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The Failure of the Podemos Model and the Future of the Spanish Left

“The Galician and Basque elections have revealed yet another example of the generational tensions – between left-wing youth and conservatively-inclined older voters – that have in recent years emerged as one of the most significant political dynamics in the Western world.”

On Sunday, July 12, voters in Galicia and Basque Country went to the polls to vote in the first regional elections held in Spain since the general election of November 10, 2019. The elections were originally scheduled to be held on April 5 but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The July 12 regional elections therefore marked Podemos’ first electoral opportunity following its entry into the national government as the coalition partner of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE, and the subsequent installation of party leader Pablo Iglesias as Second Deputy Prime Minister of Spain.

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic and social devastation, the Galician and Basque regional elections might have appeared, at first glance, to provide Podemos with an excellent opportunity to continue to build electoral power on a regional level. In the weeks and months preceding the election, the pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout had already vindicated some core elements of Podemos’ platform, from resisting and rolling back privatization of in the healthcare sector to the concept of an ingreso mínimo vital (universal basic income), a limited version of which has been approved by the Sánchez government.

Nevertheless, July 12 held no such success in store for Podemos’ Galician and Basque regional affiliates. While pre-election polls indicated that both Elkarrekin Podemos-IU (the electoral coalition composed of the Basque affiliates of Podemos and Izquierda Unida) and Galicia en Común (the alliance cobbled together by the Galician affiliates of Podemos, Izquierda Unida, and several minor nationalist parties following the dissolution of En Marea) were facing a potentially steep erosion of electoral support and parliamentary representation, even the most unfavorable polling did not foretell the magnitude of their respective defeats.

Elkarrekin Podemos-IU lost five of its eleven seats in the Basque Parliament and over 85,000 votes from its 2016 total. Meanwhile, in Galicia, four years after taking 19.1% of the vote and 14 seats in the 75-seat Parliament of Galicia during the 2016 regional elections – both exceeding the vote share and matching the number of seats won by the PSdG-PSOE, the Galician affiliate of Sánchez’s PSOE – Galicia en Común hemorrhaged over 220,000 votes, losing all of its seats in the Parliament of Galicia and failing to crack 4% of total ballots cast.

With the collapse of Podemos in Galicia and Basque Country, it is the major left-wing nationalist parties active in each autonomous community – the Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG) and Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu) – that today represent the only viable left alternatives to the dominant right-wing ruling parties, the Partido Popular de Galicia (PPdG) and the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV).

July 12 was one of the most successful election nights in the history of the BNG, with the party winning 19 seats and 23.8% of the vote, up from only six seats and 8.3% in 2016. Due to Podemos’ electoral disaster and the stagnant performance of the PSdeG, the BNG re-established its status as the leading parliamentary opposition party to the PPdG, which on July 12 won 48% of the vote and an absolute majority of 41 seats. Meanwhile, in Basque Country, EH Bildu likewise improved on its results from 2016, winning 27.58% of the vote and 21 seats in the 75-seat Basque Parliament.

Interviews conducted with voters in Galicia and Basque Country, both before and after the election, mirrored polls – and eventually, the electoral results themselves – that would show EH Bildu cementing its status as the leading opposition party in the Basque Parliament, and the BNG overtaking the PSdG and its mantle as the primary political alternative to the PPdG.

The subjects interviewed represent the same kind of voters – young students and workers whose lives and politics have been profoundly shaped by the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath – who have in recent years provided much of the enthusiasm, energy, and electoral muscle for left campaigns, from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 insurgent presidential run to Jeremy Corbyn’s near-victory in the 2017 U.K. general election. Therefore, it is worth asking why Podemos’ message and platform failed to resonate with left-wing voters in Galicia and Basque Country on July 12; and examining what implications this failure might have for Podemos, the Spanish left, and the future of Galicia, Basque Country, and the other peripheral nations of Spain.

Setting The Stage

In order to understand the political landscapes of Galicia and Basque Country, one must first understand the political parties that for decades have maintained a stranglehold on power in both autonomous communities. The PPdG, currently led by the President of the Xunta de Galicia (Galicia’s regional government), Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, ruled Galicia without interruption from 1989 (when they first appeared on the ballot) until 2005. The PPdG’s current reign began in 2009, and they have remained in power ever since. Significantly, despite being an affiliate of the Partido Popular, which arose from the ashes of Franco’s Falangist regime, the PPdG has sporadically and strategically embraced the cultural rhetoric of galleguismo as necessary to secure its base among older, rural Galician voters.

Similarly, the EAJ-PNV – currently led by Lehendakari Iñigo Urkullu – has ruled Basque Country since the late 1970s, with the sole exception being the period between 2009 and 2012. In contrast to the PPdG, the EAJ-PNV has deep roots and historical credibility amongst many Basque nationalists. For example, it was an EAJ-PNV government that in 2004 passed a proposed revision to the 1979 Statue of Autonomy of the Basque Country, which was ultimately rejected without debate in the PSOE-controlled Cortes Generales. In keeping with its centrist reputation, the EAJ-PNV currently leads a coalition government with the PSE-EE (the Basque affiliate of the PSOE).

EH Bildu emerged recently out of the Abertzale left tradition, a political tendency historically connected to the armed liberation struggle waged by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) throughout much of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The party in its current form is largely a product of the Spanish state’s efforts to destroy the Abertzale left in Basque Country: EH Bildu was founded officially in 2011, in the wake of bans of the Batasuna coalition and its successor party, Sortu, issued by the Spanish Supreme Court.

The crucial significance of the Basque national question in relation to the political climate of Basque Country means that EH Bildu must fight with the EAJ-PNV for nationalist votes. In Galicia, however, the BNG has less competition for its ownership of the nationalist banner. Founded in 1982, the party reached its previous electoral zenith in the late 1990s and early-to- mid 2000s, and served as junior partner in the aforementioned coalition government from 2005 – 2009. Although the BNG’s vote-share and representation in the Galician Parliament had since been declining steadily, the July 12 elections saw the party emphatically reverse such trends. While the PPdG remains the dominant party among older voters, the BNG has successfully redefined itself as the party of the mocidade galega (Galician youth).

Such a chasmic generational divide will undoubtedly sound familiar to observers of American politics. In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, for example, the strongest support for Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism came from voters ages 18-29; meanwhile, his victorious rival, the unflappably moderate Joe Biden, racked up similarly lopsided margins among voters over 65. In Michigan – the state that gifted Sanders a shocking victory in the 2016 primary cycle, before being won narrowly by Donald Trump in the general election, one of several “Rust Belt” states in the fabled Democratic firewall that would be flipped by the Republican nominee – exit polls showed Sanders beating Biden among voters under 30 by a whopping 74%-19% margin, and losing voters over 65 to Biden, 19%-70%.

While younger voters joined Sanders en masse in his calls for a “political revolution,” older, more conservative, and more economically secure voters found themselves convinced by Biden’s modest appeals for the restoration of a pre-Trump, Obama-era stability. A similar dynamic is undeniably at work in Galicia: the oldest swaths of the electorate continue to grant Feijóo and the PPdG a mandate for their status quo-conservatism; while the youngest Galician voters, having come of age in the post-2008 era of precarity, are increasingly embracing the BNG’s politics of independence and societal transformation.

THE LIMITATIONS OF THE PODEMOS PROJECT IN GALICIA AND BASQUE COUNTRY

Why did Podemos’ message and platform fail to resonate with voters in Galicia and Basque Country? Several ideological and social issues illustrate the fundamental disconnect between the party and citizens in these regions. Many Galicians and Basques view Podemos as a party of elite, urban intellectuals who are out of touch with the issues facing the largely rural autonomous communities in northern Spain. Additionally, Podemos’ lack of a consistent stance on the question of Catalan autonomy has further amplified distrust of the party’s support for regional self-determination.

Our sources largely viewed Podemos as lacking a commitment to defending the distinctive linguistic and cultural identities of Galicia and Basque Country. In these autonomous communities, language is a contentious and politically-charged issue. Under Franco, all non- Castilian languages, including Galician and Basque, were banned from public life – prohibited from being spoken or otherwise utilized in the streets, in places of business, and in schools and universities. The BNG and EH Bildu, in contrast with Podemos, are perceived as the only left- wing parties capable of, and dedicated to, protecting and expanding the roles of Galician and Basque in their respective autonomous communities.

Basque has experienced a revival of sorts in Basque Country under the leadership of the EAJ- PNV. The percentage of Basque speakers in the autonomous community has steadily increased since the 1990s, and according to the most recently available statistics, more than two-thirds of students in the region study in Basque-medium schools and classrooms.

Unfortunately, the future of Galician is less certain. Earning a rebuke from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Feijóo’s government has spearheaded legislation to limit the role of Galician in Galician classrooms, and overseen a precipitous decline in the proportion of first-language Galician speakers across all age groups. Confronted with the possible disappearance of Galician as a vital language in Galicia, and the existential threat to Galicia’s unique cultural identity that the loss of the language would pose, many Galician interview subjects expressed concern about Podemos’ lack of commitment to linguistic preservation and revitalization efforts.

The attempts that Podemos has made to appeal to the cultural and linguistic heritage of Galicia and other autonomous regions often come across as awkward and patronizing. Pau, a restaurant worker and member of Galiza Nova (the youth wing of the BNG), recalls seeing Podemos campaign materials clumsily translated from Castilian into Galician: “It was obvious that they just used the same slogans they used in Madrid and tried to translate them, but translated them incorrectly, with so many basic grammatical errors. It was very clear that they were attempting to appeal to nationalist voters, but without putting forth any real effort.”

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A stated goal of Podemos is the re-definition of Spain as a “plurinational” state; even more ambitiously, the party has proposed the creation of a “pan-Iberian confederation” that would unite Spain and Portugal. In an interview with Jacobin,  Podemos MP Txema Guijarro has argued for the “political refoundation of the Iberian Peninsula via a free and sovereign decision taken by all its peoples: the Basques, Catalans, Portuguese, and so on.”

To many Galicians and Basques, however, Podemos’ plurinational vision seems less like a radical reimagining of political possibilities beyond the nation-state, and more like a thinly- disguised capitulation to the dominant discourses of Spanish nationalism and the indivisibility of Spain that unite all other national parties.

Many leftists view Podemos’ calls for the construction of a plurinational Spain as a political maneuver designed to allow the party to sidestep the issue of the Catalonian referendum and independence crisis, avoiding invoking the wrath of its ardently anti-referendum PSOE governing partner. Others believe that this rhetoric constitutes a tacit endorsement of the denial of the national character of Galicia and Basque Country, and the conviction that both autonomous communities must forever be subordinate to a federalized, Castilian-speaking, Madrid-centered Spain.

Podemos was founded in 2014, emerging out of the the Indignados, or 15-M, movement – the massive waves of popular demonstrations that swept across Spain in 2011 and 2012, bringing millions of Spaniards into the streets to protest austerity, endemic high unemployment, and the corrupt capitalist financial system that had destroyed the country’s economy several years prior. However, nearly every subject interviewed for this article viewed Podemos as having effectively renounced its origins in a mass mobilization of the dispossessed, accusing the party of wholeheartedly embracing the rhetoric and politics of the technocratic, liberal center-left.

Several sources pointed out that since entering into government with the PSOE Podemos appears to have lost the populist fervor and commitment to direct democracy that characterized the early years of the party. Pau views Podemos as having exchanged the mass politics of los Indignados – “the anger that was boiling in the streets” – for a breed of mainstream procedural liberalism politically indistinguishable from that of the PSOE.

This transformation is perhaps most evident in Podemos’ recent embrace of the rhetoric of “constitutionality.” As Simón Vázquez has written in Jacobin, the Podemos-PSOE accord contains a provision referencing the Catalan crisis, which calls for “normalizing political life,” “guaranteeing coexistence,” and “encouraging dialogue by seeking bases for mutual understanding within the Constitution.” Furthermore, Podemos has continued to insist that any resolution to the situation in Catalonia can occur only “within the constitutional framework.”

Finally, multiple sources indicated a frustration with Podemos’ apparent retreat from its past support for self-determination for the peripheral nations of Spain in order to toe the Spanish nationalist line of the PSOE. Pau described Podemos’ contradictory dance with the Catalan question by explaining, “One day they are in favor of the right to self- determination, but the next day Podemos politicians from Madrid will say, ‘No, we don’t support Catalan independence.’”

According to Chema, a teacher from the Galician village of Mos, Podemos abandoned the rhetoric of “self-determination” for Catalonia, Basque Country and Galicia in favor of an emphasis on the deracinated, neutral concept of patria. “At the beginning, when the Indignados movement was more active, Podemos strategically embraced the discourse of ‘the sovereignty of the people’ with regards to the Basque, Catalan and Galician nations. But later on, they basically gave up on that, and accepted the concept of national Spanish discourse, completely endorsing the idea of patria.” In the words of Iglesias, Podemos’ patria is oriented around public services, workers’ rights, hospitals, and well-funded pensions. However, the place of Galicia and Basque Country, not to mention that of Galician and Basque, in this patria remains conveniently ambiguous.

Perhaps Podemos’ recent decision to abandon discussion of the question of self-determination and sovereignty can be explained away as a strategic move necessary to preserve the party’s proverbial “seat at the table” in the national coalition government, or even praised as a step toward its vision of a “plurinational” society, united around a vibrant welfare state and world-class public services.

However, in the context of the resurgent state persecution of independentist and separatist activists in Spain – the nine Catalan officials jailed for their participation in the 2017 independence referendum, the 349 Basque political prisoners deliberately scattered in prisons across Spain and France as a means of separating them from their homeland and families, the 12 Galician independence activists facing a collective 102 years in prison – Podemos’ shift in position appears less like a justifiable political compromise and more like an abdication of principle for the sake of political expediency.

WHAT IS THE WAY FORWARD FOR THE GALICIAN AND BASQUE LEFT?

What lessons, then, must the left – in Galicia, Basque Country, and the rest of Spain – learn from the results of the July 12 regional elections?

In Galicia, of course, Feijóo and his PPdG continued their streak of electoral dominance, winning yet another resounding mandate. As Abel, a teacher from Brión, explained in a moment of exasperation all too familiar to many on the Galician left who have resigned themselves to the perpetual rule of the PPdG, “Things will stay like this forever.” Indeed, on July 12, any hopes that the BNG – perhaps powered by a massive mobilization of young voters in a Corbyn-esque “youthquake” that had gone largely under-detected by the polls – could ride a late surge of momentum to oust the PPdG from power were dashed.

Nevertheless, for some BNG voters and militantes, the election results contain reasons for optimism. As Jorge Armesto writes in El Salto, July 12 demonstrated conclusively that the future of the Galician left is nationalist and independentist: “There was a time when there could have been a space for a non-nationalist leftist alternative in Galicia. That time has passed … In all fairness, the BNG represents the only real possibility of social and political change.” Such a sentiment was echoed by Abel, who expressed hope that the election would encourage more Galicians to migrate into the nationalist camp and acknowledge that, “If we [Galicians] are going to change things, we have to go all the way [towards an independent Galicia].”

Chema, meanwhile, views the BNG’s performance as a vindication of the party’s uncompromising political stances and emphasis on allying with grassroots environmental, social, and labor organizations. He also urged the BNG to use its broadened political and parliamentary profile to make the affirmative case for independence – “why we think that Galicia would have more opportunity to thrive and take advantage of its potential if it was a sovereign state.”

In Basque Country, the EAJ-PNV / PSE-EE coalition government was similarly unable to be ousted; like the PPdG in Galicia, the EAJ-PNV won the favor of older voters en route to maintaining its vice-grip on political power in the region. However, EH Bildu nevertheless cemented its status as the second-largest party, the largest left-wing party, the party favored by Basque voters younger than 45, and the principal vehicle for the Abertzale left tendency in the Basque Parliament. In total, nationalist parties – the EAJ/PNV and EH Bildu – control 52 out of 75 seats, a proportion unmatched since the 1980s.

Following the elections, Iglesias struck a humble tone, promising on Twitter that Podemos would undertake “a deep self-criticism and learn from the mistakes that we have undoubtedly made.” The results of the July 12 elections must force the party to examine the failures of its own model in Galicia and Basque Country – its silence on questions of linguistic and cultural identity, its defense of a “plurinational Spain,” and its embrace of the patria concept – and grapple with with the broader implications of the consolidation of the left by nationalist parties.

Both Pau and Chema insist that, “It would be impossible for a unified Spanish republic to ever abandon capitalism. There is no way Spain can ever be ‘red,’ or socialist, if it is united. It has to be split up before any real economic and social change can happen in different parts of the Iberian Peninsula.” Such a belief – that the opposition of powerful capitalist interests will inevitably preclude any development of socialism in a federal, Madrid-centered Spanish republic; and that regional independence is therefore a necessary prerequisite to the construction of a socialist society, is shared by the Abertzale left in Basque Country, as well. In Jacobin, General Secretary of EH Bildu Arnaldo Otegi described his own conviction that defending the Basque popular and working classes will eventually require a commitment to independence: “We have always claimed that independence for the Basques … is in the interests of the great majority of people and workers.”

Podemos, obviously, has not arrived at this same conclusion, maintaining its faith in the essential compatibility of a democratic-socialist patria with a single, united Spanish state despite the contradictions inherent in such a project. As more Galician and Basque youths become engaged in the fight for independence and national sovereignty on both a political and cultural level, Podemos will be forced to reckon with the implications and inconsistencies of its vision of a plurinational patria; and reexamine its commitment to the citizens of all regions of the modern Spanish state, from urban centers like Madrid to the fishing villages of Galicia. Additionally, the Galician and Basque elections have revealed yet another example of the generational tensions – between left-wing youth and conservatively-inclined older voters – that have in recent years emerged as one of the most significant political dynamics in the Western world, from the United States, to the U.K., to Ireland, to the autonomous communities of northern Spain. The July 12 elections have offered a glimpse into this future.

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