the Spanish Parlament in December 2015, very close to PSOE’s 90 seats. In the aftermath of the elections, however, the first dissonances were heard in the coral direction of Podemos, with Iñigo Errejón (Pablo Iglesias’ long time best-friend) advocating for facilitating a government of PSOE in coalition with center party Ciudadanos (C’s), and the leader Pablo Iglesias putting a high stakes bet on the “sorpasso”, the possibility of overtaking the PSOE and becoming the hegemonic party of the left if new elections were forced. Which Podemos did by blocking the election of Pedro Sánchez as the new president, backed by the agreement between PSOE and C’s.

In which seems a turning point in the rising trajectory of Podemos, the new elections were held in the spring of 2016 and the “sorpasso” did not happen. Instead, the results, with very slight variations in favour of the Popular Party, weakened the possibility of change, and ultimately contributed to keep the conservative president Mariano Rajoy in office for a second term. If, in the previous elections and thanks to the “mayors of change”, Podemos was able to present itself as a transversal movement, with the nefarious management of the negotiations to form a center-left government and the subsequent purges of dissonant moderate voices, Podemos moved towards the far-left corner of the political ring, which, in addition to the controversial leadership manners of Pablo Iglesias and his partner Irene Montero (which happens to be Podemos’ number two) has not only somewhat narrowed its support base but also wiped out the aura of freshness that surrounded the party at its beginnings.

On occasion of the no-confidence vote in May 2018 against Mariano Rajoy after a court of justice determined that his party was deeply involved in a general corruption case (the “Gurtel” case), Podemos finally joined forces with the PSOE, as well as with the peripheral nationalists from Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, to put and end to Rajoy’s presidency and make Pedro Sánchez new president of the Spanish government. This unexpected course of action (at the time, Pedro Sánchez was not even a congressman after having resigned his seat due to strong disagreements with his own party), put again Podemos on the spotlight for reasons others than its internal battles during the second half of 2018. With Sánchez leaning on a fragile majority, Podemos appeared as the strongest support of a government not only attempting to restore many of the cuts that the Popular Party had infringed to the welfare system, but also determined to advance on a strong political agenda that included removing the corpse of dictator Francisco Franco from its tomb at the Valle de Los Caídos mausoleum, the quest for gender equality, and the loosening of the tension with the Catalan separatists.

However, with the municipal, regional, and European elections approaching, Podemos suffered one of the worst crisis in its just five years of existence, when co-founder Iñigo Errejón, that in 2017 had openly challenged his ex-best friend Iglesias for the leadership of the party (and lost) and was subsequently forced away from national politics and into running for office as candidate for the presidency of Madrid region, decided to partner with Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena against the will of Podemos. But Carmena was only one amongst many other “mayors of change” that, elections approaching, decided to pursue their own way without counting on Podemos, in search of a transversality that could keep them in office for a second term. If, back in 2015, renouncing to present candidacies in City Halls while, at the same time, controlling them, had looked as the smartest of all moves by Iglesias’ party, now that it was clear for Iglesias that mayors do not enjoy being patronized, it was revealed as an impossible strategy.

Podemos faces the European elections in a awkward position. With the municipal and regional elections to be held on the same date, on February 15th president Sánchez, unable to pass the 2019 budget bill in the midst of a heavy fire between center-right parties and Catalan separatists, announced that he was dissolving the Spanish parliament and called for a national election on April 28th. Upcoming European elections will be, more than ever, influenced by a national context heavily polarized around the Catalan question, a subject where Podemos’ position in favor of an independence referendum is not particularly popular even amongst left voters. That very same Catalan question, which quasi-monopolizes the political debate for almost a decade now, is one of the main factors behind the sudden appearance of Vox, a new political force in the right-wing ranks. Riding the waves of anti-inmigration and re-centralitation feelings, a month ago Vox abruptly put and end to 36 years of PSOE governments in Andalousia, entering the regional Parlament with unexpected force.

Five years ago, the rise of Podemos in the European elections brought hopes to many people that a “new politics” was possible. But after five years where Podemos has traveled in a sort of rollercoaster, going fast through the up and downs of day-to-day politics, it seems that people hoping for that “new politics”, maybe need to start looking somewhere else. Today, in 2019, the economic and social crisis that made possible the appearance of Podemos, plus a disastrous management of immigration and foreign policies by Western Countries in the Middle East, is eroding the debate and giving birth to a crisis of democracy, with impossible situations like Brexit or the Catalan “procés”, and elected leaders like Trump or Bolsonaro. If we add a bit of corruption here and there we will understand why the ghosts of neo-fascism are haunting again our societies. Recent polls forecast that Podemos may lose in the coming elections at least one third of its voters, which seems a consequence of the overall political climate and its own mistakes. If polls are right, it will mean that the “new politics” promised by Podemos in 2015 will have gotten remarkably old without even having had the chance to mature first. As for now, it’s the ancient politics of authoritarianism and right-wing populism that is knocking at the parlaments’ gates.

Note: artcicle originally published in Italian on March, 26th at https://critlib.it/2019/03/26/uscito-il-n-31-de-gli-stati-uniti-deuropa-scaricabile-grndatis-qui/

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