What should the Spanish left do now? 2023

The impending Spanish general election will affect Spain’s centre-left government. Lasse Thomassen examines how Yolanda Díaz’s new Sumar party might benefit from Podemos’ mistakes.

Huesca’s left won 18% in local elections on 28 May. Four tiny parties, including Podemos, divided the votes, resulting in zero council seats. The left-wing parties of the social-democratic PSOE have been urged to merge by this outcome.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez scheduled an emergency general election for July 23. Sánchez has navigated his coalition government with Unidas Podemos through three and a half years of political turmoil, avoiding PSOE internal resistance. His government’s fate relies on whether the PSOE’s left-wing parties have learnt from Podemos.

Podemos must negotiate with Sumar, the newcomer. Sumar, led by Minister of Employment Yolanda Díaz, has become the Spanish left’s future. Sumar, released on April 2, is already polling at 10%. Its formal name, Movimiento Sumar, is no coincidence. Sumar, meaning “to sum up,” implies merging.

Díaz emphasizes that Sumar is a movement, not a party, like Podemos was in 2014. She embarked on a “listening tour” throughout Spain last year to gather support for Sumar. After the municipal elections, Izquierda Unida, Valencian Compromís, and Áñigo Errejón’s Más País joined Sumar. Podemos has avoided joining because it fears being absorbed.

Podemos failures

Podemos has lost popularity since late 2015. It joined government with the PSOE in 2019 as a junior partner, and while they have pulled the government left, governing has taken a toll on the party, which has had to function in a hostile media environment.

Yolanda Díaz, who was never member of Podemos, was the sole politician to benefit from his government. Izquierda Unida, which had joined Podemos as Unidas Podemos, brought her into administration. Pablo Iglesias named Díaz his successor as Podemos leader after he resigned. He had no idea Díaz would abandon Podemos.

Podemos was created to convert votes into seats and seats into power to change legislation. Pablo Iglesias and other Podemos founders openly used it to shake up politics. “Circles” of sympathisers and members were discussed as a way to produce ideas and policies from the bottom up. Podemos never intended to become a typical party.

Since then, Podemos leaders have embraced their identity. Podemos leaders see Podemos as the “true” left-wing defense. Their leaders including Pablo Iglesias discuss about Podemos and oppose Sumar. Ironically, many in Izquierda Unida defended their party as the “true” left when Podemos came.

Podemos’ estrangement from civic society has accompanied its identity. Podemos evolved from social movements, including the 2011 Indignados movement and multiple “tides” of rallies against education, health care, and other cuts. However, Podemos has been more isolated from civil society organizations.

Empty signs

Sumar must avoid a comparable brand attachment and civic society separation to flourish. As with Podemos, these appear to be the project’s goals.

Sumar must create “empty signifiers” like Podemos and the right. Podemos was influenced by the late political thinker Ernesto Laclau (1935–2014), who believed politics and populism were based on empty signifiers. Positive or negative identification makes these empty signifiers successful. Podemos uses la casta to distinguish the establishment from the people, siding with the people.

Spanish politics has gotten more populist, while Podemos has become less populist. The conservative Partido Popular (PP) has become populist and Trumpist, while the far-right populist Vox party has become a major role. They routinely question government and political institutions’ legitimacy.

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