Podemos: Changing The Narrative?

Article @ Morning Star, published 27 October 2014

As I walk into the Ibis Hotel in Euston, London, he is already awaiting me next to the breakfast area.

Half awake, with dark floppy hair and jeans, he looks much younger than I imagined — and not the usual face of a party’s international speaker either.

But this is not just any party and this is not just another political face. This is Eduardo Maura from the party that’s shaking up the Spanish status quo and making waves across an entire 47 million population — Podemos.

Maura was in town for a Podemos tour around England hosted by Left Unity — a group which hopes to reproduce Podemos’s success in Britain — and Maura was set to take a train to Nottingham.

I have around 50 minutes to understand how an organisation that is barely 10 months old counts over 120,000 members and is polling at 20 per cent.

By the time we sit down I immediately start bombarding him with questions. How did they do it? What’s the secret?

“Nobody can teach anyone when it comes to politics,” he says in his soft, low-timbre voice.

The success, he argues, “has to do with the fact that some time ago we realised that in a country like Spain there was a new political space that wasn’t on the left side of the political field but at the heart of it.”

This space undoubtedly came out of the Spanish anti-austerity movements of 2011.

The Indignados, the Movimiento 15M, the Democracia Real YA groups — all of them led by young graduates, unemployed and disaffected people, wanting more than the usual electoral promises.

After years of an effectively two-party system, Spaniards seemed to have lost all trust in both the mainstream left (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, PSOE) and the right (the People’s Party, PP).

Indeed, besides being equally buried in corruption scandals, both parties had recently peddled austerity measures and budget cuts.

Under PSOE’s Jose Luis Zapatero government (2008-2011), as well as with conservative Mariano Rajoy’s (incumbent prime minister), the political narrative has been one of neoliberal reforms.

Privatisation, pay freezes and diminishing pensions have been on the order of the day for six unrelenting years.

“It was a very good opportunity to realign the political field,” says Maura.

For him, as for other founding members, there was a need to create a political channel that would unite the movements on the streets with those at home, “watching TV,” who empathised with the spirit of the occupations.

“We thought that if we did it differently, if we were able to build upon demands, not upon ideology but on a very strong set of features that eventually create an identity, then it might work,” he says.

There is absolute passion in his words. And it isn’t about having a Latin vein — his enthusiasm is absolutely genuine.

It comes from an absolute belief that what Podemos is doing is the only way to move forward.

To turn what he calls a “political space” into a “institutional space” Podemos had to adopt a “hacker’s logic.”

“It was amazing how we operated in this logic of proliferation — it had to be very easy to create a branch, everyone could create a branch and we had 400 branches in three months.”

But with all this unvetted freedom to join the organisation, doesn’t he fear a muddling of the message?

Isn’t there the risk of Podemos’s policies taking a turn to the right?

In a country where a Catholic conservative dictatorship was in power until 1975, isn’t there the possibility of Podemos being hijacked by xenophobes, racists, rampant sexists, homophobes and all kinds of other oppressive, asinine opinions?

“The community self-regulates,” he rebuts.

It sounds simple, however the party has already attracted criticism from both observers as well as members after proposing a renegotiation of Spain’s international debt — rather than the originally rumoured demand for default.

Spanish public debt sits at an unprecedented 95 per cent. Its renegotiation, albeit radical in comparison with the PSOE’s proposals, would still mean a heavy burden for the average Spanish taxpayer.

Yet, alongside housing, education and healthcare, the economic policy was a decision taken not by a small political committee but by 7,000 people assembling in a sports arena for Podemos’s first conference.

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, it’s all about the change,” insists Maura as he talks about a former conservative PP voter who joined Podemos because it offers the possibility of something different.

And perhaps that is the main message to take from this young and energetic party.

The political contours might look blurry, but in its determination to become a serious alternative to the status quo Podemos has already achieved more than many former left-leaning organisations in Spain dreamt of.

Importantly, it brings back a debate into the political sphere, by offering Spanish workers an opportunity to express themselves and be heard across the country.

“Change has to come little by little,” Maura suggests. Creating this debate is the main objective because otherwise we will continue living under the tyranny of political “staleness.”

There’s certainly nothing stale about Podemos and with members’ numbers rising by the day it is clear that change is possible somehow.

Podemos literally means “we can” and as things stand, it looks as if they can indeed.