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Why is Podemos losing ground?

After topping voter intention polls, the party is falling behind and scrambling to redefine itself

Why is Podemos losing ground?

So far this year, Podemos has lost nearly 10 points on voter intention surveys. Its best moment was January, when voting intention was close to 25 percent and everything suggested a scenario similar to Italy in 2013, with three blocs balancing each other out (the left, the right and the anti-establishment groups).

But the outlook right now is very different. An average of survey results shows that voter support for Podemos has dropped to approximately 15%, and in recent surveys it has even been bested by Ciudadanos. Therefore, it seems increasingly unlikely that the majority parties will be surpassed by the newcomers, and everything instead indicates a future of coalitions.

But why is Podemos sagging in the surveys? Why did its rhetoric about “the people” versus “the political caste” lose steam? There are two main reasons that help understand it: the makeup of its potential voter base and the 2015 election calendar.

Podemos broke new ground in Spain by cracking the long-held predominance of the country’s two main parties, the PP and PSOE

The first reason involves the difficulty of keeping together a very heterogeneous coalition of people who are angry at traditional parties but whose ideology ranges from the center to the extreme left.

As José Fernández-Albertos wrote in Los votantes de Podemos (or, Podemos’s voters), this party originally managed to project itself as a chameleon of sorts: very diverse voters saw it as the closest to their own ideology, and they projected onto it many of their hopes for change. But it was inevitable that contradictions should start arising as the project began to take shape.

Despite Podemos’s efforts to remain ambiguous for as long as possible, its rivals have been especially interested in pushing it to the far corner of the ideological left. The Popular Party (PP) used fear to mobilize its own voters, while the Socialist Party (PSOE) – the great loser in the rise of Podemos – had an interest in branding it as extreme left in order to stem the drain of Socialist voters.

Above and beyond the party’s own communication strategy, its members’ personal biographies or the mistakes made by leader Pablo Iglesias, this structural weakness has been fully exploited by Podemos’s rivals.

Meanwhile, the other newcomer party, Ciudadanos, has recently capitalized on the pool of more moderate voters who plan to support neither the PP nor the PSOE. It is no coincidence that the rise in voter intention for Albert Rivera’s party runs nearly parallel with the drop in voting intention for Podemos by the less leftist of its potential voters.

The second reason has to do with the 2015 political calendar, which included municipal and regional elections on May 24. This vote represented an early test for Podemos’s strength and structure, and placed the party in the quandary of having to choose sides to form governments.

Unfortunately for Podemos, it failed to come in second in any of the Spanish regions, and was forced to choose between supporting the PSOE to enable Socialist governments, or doing nothing and letting the PP continue in power thanks to its small majorities.

Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos.
Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos.

Wherever possible, Podemos facilitated change, but at the price of reinforcing the left-right paradigm, with Podemos falling squarely on one side of the political spectrum.

By supporting the Socialists, Podemos’s talk about “the caste” – meant as all politicians in power, whether from the left or the right – lost all its credibility. The expression has all but disappeared from the public debate.

Podemos’s greatest success has come at the local level, where it ran as part of broader leftist coalitions that reached power in major cities such as Madrid and Barcelona. Yet even this success is only relative, as mayors Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau have both made a point of keeping their distance from Podemos on several occasions.

Adding to all this are the party’s poor results at the Catalan elections of September 27, which were exceptionally polarized. The bad showing has lowered morale among Podemos members, while Ciudadanos’ excellent results – it came in second after the nationalist coalition Junts pel Si – seem to have given this party wings. This is because Catalonia was being viewed as a test case for the general election coming up on December 20.

Despite Podemos’s efforts to remain ambiguous for as long as possible, its rivals have been especially interested in pushing it to the far corner of the ideological left

Podemos broke new ground in Spain by cracking the long-held predominance of the country’s two main parties, the PP and PSOE. Following its remarkable results at the 2014 European elections, Podemos opened a breach in Spanish politics that let through other newcomers to the national arena, such as Ciudadanos, which also introduced itself as an alternative to traditional cronyism in politics.

Although Podemos has dropped from first spot in voter intention to third or fourth, there is still time to improve its prospects before December 20 comes around, due to high voter volatility.

Podemos’s new strategy will likely seek a balance between its claim that it is necessary for change, and the risk of becoming a sidekick to the PSOE, a problem that has traditionally affected the United Left.

Its strong point lies in insisting that the left will only govern for the next four years if Podemos wins enough votes to form a strong parliamentary majority with the Socialists.

But the sooner it redefines its own position, the earlier it will be able to deliver an effective message. It doesn’t have a lot of time, and its rivals have a clear lead.

Pablo Simón teaches political science at Madrid’s Carlos III University and is the publisher for the Politikon collective.

English version by Susana Urra.