This is a translation of an article on Podemos by Isaac Rosa, published 26th May 2014 in eldiario.es. You may also be interested in the translation of the initial Podemos manifesto here, some of my own notes from January here, and a translated interview with one of its initiators here.
A Tale of Two Posters
Now that we all, experts and amateurs, are jumping to interpret the success of Podemos (and how clearly some can discern their core values in hindsight), I remembered the election posters in my neighbourhood. Those of IU[i] and Podemos, which you see in the photo above.
The majority of them appeared like this, alongside each other on the same wall. The potential left voter in my neighbourhood encountered them side by side, and could compare them. Elections are a lot like the market, and it’s good to be able to see the two items in the same glance. I don’t know if Podemos activists did it deliberately, but wherever there was an IU poster they posted one of their own. And the contrast between both images is clear to see, and it says a lot about the differences between both formations.
What does a voter see in them? Let’s take a voter whom we shall call ‘indignado’, so as we know who we are talking about. More or less on the left, who at times has voted IU, other times perhaps PSOE when the PP had to be thrown out of government. They go down the street and encounter these two posters. What do both images say to them?
They are like day and night. Or rather: yesterday and today. Or yesterday and tomorrow.
On one side, Willy Meyer, who has been in active politics for decades, he has been a councillor, a deputy and has been ten years in the European Parliament. A man who belongs to the party, which the everyday voter identifies as the ‘apparatus’. On the other side, Pablo Iglesias, young, an activist but at a remove from party-based apparatuses, who has never stepped on a carpet and gives voice to an anti-political class (“the caste”) discourse that is widespread among a public who, though it might seem unfair, sees Meyer as part of the same “caste”.
On one side, Willy Meyer, a politician with an indelible past and who has no doubt done a good job in Europe, but who has neither charisma nor much ability to communicate. On the other, Pablo Iglesias, who is not a creature of television as we might think, but someone who has studied in depth the importance of communication in politics, and has given great thought to every gesture and word that he makes or says in front of a camera.
If we keep looking at the posters, alongside Meyer appears Paloma López: a trade unionist, with a long history of roles in Comisiones Obreras, a trade union with a long and worthy record defending the working class, but which today gets a very poor rating from many workers: some who are disappointed by an institutional trade unionism and social partnership, others because they have bought into the anti-union discourse. With López, IU was saying it wanted to connect with workers, but her trade union links are a turn-off for more than a few.
On the other side, alongside Pablo Iglesias there are not one but four candidates: only one of them has a known record, and for the good: the former magistrate Jiménez Villarejo, who merits prestige and esteem on account of his denunciations of corruption. The other three are people from the street, like any of us, totally at a remove from “the caste”, and that is how they are presented in the same poster: Teresa Rodríguez, “Public primary school teacher”; Lola Sánchez, “Unemployed autonomous”[ii], Pablo Echenique, “Scientist at CSIC[iii]”. They were elected in primaries, but anyone might say that they came from the casting couch, since they could hardly be more representative of “ordinary people”[iv] versus “the caste”.
Yes, I said primaries. Though certain people did not lend so much importance to the matter, we need to recognise that they are a plus for many voters: the open primaries of Podemos, compared to the refusal of IU (often with somewhat colourful agruments), which moreover was unable to defend its method of picking candidates, including internal rows, which gave voters the feeling of more of the same: another sign of “the old politics”.
I will leave it there, I’m not going to get into matters of aesthetics, because besides they jump out at you: the image of dynamism, youth, closeness in the Podemos group photo, taken outside, against the rigidness and formality of the Meyer-López couple, a studio photo that could pass for the portrait of a couple celebrating their silver wedding anniversary while on a cruise. Once again the new and the old, yesterday and today (or tomorrow).
It is only two posters, but we could do the same analysis if we were to compare the communications strategies of one and the other, their public speeches, their campaign events, their work in networks, their brand image… The work of the Podemos team is brilliant, and Pablo Iglesias is right when he says that it will be the object of study in the future for political scientists and communications experts. One has to recognise all the work done by their main thinkers, Juan Carlos Monedero, Carolina Bescansa, Ariel Jerez, Iglesias himself, all led by the invaluable Iñigo Errejon.
The discourse built by Iglesias and his people deserves to be studied. All that which some of us left voters rejected (the displacing of the left-right axis towards a them-us key, the caste vs ordinary people (la gente); the appeal to common sense, the absence of markers of identity recognisable on the left, the continuous mention of patriotism…), we now recognise that it works. That does not mean we are going to like it, to me at least it still does not appeal, but I recognise that they knew what they were doing.
Given the awesome effectiveness of their strategy, this effectiveness amplified in contrast with its main competitor in the sector of voters it was addressing. The communications greyness of IU, its ongoing lack of flexibility when it came to adapting to new forms of political action (which we may like to a greater or lesser extent, but it is obvious that they work), made the discourse and image of Podemos all the more potent.
Podemos has not directly attacked IU, it has not sought out its weakness. It was enough for it to build a discourse that was exactly the reverse of all that citizens identified as failures of the political system: primaries against apparatus, transparency against corruption, crowdfunding against bank credits, the street versus closed off events, the open circle against the grouping of affiliates…in this game of opposites, IU was unable to locate its space properly, whereas Podemos traced it with a clear red line.
Obviously the secret of their success is not just image, communication or social networks. Nor is it their media visibility in TV debates or a digital outlet such as Público, despite their importance. It goes without saying that nor is it explained by the programme, which in practice is no different from that of IU. And not even the rapid growth of its activism in circles, which is more an effect than a cause.
So? What else is there apart from posters, communications intelligence, savvy discourse, social networks and mass meetings? Above all, voters. Many voters. Hundreds of thosands of voters who had been waiting for years without a party to vote for, who were tired of “the old politcs” (a bag into which fell all those present in the institutions, however unfair the generalisation might be), and who did not want to abstain because they were more politicised than ever. The enormous citizen repoliticisation of these years of citizen protest could not find an option once the moment to vote arrived. Obviously it was not the PSOE, shackled to the sinking regime, but nor was it IU, engulfed by the expansive wave of citizen rejection of the political class, also perceived as one more piece of the system, part of the problem rather than the solution. As well as many voters, left-wing or not, who would never vote for an IU that they still identify with the Spanish Communist Party.
And you, why did you vote for Podemos?
I asked those around me, by way of a survey that has no sociological value, but which to me says a lot about this IU-Podemos relation. I ask people who voted Podemos on Sunday, and these are some of their motives. Among them there is a bit of everything, former voters of IU and the PSOE:
“For a change, to vote differently”
“For the possibility of binding together a broad left vote that couldn’t be recognised with what already exists”
“Because on Sunday I got up saying “I am not going to vote because this is a load of shit”, and I want to stop believing it is impossible”
“Because to me they have a flavour of the people[v], citizen organisation, grassroots”.
“Because I trust that they will fight for an end to evictions, cuts and unemployment”
“Because of the way they speak close to real problems, and far from the declarative confrontation between parties that shows contempt for the citizen”.
“Because I like the ideas that Pablo Iglesias transmits, and his concept of creating a party of the people”.
“I didn’t want to let pass the opportunity of voting for the spirit of the 15M”.
“For the opportunity of changing the political logic”
“Because they do politics in a different way”.
“Because they are a citizens’ party, transparent, without the radicality of IU, without corruption, and which has transformed the discourse of bourgeois and proletarians into citizens and caste”.
“Because it is the only party that defends the most basic rights”.
I suppose that if you ask around, you will find similar responses: being fed up, frustration, rejection of more of the same, and mad desire for change. And that desire has been gathered by Podemos with a mobilising discourse that had not been heard in these parts for a long time. Since ’82, perhaps, and it is no coincidence that Iglesias referred to the González victory in those elections and what they represented.
None of this was easy. Others have tried it before, without success. We should applaud the intelligence and the work of those who got something like this up and running in only four months. But without those voters who were waiting for it, it would not have been possible.
Let me finish by going back to the posters. Perhaps I am interpreting them in retrospect, but looking again at the photos, the slogan, the colours, I see in the IU one something of reluctance, of routine, whereas the Podemos one inspires desire, trust, ilusión[vi]. Ilusión, that word they have repeated so many times. I didn’t vote for them, but I understand why more than a million did. They believed that, as they have been repeating for months, it can be done. And they have done it.
[i] Izquierda Unida, ‘United Left’
[ii] In Spanish, ‘autónoma en paro’. ‘Autonomo/a’ normally translates as ‘self-employed’; a problematic enough term in English. The alternative translation of ‘Unemployed self-employed’ gains a great deal of absurdity in translation, perhaps deservedly, but the absurdity is not patent in the original.
[iii] Spanish National Research Council, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas
[iv] ‘La gente’ in the original. In the main, there are two translations of ‘people’ in Spanish. ‘La gente’, and ‘el pueblo’. The former is a more general term for people in the everyday, which I have translated as ‘ordinary people’ here, whereas the latter refers to a collective, with particular political connotations.
[v] ‘El pueblo’, see [iv] above.
[vi] Ilusión in this context has a different meaning to its cognate in English, ‘illusion’. In this context it refers to a sense of hope and excitement, not an image at odds with reality.