Opinion & Analysis

What now for the Spanish left?

The future of Spain’s centre-left government depends in part on the success of parties to the left of the PSOE in the upcoming Spanish general election. Lasse Thomassen assesses how Yolanda Díaz’s new Sumar party can learn from the failures of Podemos.

In local elections on 28 May, the left gained a whopping 18% in the city of Huesca in Northern Spain. However, because the votes were split between four small parties – among them Podemos – the result was zero council seats. This is the kind of result that has strengthened calls for the parties to the left of the social-democratic PSOE to unite.

The matter is urgent as Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called a snap general election for 23 July. Sánchez has turned out to be a smooth political operator, sidestepping internal opposition within the PSOE and steering his coalition government with Unidas Podemos through the unsteady waters of the last three and a half years. The future of his government depends on whether the parties to the left of the PSOE have learned from the mistakes of Podemos.

The big question is if Podemos can reach an agreement with the new kid on the block: Sumar. Headed by the Minister of Employment, Yolanda Díaz, Sumar has quickly become the focal point for conversations about the future of the Spanish left. Sumar was only launched officially on 2 April this year, but is already scoring around 10% in opinion polls. Its official name is Movimiento Sumar, and the name is no coincidence. The word sumar means ‘to sum up’, and it has the connotation of joining.

Just like Podemos when they emerged in 2014, Díaz stresses that Sumar is not a traditional political party, but a movement that should bring together individual citizens, civil society organisations and existing parties. When she first launched the idea of Sumar last year, she went on a ‘listening tour’ around Spain, speaking to civil society organisations and picking up endorsements. Since the local elections, the old left Izquierda Unida, the Valencian Compromís and Íñigo Errejón’s Más País have all effectively joined Sumar. The problem is that, so far, Podemos has resisted joining for fear of being swallowed up in the process.

The failures of Podemos

Since its heyday in late 2015, Podemos has seen a steady decline in its voter support. It entered government with the PSOE in 2019 as a junior partner, and, while they have succeeded in pulling the government towards the left, governing has also taken its toll on the party, which has had to operate in a very hostile mediascape.

The only politician to emerge strengthened from Podemos’s time in government is Yolanda Díaz, and she was never part of Podemos. She came into government by way of Izquierda Unida, which had united with Podemos in the electoral alliance of Unidas Podemos. When Pablo Iglesias stepped down as leader of Podemos, he pointed to Díaz as his natural successor. Little did he know that Díaz had no intention of carrying forward the Podemos project.

From its inception, Podemos was meant to be an electoral machine to turn votes into seats, and seats into power to change laws. The founders of Podemos – including Pablo Iglesias – were transparent about using it as a vehicle to rupture the political landscape. There was a lot of talk about ‘circles’ of sympathisers and members that would generate ideas and policy from the bottom up. Podemos was never meant to become a traditional party.

Since then, Podemos leaders have become attached to their Podemos identity. Podemos leaders have come to identify with Podemos as a brand that functions, above all, as the ‘true’ defender of the left. This is clear from the way their leaders and Pablo Iglesias talk about Podemos and resist being incorporated into Sumar. Ironically, it was just the kind of reaction among many in Izquierda Unida when Podemos arrived on the scene: they, too, defended their party as something that had to be defended in its own right and that represented the ‘true’ voice of the left.

The attachment to Podemos as an identity has gone hand in hand with a gradual detachment of Podemos from civil society. When Podemos first emerged, they did so on the back of waves of social protest, most importantly the 2011 Indignados movement and the many ‘tides’ of protests against cuts in education, health care and so on. But gradually the links between Podemos and civil society organisations have become fewer and the result is that Podemos has become closed around itself.

Empty signifiers

To succeed, Sumar will have to avoid developing a similar attachment to its own brand and an accompanying detachment from civil society. So far, these appear to be the intentions behind the project, but, as we have seen, this was also the case with Podemos.

Sumar must also use an approach that Podemos was exceptionally adept at and that the right has since learned: they must produce ‘empty signifiers’. Podemos was inspired by, among other things, the late political theorist Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014), who argued that politics in general – and populism in particular – consisted of the production of empty signifiers. These empty signifiers are successful if they become points of positive or negative identification. The best example of this from Podemos is the term la casta as a way to draw a distinction between the establishment and the people, with Podemos on the side of the people.

Since then, Podemos has become far less populist, but Spanish politics has become much more populist. The far-right populist Vox party has become a key player, but more importantly the conservative Partido Popular (PP) has taken a populist turn and gone full Trumpist. They now regularly challenge the legitimacy of the government and of political institutions.

They have understood that producing empty signifiers is a successful political strategy. In the recent local elections, their answer to any question seemed to be either ‘ETA’ or ‘Bildu’ as a way to draw a line between good Spanish people and the coalition government, which relies on the backing of the Basque Bildu party. Another frequent signifier used by the right has been ‘Sanchismo’ to refer to everything that Pedro Sánchez may stand for. What that is remains opaque, but that is part of what makes it an effective empty signifier: it is a way to articulate hatred of Sánchez and to mobilise voters, and it works.

So far, Díaz has attempted to take the high ground and she remains the most popular Spanish politician. She talks policy and focuses on traditional core left causes such as employment, health care and pensions. The question is whether you can remain likeable if you want to win on a highly polarised – and ‘populist’ – political terrain. Perhaps there is an electoral space for a hopeful message about the future of Spain, articulated in opposition to the hate and pessimism of the current discourses of Vox and the PP. But it remains the case that the current political climate is shaped by the populism of the right – and Sumar’s message of hope may not be able to change this.

About the Author

Lasse Thomassen is a Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.

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