Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Tensions were very high on Friday, with Pablo Iglesias announcing that he would not only renounce the general secretary position if his team and thesis lost, but even his seat in the parliament. An “órdago” (a card move of the most famous Spanish card game Mus, like all-in in poker), to the membership, to make it clear that he would not only leave the party without full control of all its parts, but even abandon any public role in it.
The media have been toying with the idea of the break up of Podemos for the last two weeks; something that seemed a real possibility after a succession of different public appearances by key figures of the two main camps (‘Podemos for all’, lead by Iglesias, and ‘Restoring Hope’ lead by Errejon), delivering strong messages against each other. The tension lead Carolina Bescansa – second after Iglesias in the parliament – to abandon the executive team after trying unsuccessfully to build bridges between the two factions.
But the people changed all that. While people gathered in the Vistalegre stadium Saturday morning, more than ten thousand in number, the typical ‘Si se puede’ (Yes, it is possible”) was soon accompanied by Unidad! (Unity!). That set the tone for the rest of the assembly. Within the membership there was a sentiment of shame about the behaviour of the leadership, having debates on social media and the press that many considered better had face-to-face, and in particular in the assembly, the space designed to discuss political and strategic differences.
When I talked with people supporting the different camps there was a common ground; the voting system had not be the proper one. With members casting their vote online since 4 February, more than 100,000 were given before the assembly. This is remarkable, and the total number of 155,000 is an historical example of active internal democracy (casting votes was open until 8pm Saturday).
However this meant that debates at Vistalegre would have very little influence on the final result. As a consequence, the main competing teams used all their press and social media capacity to influence the membership, and the meeting in Vistalegre had the tone of a rally instead of debate. Looking back at our first assembly, all was open to play for (votes came afterwards), so speeches were vibrant, aiming to shift the opinion on the party.
The first speeches by Iglesias and Errejon were strong, with their fans demonstrating support (an open hand for Iglesias, the V sing of victory for Errejon) while remaining silent when the opponent was on stage. This divided show however was only prominent from the seats close to the stage reserved for the middle and high ranks of the party, while in the terraces of the stadium there was unanimous support to each speaker, showing how the members in general did not acknowledge the differences between projects as a reason to withdraw all support for the other side. It was in this atmosphere of general goodwill and unity above division that Urban made the public stand to remind everyone that:
“We are as big as our enemies and as small as our fears, the enemy is outside, not inside this assembly”.
He was accompanied by the Anti-capitalist and Podemos general secretary of Andalucía, Teresa Rodríguez: “Winning elections and obtaining power doesn’t mean anything if we don’t recover the life” and “Unidad rima con humildad” (Unity rhymes with humility). This would become the slogan of Iglesias when winning the general secretariat and a wide majority of the citizen’s council of Podemos after the results were announced on Sunday, which was made officially public two hours before planned because a leak to the press was going viral.
During the assembly, as in the weeks prior to it, (the “third” team, ‘Podemos in movement’, lead by Miguel Urban and Teresa Rodríguez, had the role of bringing calm and consensus to the two major camps. A good joke on Saturday night was that against all tradition, Trotskyists in Podemos were an agent of consensus. Many forget that the Anti-capitalist party lead by Urban was one of the key founding elements of Podemos, without its membership, the intellectuals of the university in Madrid would never have got far in the European elections campaign of 2014 that flung Podemos into the international arena.
Few thought that Iglesias and his team would lose against Errejon. His leadership was never in question, rather the political strategy that the party should follow. The results gave around 55% to Iglesias, 33% to Errejon and 11% to Urban, of the votes to elect political, organisational and ethical principles. Equality principles gave similar results but with the Iglesias and Urban teams presenting a joint document together; the only notable degree of consensus achieved between the three main camps. Other agreements were reached on policy raised by smaller factions, such as those with proposals on how to organise the almost ten thousand active Podemos supporters outside Spain.
However this practice of classifying and naming factions based on their leaders (all male again) doesn’t do justice to the committed work by tens of thousands of members. The format of the assembley gave space to them too. And their interventions inspired the auditorium. There were other groups such as ‘Podemos in a team’ made of grassroots members who presented political, organisational and ethical principles, as well as a group of women representing a long struggle of workers fired by Coca-Cola who called to boycott the company. Plus the taxi drivers Collective, were the first to name the dangers of TTIP opening the door to multinationals like Uber, that employ people here but pays taxes in tax heaven Delaware. Also noteworthy was another candidate running for general secretary, a lawyer from Seville advocating Democracy 4.0, a system that would allow any citizens to call his vote from his representative from parliament at will.
There was a strong presence of feminist proposals and discourse, remembering the tragic and ongoing killing of women by their partners. There were also various calls to reclaim the countryside, not only for ecological reasons.
Despite the victory of Iglesias’ team in the citizens council (a sort of federal committee of the party), with more than half of all seats, he will have less control than before. This is a positive development, since the voices that claimed more decentralisation will be very present.
The fear of a break up is by now dissipated, after the evidence of members’ willingness to avoid it and the leadership’s public commitment to unity.
All three of the main opposing groups will have a presence in the citizens council, but the positions of responsibility that Errejon and his people will hold remains to be seen.
The Circles (self organised party cells) are supposed to get more power, although their funding and functioning will still depend on the party leadership to implement changes.
Popular mobilisation and presence in the streets will be strengthened, as defended by the Iglesias and Urban campaigns. Whether this limits the party to a marginalised left position instead of being at a new popular center that can win the country’s support ( as claimed by Errejon) will depends largely on the relationship with the media and the Podemos messaging to come out of demonstrations and civil disobedience.
How to use the media is indeed one of the key lessons of this process. Many people at Podemos developed in a couple of years a huge capacity to appear in the media and set the political tone. This was a very important success of the first years of Podemos, showing the way to the historical left, who thought their ideas would win based on moral superiority alone, instead of having to go to TV sets to fight with corrosive journalists and sceptical news anchors.
However, problems arise when internal discussions are carried out on Twitter or at press conferences, drawing all sides into a public debate. This tension is hard to solve. Iglesias said on Friday that if elected again as general secretary he would make sure this no longer happens. In the twenty-first century, how to run a democratic organisation with multiple voices who are able to broadcast their message, while keeping a cohesive messaging strategy that wins elections is a new sort of challenge, but well worth to try.
Mainstream media likes to put a face to leadership, someone who will appear on TV and reveal exclusive information. The call in Vistalegre to humility might mark the way for a new form of politics less dependent on corporate media shows and more attached to human rhythms.