10 years on from the rise of the Spanish Indignados movement, which paved the way for Podemos, Chris Bambery examines its impact and draws out some important lessons
Ten years ago, on May 15, 2011, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square under the motto, “We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers.” They were there in opposition to unemployment, the corruption that characterised the Spanish state and its elite, and homelessness. At its end, the police charged on demonstrators, and in protest some forty people decided to camp overnight in Puerta del Sol.
A few hours later, thousands of people settled in Puerta del Sol, and in more than seventy towns and villages throughout Spain similar occupations sprung up. The movement moved beyond opposition to austerity and corruption to demands for direct democratic participation and a questioning of the political system born from the transition.
The most memorable slogan to come out of 15M (15 May) or the Indignados movement, as it became known, was that shouted in front of Spain’s parliament as protestors waved loaves of bread above their heads and chanted, “There isn’t enough bread for so many chorizos!” Aside from being a spicy sausage often served in a sandwich, a chorizo is also a swindler or cheat.
In the early morning of 27 May, the riot police began to evict the hundreds of mainly young people camped in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya, claiming that the square needed to be ‘cleaned’ and ‘dangerous material’ removed because the city was hosting the Champions League Final the following day.
Those in the square tried to resist peacefully but the police attacked them. In response, hundreds of mainly young people gathered and eventually retook the square. That evening, some 20,000 people gathered in and around the square in support of the camp taking part in a popular assembly
Elsewhere in the Catalan capital, activists from 15M mobilised to stop the increasing number of evictions due to unpaid mortgages. Marches in protest against spending cuts by hospital workers, teachers and firefighters all ended at the central camp while 24-hour camps were set up outside five different hospitals.
The Indignados awoke intense sympathy among the majority of citizens: 70% of citizenry viewed 15M positively, and 80% thought that the Indignados were right in their demands.
The popularity of 15M peaked with the rallies on 19 June that gathered nearly a million people in several Spanish cities.
Leaving a mark
Over the summer, the movement would lose steam but 15M succeeded in publicly challenging the accords that had dominated Spanish politics over the last thirty years. It also left its mark with millions of citizens seeing corruption as endemic within the political structure and concluding that the constitutional settlement of 1978, which created Spain’s system of parliamentary democracy, installed a system that operated behind people’s backs and for the benefit of the few and not the many.
The Transition from the brutal dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the victor of the 1936-1939 Civil War, left the state he created very much intact with the same people serving in the judiciary, army, security forces and civil service. The government which won the election of 1977 was made up of former Francoists who recognised that creating such a democracy was better than further provoking the growing anti-fascist opposition. They had seen the overthrow of a similar dictatorship next door in Portugal in 1974, which lead to a revolutionary crisis and, like the US administration and the European Union, were determined to head off any repeat of that.
Yet corruption, rife under Franco, was institutionalised under the new system. The two party system which evolved was determined to cap and further advance autonomy for the Catalans and Basques. They ran a dirty war in the Basque Country using murder gangs recruited from the far right, and privatised Spain’s nationalised industries in a way similar as was to follow in Russia, with the same people kept in place allied to the banks who’d funded their buy outs, thus ensuring that a narrow group dominated the economy.
This all came crashing down in 2008 with the financial crash, bursting an inflationary construction bubble which had fuelled economic growth. Much of this involved selling second homes to people who could not afford to pay back the mortgages they had taken out. Unemployment and homelessness skyrocketed as construction ceased, leaving uncompleted housing estates and people who could not pay their mortgages or rent being evicted.
The Socialist government followed EU instructions and imposed austerity measures to save the banking system.
Mobilisation did not cease with the end of 15M. The anti-eviction campaign, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), which placed the blame on the growing number of evictions and foreclosures on the banks, physically stopped evictions taking place. On 22 March 2015, one million people marched on Madrid for “bread, work and a roof.”
Yet the failure to sustain 15M led many to conclude that a political alternative was needed to the ruling Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE).
The rise of Podemos
The impetus for the creation of Podemos (‘We Can’) came from a group of young university lecturers, many from the political science and philosophy departments of Madrid Complutense University. They argued that conditions existed to create a new, popular left which could go beyond winning seats in parliament to gathering a majority of the population behind its counter-vision for a new democracy.
The most charismatic member of this group was Pablo Iglesias, a political science teacher at the Complutense, who acquired a popular profile on TV chat shows confronting representatives of the political establishment. As he put it, for most people such shows are “much more important” than any debate in parliament.
But he and the others in the group were also influenced by their experiences in popular movements in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, as one of them, Pascual Serrano explained:
“Podemos talks about winning, about razing to the ground, about bringing down the system… In the same way, the ambiguity of Podemos’s discourse, which is as sensational for some as it is irritating for others, is also a lesson learned from the Bolivarian process”
Luke Stobart, Luke, 2014, Understanding Podemos (1/3): 15-M & counter-politics, Left Flank, 5 November, 2014
In pursuit of a new, popular left Iglesias, others in the group were coy about being seen as pro-immigration, or in defending the right to self-determination. That meant Podemos would attract less support in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. As the crisis over whether the Catalans could hold an independence referendum unfolded, the party was seen to sit on the fence.
The initiative to launch a new political organisation, Podemos, came from a meeting in central Madrid held in January 2014, the aim of which was to agree a candidacy for the European elections. On May 25, five months after its public presentation, Podemos unexpectedly won five seats and 8% of the vote in the European elections. Some 30,000 people took part in selecting the candidates and agreeing the party’s platform.
Yet there was a contradiction between this and the emergence of a tight knit group of academics centred on its most recognizable leader, Pablo Iglesias, a professor of political science with an established media presence. They argued that electoral considerations demanded an “electoral war machinery.”
Yet the reality of electoral politics was that Podemos would find it difficult to form a government on its own, and the leadership began to look to an eventual agreement with the PSOE.
Within a relatively short time the new party had adopted a highly centralised structure and described its new programme as ‘social democratic’. Online voting benefitted Iglesias and his grouping, but they also barred members of existing organisations from holding positions of leadership, with the aim of decreasing the influence of Izquierda Anticapitalista (Anti-Capitalist Left, a Trotskyist formation) which had been central to the construction of Podemos. The way to eventual entry into government with the PSOE, albeit as the smaller party, was set.
Podemos would give the PSOE, under Pablo Sánchez, its support in forming a government in 2018 after the Popular Party premier, Mariano Rajoy, lost a vote of confidence after senior party figures were found guilty of gross corruption and he had been forced to give evidence in the trial.
After much manoeuvring, Podemos and Iglesias entered into a coalition government with Sánchez last year. To pass its budget, it required the votes of the left wing pro-independence Esquerra Republican Catalunya (Catalan Left Republicans, ERC) and the Basque EH Bildu, which sent the right into orbit.
By now, the fascist Vox party had burst onto the scene taking votes from Ciudadanos and, to a lesser extent, the PP.
Meanwhile, Iglesias had succeeded in excluding his left wing critics from Podemos, but tensions with its government partner were growing because it would do little to reform the system bequeathed by the 1978 Transition.
The stage was set for the Madrid regional elections earlier this month. Iglesias resigned from the deputy premiership to contest them for Podemos on an anti-fascist ticket aimed at stopping Vox. In an ugly campaign, the PP, which had moved right to capture ground from Vox. Iglesias trailed in behind not just them but Mas Madrid (More Madrid), which contained many of those he had ousted from Podemos. Subsequently, Iglesias announced he was quitting politics.
Lessons for the left
Across Europe, we have seen radical left parties enter coalitions with the centre left, as a junior partner, with disastrous results. In Italy a decade and a half ago this destroyed the mass party, Rifondazione Comunista (Refounded Communists), from which the radical left has not recovered. In Greece we saw Syriza take office in 2015, offering an escape from the terrible economic crisis gripping the country, only for it to cave in to accepting an EU ‘rescue’ plan imposing severe austerity measures. Podemos has played the same game.
Surely it must be time that radical left formations reject entering such coalitions. Surely too it is time to reject accepting the parliamentary game whereby electoral politics superseded the building of mass movements. Such movements will be needed to support and defend any radical left government which gets elected.
That also requires acceptance of a fundamental truth; the state and the parliamentary system, which sits on top of it, are not intuitions for the creation of popular power. Indeed they exist so that, when push comes to shove, they can prevent that by any means necessary. What happened in Spain in July 1936 – when the army rose up to overthrow an elected republican government and then unleashed a wave of mass killings against the left and liberals – stands as a case in point.
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Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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