Storming Heaven and Consensus: Podemos’s Citizen Assembly

This is a translation of an article by Olga Rodríguez, published 21st October in eldiario.es, on last weekend’s Citizen Assembly held by Podemos.

asamblea

Podemos: an unprecedented process
By Olga Rodríguez

Podemos uses the first person plural, not the third. It is not Pueden [‘they can’]; it is Podemos [‘we can’] and this entails the will to include as many people as possible, to get the contribution of many citizens.

In the grouping’s Citizen Assembly, celebrated this past weekend in Vistalegre, one could see many faces from inside and out. There were activists from social movements, people from the 15M, workers and unemployed, young people, older people and children. Some attended already convinced that the grouping is the vital tool for transforming the country. Others went along to be convinced, or simply out of curiosity.

I attended as a journalist to observe the atmosphere, the debates, the challenges and the arguments in the course of the two days. There were moments of tension, both on and off the stage. Logically enough: there is a great deal at stake.

That is how MEP Teresa Rodríguez put it in an informal conversation with the press: “If there is tension it’s because the weight of responsibility we have is enormous. If there were no debate this would be a dead initiative.”

In the aisles, politics lecturer Ariel Jerez, from Pablo Iglesias’s group, said “this is a school for democracy with critical pedagogy”.

Onstage there were contributions that received no applause, there was whistling when speakers went beyond their time even when it was just a few seconds, there was a lot of applause, and there was the now famous call for silence by Pablo Iglesias. 72 hours after the end of the assembly, let me highlight a few characteristics:

1.- Neither the assembly nor the whole process Podemos has been following over the past months to define its ethical, political and organisational lines is limited to those who are most active. That is, the grouping’s structure is not made solely for the activists, but for popular participation. It is open and it allows for different levels of commitment. Thousands of people attended the assembly in Vistalegre, but tens of thousands more followed it live via streaming, more than 38,000 voted on the resolutions and many took part by sending questions and deliberations via internet.

All of this breaks with the political logic that had existed until now. More than 150,000 people have already signed up to vote on Podemos’s proposals throughout this week.

Resolutions

2.- It is an open door process. Citizens can find out in detail what it is that each group is proposing and they have listened live to the discussion of the different proposals, with moments of tension and with criticisms. Let’s admit it: compared to the secrecy and the closing of ranks that is the norm under the two-party system, this is something new. It is the will of a grouping that wants to promote a collective debate.

3.- The process includes many people who come from social movements. One of the most interesting moments of the assembly was the presentation of the five most-voted resolutions. The promoters of these resolutions rose to the stage and we were able to listen to teachers, economists, lawyers, doctors and professional experts defending the need for quality public health and education systems, the right to housing, urgent anti-corruption measures and debt restructuring.

Among others who spoke were the economist Bibiana Medialdea, doctors Mónica García and Juan Antonio Palacios, specialist in Psychiatry, Public Health and Preventive Medicine, as well as members of the Mortgage Holders’ Platform [PAH] Irene Montero, Carlos Huerga and the lawyer Rafa Mayoral.

4.- The tense side of things: there are differences between the various proposals. Pablo Iglesias used a sporting simile to say that when a basketball game cannot be won you can “bring every player on, give everyone a go”, but when it can be won “we cannot make a wrong move, nor miss a three-pointer”.

He said this in clear reference to the ‘Sumando Podemos’ [Together We Can] proposal, driven by Pablo Echenique and supported among others by the MEPs Teresa Rodríguez and Lola Sánchez. This proposal calls for 20% of the roles on the Citizen Council to be decided by lottery, for the Citizen Assembly to be elected every two years and that instead of a General Secretary for there to be three spokespersons.

Iglesias and his team on the other hand call for a General Secretary, a Citizen Assembly elected every three years, and they believe that election by lottery would hamper effectiveness. Those who criticise them say that democracy would be lost, and they respond by underlining the importance of the timelines: municipal and regional elections in a matter of months and a year for the general elections. They hold that a situation of political and economic emergency, with elections just around the corner and adversaries who have the advantage, requires a leadership with emergency dynamics that guarantee victories.

The group supporting the ‘Sumando Podemos’ initiative appeals to “consensus”, whereas Pablo Iglesias opened the assembly with the phrase “heaven is not seized through consensus, but by storming it”, and stressed that if his proposal did not win, he would stand aside. He does not wish either to lead or contend with organisational models he does not agree with.

During break times from the assembly, in the aisles, coffee in hand, certain people held that to win hegemony internally there ought to be different methods used than the dialectic of confrontation applied outward. This has continued to be discussed on social networks since.

Barring the odd exception, the discussions are being handled with great political responsibility. What is striking is the preoccupation of certain sectors outside, interested in maintaining the status quo, who these days have unsuccessfully sought to discredit what is an unprecedented political process that is attractive to many people.

On the 26th the voting on the proposals inside Podemos will end, on the 27th the result will be known and in November the candidates will be chosen. Then the most urgent matter can be addressed: the battle against those responsible for the political and financial robbery, the struggle to recover the spaces robbed from the citizens. There is a great deal at stake.

Heaven is occupied and controlled by investment funds, by tax havens, by corrupt figures, by those who bail out banks whilst throwing people out of their homes. Freedoms and rights do not just come along: they have to be won. And, as history shows, heaven is not handed over as a gift: it has to be seized.

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