The Three Souls of Podemos

25 Feb, 2016 - - @jorgegalindo

Five days ago, the negotiators of Podemos and PSOE gathered for the first time, accompanied by representatives from similar ideological forces. The base document for the negotiations presented by Podemos is quite the peculiar political object. The document may reveal, as nothing else can, what is essential to understand the party’s actions since December 20th. Podemos can be considered a kind of coalition with three interests whose hierarchy is not clear: the desire to make new policies (from their point of view) different from those implemented in recent times; their intention to “storm the heavens”, becoming the key formation in a government of “change” (definitively, on the left of the ideological spectrum); and the aspiration to give voice to “pluri-nationalism” in Spain, particularly (but not solely) offering a solution to the Catalan question, in the form of a referendum of self-determination. The problem for Podemos, of course, is that these objectives are not necessarily in step with each other. Conversely, they can even be in conflict.

In the list of specific measures proposed by Podemos, there are many items in which an agreement does seems possible, not only with PSOE, but also C’s (through abstention of one or the other). Some of this common ground has already been discussed in media as well as by Socialists in their own response document. In their reply, there are proposals not explicitly stated, though previously recognized by PSOE which I list here (though incomplete): employ a mechanism to fight against poverty, or a guaranteed fixed income; combat the workforce gender gap through paternity leave, amongst others; changing the electoral laws to create more proportionality in the system; implement reforms in education and healthcare, although they would have to discuss the expense involved (see more below); and finally, in the section dealing with detailed corruption reforms, almost all seem perfectly acceptable for the other partners involved: more independent government agencies (AAPP in Spanish), protections for whistleblowers, more clearly defined conflicts of interest.

Other specific aspects would require considerably more intense negotiations, possibly becoming unachievable. Initially though, these could be subject to debate. The deferment of the deficit limit and the growth of public spending is meaningful. The parties involved will have to discuss the pace and realm where the spending would take place, but this would be a negotiation of limits and sources (particularly the eventual tax increase, or the optimistic fiscal calculations of Podemos), and not of the baseline. The related questions with labor regulations, most importantly concerning indefinite contracts, could also create a considerable hurdle. But there would be room for agreement in things like paternity leave, regularized overtime, restricting temporary employment, and minimizing contract fraud.

The set of concrete measures, ultimately, constitutes a logical base of negotiation for a party interested in reforming governmental policies. However, for the aspirations of Podemos (and their partners) this is seemingly insufficient in both the document and the Iglesias’s own negotiating strategy, which includes demands in two structural areas.

The much discussed call for a “super vice-presidency” with broadened powers —as well as the highly detailed definition of each Ministry and the requirement to choose by consensus the 70-plus senior officials— responds to an explicit aim of taking up positions inside institutions, for a party that currently feels outside of them. This can be read as an aspiration (and for Podemos, the window of opportunity) to occupy that space. In any case, it responds to an attack strategy that places any of the partners (that at the same time are potential victims) in an impossible position. Notably, this enters into a partial conflict with some of the specifically elaborated proposals in the section on corruption, to the extent that the plan to subject judges and attorneys to political directives has been corrected in subsequent versions of Podemos’ proposed document. The lesson is clear: weakening those who can facilitate the passing of some (if not all) of your preferred policies is strenuously difficult combination.

Nevertheless, the demand for a nonbinding referendum of auto-determination in Catalonia through Article 92 of the Constitution is possibly the most hotly debated “red line”. It is worth noting who exactly supports this proposal. If it implies a partial (and not a national) plebiscite, PSOE, and obviously C’s and PP, are opposed. At the same time, if it remains nonbinding and without legal guaranteed, the independentists will not be seduced. The proposal, as it stands, lingers in a political no man’s land, without seeming to build any bridges between the two opposing camps in Madrid and Barcelona. Thus, its utility to forge a left-wing government that moves forward with the array of aforementioned policies is scant, if not counterproductive. In contrast, the platform created by BCN En Comú could yield considerable electoral results, in the short and medium term.

The contradictions regarding pluri-nationalism go beyond this, since Podemos’ other two partners have their own agenda that, although pointing towards decentralization, show little to no interest in a referendum. On the contrary, Compromís is already governing in Valencia with PSPV-PSOE, and En Marea and PSdG seem poised to join forces as the alternative to PPdG in the Galician elections at the end of the year. Compromís already withdrew from the shared platform of Podemos, and En Marea is considering maintaining negotiations with PSOE by themselves. Although those wanting to “storm the heavens” and En Comú Podem are seemingly in lockstep, the Galicians and Valencians are on a different path, one aimed at finding common ground with natural partners from their autonomous communities, and therefore similar in securing specific changes.

If the pro-referendum and “revolutionary” incentives go in one direction, and the “gradualist” Catalans and Galicians go in another, does this mean there are two fronts in Podemos and its orbit? Not necessarily, since there will be many members of the party with three souls (plurinationalism, wealth redistribution, and change of actor) each with a varying degree of importance. Perhaps this is not as much of a fight between people as it is a internal conflict of preferences. The incompatibility exists, though, and it will manifest itself more evidently through PSOE’s plan— that Pablo Simon explains so well—which is based on exploiting these contradictions, if carried out as they hope. If not, their rival/potential partner fails in a way that is obvious to all: the gradualism will be unnecessary and be substituted by the “revolution” which could reach everywhere else. Unless Pedro Sanchez is questioned and an internal crisis opens, it is improbable that PSOE collapses so immediately. Therefore it seems difficult, if not altogether impossible, that Iglesias and company achieve everything at the same time: storm the heavens, reform concrete policies, Catalan self-determination, and a left-wing government with a plurinational balance. As my mom always told me when I was young, even though it infuriated me tremendously each time: you can’t always get what you want.

Translated by Mike Presiado.

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