What has gone wrong for Podemos?

Things move fast in Spanish politics nowadays. So fast that pollsters are having trouble keeping pace with the mood of the electorate. N...

Things move fast in Spanish politics nowadays. So fast that pollsters are having trouble keeping pace with the mood of the electorate. Not long ago, the world was fascinated with the spectacular race to the top of the new anti-austerity, anti-corruption party Podemos, which became a political force in a matter of months. But if that’s the last you heard about Spanish politics, then you need to catch up.

Podemos is still riding high in the polls, but its progress has been stalled by allegations of corruption, and there’s a new party of the moment, Ciudadanos (Citizens), which is also rising spectacularly.

In fact, the latest polls show four parties – the conservative People’s party, the Socialists, Podemos and Ciudadanos – practically tied for the first position in the next general election. So what has gone wrong for Podemos?

It is often said that Podemos was the brainchild of the 2011 Indignados movement, the forerunner of Occupy. Actually, it was more the result of that movement’s failure, when some of its leaders realised that street protests alone, for all their media impact, had litte effect on government policy.

For the Indignados, party politics and political marketing was taboo; for Podemos it became the holy grail, the key to their project.

First, it embraced all the tested mechanisms of persuasion: a clever use of ambiguity, political marketing and the creation, to some degree, of a personality cult around Pablo Iglesias, its young and charismatic leader. But then it shifted focus from its initial goals – anti-austerity, moderate anti-capitalism, equality – to the sexier issue of political corruption.

It worked like a dream. But the easy vote, the political version of the easy buck, has its downsides. By replacing its more ideological proposals with the issue of corruption, Podemos may have attracted a huge crowd, but it also set impossible standards of purity for itself.

It was only a matter of time before the media would find it at fault – and that’s what has happened. For weeks on end there has been a constant stream of stories about Podemos, from minor issues blown out of proportion – a party leader who didn’t meet the schedule required by his university grant – to more serious allegations of tax fraud and illegal funding by the government of Venezuela.

Podemos says it has been singled out for persecution by a hostile media – which is true – and that the allegations against its politicians have not been proven in court yet. But it have fallen into a pit that it dug itself. In the political climate that allowed the party to thrive, allegations are as good as verdicts.

Corruption has been demonised to such an extent that the public is no longer willing to differentiate between a minor tax infraction and the most serious criminal cases. That’s the danger of replacing the political discourse with a purely moralistic approach: politics allow for nuances and mistakes; morality doesn’t.

So enter Ciudadanos, yet another party presenting itself as fundamentally anti-corruption, and promising a new way of doing things. The indignation, the self-righteousness, the eloquent young leader, the appeal to the honest, non-ideological voter …

What is fascinating about Ciudadanos is that it has been artificially modelled as a mirror image of Podemos. Only, as with mirrors, left is right here.

Sensing the public mood, Ciudadanos tries to promote itself as “centre-left” but that is hardly convincing. Its leader started his political career in the conservative People’s party, and its economic programme is clearly liberal – embarrassingly, it has been endorsed by big business. But that doesn’t matter in the current political environment in Spain. What matters is whether you can project the image of the new versus the old.

This was Podemos’s success, and now it is working for Ciudadanos. The strongest force in Spanish politics used to be anger; now it is disillusionment, and constant change has become the way to deal with it. It would be ironic, though, if the anti-corruption agenda set in motion by anger at the banks ended up boosting a pro-business party.

Podemos can still recover. Ciudadanos, so far, appears to be making strides mostly among disaffected conservative voters, but the media is working hard to promote it as the “reasonable alternative to Podemos”. If they succeed, it will be a bittersweet vindication of the architects of Podemos. It will prove that you can swing votes if you put aside ideology and concentrate in the emotions of the electorate. Emotions indeed have no ideology. And that’s the problem.

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