One thing seems clear about party politics: where there is an issue of trust in politicians, the overall vote share of mainstream parties and voter turnout have consistently declined. See for instance Spain, Greece, or Italy, where the combined share of vote of the centre-left and centre-right has dropped to less than 60% from 84.5% in 2008. In France and the UK, the two-party model is quite obviously under threat. Instead where the trust issue is less severe, turnout and mainstream parties haven’t suffered as much (i.e. Sweden or Germany).
Often riding this wave of discontent with traditional politics, new parties are emerging strongly in several countries. In the UK membership of both UKIP and the Greens is growing, as is membership of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has literally swept Labour out of Scotland at the last election. In Italy the 5 Stars Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo won 25.6% of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies in 2013, more than any other single party. France is witnessing the unrelenting rise of the National Front.
These anti-establishment parties, both on the right and the left of the political spectrum, are mostly attracting protest votes. Where they’re able to develop and communicate genuinely alternative and credible narratives and can create collective identities around them, however, they might prove more sustainable and offer some lessons on renewing the political system. How open traditional parties are going to be to potential coalitions with these new parties might make the difference between their own renewal and their continuing decline.
I’m thinking of the SNP and how, for the referendum campaign, they managed to mobilise people across different generations and groups, including many that had not engaged with traditional politics before. And I’m thinking of Podemos, which, through very innovative engagement strategies, pocketed important electoral victories at the EU and, more recently, the local level.
There are no blueprints and these experiences are all the result of complex and place-specific socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances, but they certainly spark many reflections and questions about what democratic reform can look like.
Podemos is a particularly interesting case, as it represents a very modern synthesis between an emphasis on the leader – enhanced by effective use of media – and participatory ambitions. In 2011 widespread protests against austerity measures merged into the so-called 15-M movement (or the indignados). The fact that initially this movement found no electoral expression demonstrated the economic crisis was also a crisis of the existing Spanish left. Pablo Iglesias, a lecturer in political science, and the other founders of what would become Podemos were very aware of this vacuum. They had a very specific model for political communication: their television programme broadcast over the internet, La Tuerka [The Screw]. And La Tuerka became to be understood by them as a ‘party’.
Pablo Iglesias recently published a paper on New Left Review where he explains the evolution of Podemos.
People no longer engage politically through parties, we thought, but through the media. La Tuerka and our second programme, Fort Apache, were the ‘parties’ through which we would wage our political struggle on the most fundamental terrain of ideological production: television. La Tuerka became our preparatory school, teaching us how to intervene most effectively on mainstream television talk shows. It also trained us for the consultancy work in political communication that we developed, which in turn gave us experience in planning electoral campaigns and advising spokespeople and political leaders.
While parties from across the political spectrum dismissed their work, the founders of Podemos found instead a new opening within television debates, which in Spain, like in many other countries, have become “the major producers of arguments explicitly for popular use” and often shape the opinions heard in bars or workplaces. On these TV debates, Pablo Iglesias began to represent the ‘victims’ of the crisis, tapping into the narratives of the 15-M movement to form a new ‘us’ and a ‘them’ of their adversaries: the old elites. The “pony-tailed professor” became a new media phenomenon and his programme La Tuerka a reference-point for the socio-political discontent caused by the crisis.
The next step was to translate this narrative and Pablo Iglesias’ newfound popularity into a real political arm for the EU elections in May 2014. Although not many knew what Podemos was at that point, most did know of the pony-tailed professor talking against austerity, so much so that it was agreed to put the candidate’s picture on the ballot. A group of lecturers and researchers at the Complutense University of Madrid got together and started linking to a new generation of militants from student associations and other political and social organizations, as well as alternative cultural projects and the 15-M movement. This became the nucleus of the party, which soon grew through local “Circles” run by local groups and students.
The transition towards a political party happened through some key processes that would allow popular participation in the most important decisions. In November 2014 a Citizens’ Assembly established the skeletal structure of a political party and marked the conversion of Podemos “from a citizens’ movement with an electoral project into a political organization with leading bodies, internal systems of control, political and tactical guidelines and a clear goal of organizational efficiency”.
As it prepares for the Spanish general election in November 2015, Podemos claimed a significant win at the recent local elections last May. Through strategic alliances with parties on the left and various citizen movements, they won mayoral elections in Spain’s biggest cities, including Barcelona where their candidate, Ada Colau, is a former anti-eviction activist. This is pretty radical. In Madrid (which had long been governed by the Popular Party, the centre-right currently in government) the candidate of Podemos and the left coalition Ahora Madrid, the retired judge Manuela Carmena, will however need the support of the centre-left PSOE in order to become mayor. The decision of the PSOE is not clear yet, but it could influence future alliances in view of the forthcoming general elections in November, potentially forcing the PSOE into a process of change and renewal (or Podemos into a phase of unpalatable compromises?).
What seems different about Podemos is its capacity to link the most advanced sectors of civil society into a broader project of political change. The initial emphasis on the “pony-tailed leader” was diffused through a widespread process of local participation. In this respect Podemos seems to have more in common with the SNP and the way it worked with civil society for the referendum campaign. By contrast, in the Italian 5 Stars Movement the “leader” hijacked the process, never letting go of hierarchical (and opaque) decision-making processes. This inevitably has started to compromise the legitimacy of the movement with civil society and a big part of the electorate.
We’ll see how this all develops and how sustainable it will be, but for the time being these new parties – and their participatory models – have proved quite effective at challenging the status quo. Will traditional parties adapt and change or retreat?