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Published 22 May 2015
Pablo Iglesias and Tariq Ali discuss the upcoming Spanish elections and the tasks and challenges Podemos faces.

Tariq Ali: Today we are in Madrid talking to Pablo Iglesias, the central leader of Podemos, an organization which has grown amazingly over the last four years. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, are two central organizations which arose out of the crisis in 2008 when all the mainstream parties in Europe effectively capitulated to the system and its needs. Pablo welcome.

Pablo Iglesias: Thank you very much.

Very happy to be with you. Let's just talk about what has been achieved over the last four years. Because the image in the head of most people of Podemos is the origins, the indignados, the occupied squares, the feeling of hope that arose that something could be different, something could change. We’re now four years from into that process. How do you feel, how do you think its gone? What has been achieved and what is yet to be achieved?

We have achieved many things. We've contributed to changing the Spanish political map. We can say that we have made irreversible changes. Nothing will ever be the same again. I remember four years ago, when the 15-M [protest movement] surprised us. We were even surprised here, in La Tuerka. At that time there was a lot of frustration, because the Arab Spring was taking place and we had the feeling that nothing was happening here. And then, the 15-M arrived - which first of all surprised the left. The left had nothing to do with the democratic explosion 15-M. And, so we used La Tuerka to start to reflect upon what was happening. We already had this Gramscian idea that 15-M was an indicator that there was a regime crisis, an organic crisis, and the main social expression of this was the Indignados movement. But, this didn’t have an immediate political translation. In the next elections, the right was tremendously successful, as was the Socialist Party. But with the ingredients of a new politics – ingredients that were about democracy and this enormous frustration with the economic and political elites, the possibility arose to do something politically. If the 15-M movement was the best social expression of that organic crisis, Podemos was the best political expression. This is why, in a certain way, we are so different from the old left because we are using new ingredients to understand that there is now a possibility for political change. Many things have already changed. Other political leaders have started to roll up their sleeves, take off their ties. They talk about primary elections. They talk about regeneration. But, we want to try to win the election.

But of course we have experienced some of this before in South America where you had the exact combination in different circumstances of large social movements against neoliberalism, against water privatization in Bolivia, against the IMF in Venezuela, etc. And these mass social movements triggered off political formations which won the elections. So to what extent were you, as a person, inspired by the events taking place in South America which were being attacked non-stop in the mainstream press in Europe?

For us, Latin America has been a fundamental reference. In fact, we had worked in some Latin American countries, in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. And, in a certain way, for us Latin America represented a laboratory where we could extract lots of experiences. In a way, we thought that there was a ‘Latin-Americanization’ of Southern Europe. But, we were also aware that there were many differences. There was a state crisis in Latin America, so its power was greatly weakened. This wasn't happening in Europe, and didn’t happen. Here, the states are very strong. The media have a much more stable relationship with the established powers. And, there are electoral systems which are not presidential. So even by winning elections, the possibility of transformation is very limited. And this means that we have to be very careful. We’re seeing this in Greece which, in the framework of the EU, has very little room for state action. This means that the possibility for change is small. And this creates a tension with social movements, which is contradictory and complicated, but at the same time invaluable for us. Because these social movements allow us to go further, politically, in our demands. Some of our key policies exist because social movements put them on the table. I’m thinking of the movements against evictions in Spain, for example, or the movements defending education and public health. At the same time, we're very aware that the possibilities in Europe are probably smaller than in Latin America.

The other thing is that in Spain in particular as you yourself have written, you've had an enormous amount of coverage on mainstream television. They invited you to talk shows, you intervene, you debated the right, you debated the so-called left of the right, PSOE people and all that, which helped establish, your presence in particular as a political leader. Now what I'm thinking is that as the elections near, both regional elections and then the elections at the end of the year in Spain, the honeymoon period you have enjoyed with the mainstream media in Spain might be closing in and they might turn on you quite viciously. In South America it was always like that, here I think you took them by surprise. But now they are learning. So without that presence, what is going to happen?

Something that we learned in Latin America was the importance of leadership. And for us, leadership is built by the media. We believe that the media is the real terrain of the ideological battle, more than any other medium. What teaches people how to think? What teaches people the names of things? What teaches people political arguments? It is television. Initially, we had this person with a pony-tail on television debating. I wasn't the first, but other social leaders did get quite a bit of prestige because they were in the media, like Ada Colau in Barcelona, for example. It's true that after we built a political project from the top, that was based on a media personality, we were kind of fencing with the media. They were always hostile but we worked many hours to learn how to deal with this hostility. After the European elections, for a few months, our adversaries were very clumsy, they didn't take us seriously and we were quite comfortable in the media. This changed and now it is becoming more and more difficult; there is more hostility towards us in the media. But now they can't avoid us anymore; they can’t silence us. We know that we're fighting with one hand tied behind our back and that it's going to be more difficult for us than the other players, but these are the rules of the game. The media really define reality. The proof of how much importance we give to this is that we haven’t stopped doing television ourselves. We kept doing La Tuerka. We do a show in HispanTV called Fort Apache, which is not related to Podemos but, to a certain extent, expresses this feeling of ours that, if you don't communicate, and if you don't win the battle with the media, then you don't exist politically.

I understand that, but the point I'm making is that it was easier in South America because the Casta, the oligarchy parties, more or less collapsed, so there was the real insurgency. Whereas here, and in Greece that's happened to a certain extent, but in Spain we are seeing now after the regional elections in Andalusia that the opinion polls are showing 20, 20, 20 percent for PP, PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos. How do you explain that?

Pablo Iglesias: In Spain, the process has not taken place in the same way as in Greece where Syriza was clearly the alternative. Here, the parties, the traditional parties, the old parties, the dynastic parties, have weathered the storm a little bit better. Not just the People's Party but also the Socialist Party. Ciudadanos is another player that has something to say. That makes things more difficult for us. We would have preferred a scenario of dichotomy, where we're the opposition against the People's Party. But the situation in Spain is different to that of Greece. The economic crisis in Greece was much more devastating. In other words, the weakness of the state and the forces in power in Greece were greater. First of all in Spain they saw what happened in Greece, which was very important because they were able to maintain the status quo. This makes the game more complicated for us. But the situation continues to be very open and we'll see what happens in the general elections.

Also, whether you like it or not, you are linked to Greece in some ways and given the problems that Syriza is facing, soon they will have to make a choice. And many, as their own militants are saying the choice is either to surrender to the EU or to break from the Eurozone, you know, to renounce the debt because it's a very critical situation. And here in Spain I'm sure the right are saying, look what Syriza is doing, if you go for Podemos the same thing will happen. So if Syriza is defeated it will have a bad impact in the whole of Europe and especially on the insurgent movements.

Undoubtedly. If the Greek government does poorly, it's not going to be good for us. Although, I think, that it would not be definitive. What is happening in other countries has a limited influence. So, it could have an effect on pundits, on important newspapers and on certain elites, but, I think that the people in Spain are not voting with an international awareness of what is happening in Europe. It's also true that we have been a problem for Syriza. When we spoke with our comrades they said to us, “Yes, the growth of Podemos means that we are a danger to Europe.” They were dealing with the situation of being Greece, a small country representing only two percent of the Eurozone, which has public debt with other European countries and international institutions. There could have been a solution in neo-Keynesian terms for Greece. But ever since a political force like Podemos arose in the fourth [largest] economy in the Eurozone, then things became very serious. And, there are now reasons to attack Syriza in order to hurt Podemos. But that's what politics is all about and, adversaries play the game as well. I think the Greek government is doing a good job. I think that the level of social support that they have among the Greek people is even greater than within the party itself. There are less criticisms of the government from the Greek public, than from the political group itself. I think that this situation could work. Syriza, with great difficulties, is achieving its program and is reaching agreements; agreements which are difficult to reach and which are conflicting. But, I don’t see the outcome as either failing in the Euro Group or leaving the euro. I think they will be able to surf this situation and see what's happening in other European countries. I also think that paradoxically we, Syriza and ourselves, are playing the role that the social democracy left. We saw this in the UK. The Scottish National Party really beat the Labour Party by criticizing austerity and criticizing cuts, which are related to the failure of the “third way” policies of Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens. We can occupy a space where Europe can still be saved if it’s linked to prosperity and social rights. And, we've said something that the Greeks have said as well, “If we aren’t the alternative, it might soon be the case that Merkel will have to negotiate in the Euro group with Marine Le Pen;” and that would be an absolute terrifying scenario for Europe.

For the European elite its not a question of money. The money is small fry, it will solve the problem tomorrow. What they want is to crush this experiment and they want to show the rest of Europe, that is what happens to you if you try and take us on. So Greece ... that is a huge political conflict. It's obvious that what was going on was a huge attempt by the entire European elite to destabilize. So its important, what you do and how do, and if you accept everything that the Europeans say.

I agree, the situation in the Greek government is very complicated. I think that the referendum could be strategically correct, but I think we're at a crossroads where we have to hold out because, in a way, the European social democratic family is at a point where it could disappear. I think that Hollande is having a very difficult time in France. I think that the situation of Miliband and the Labour Party in the UK is also very difficult, even if it is not really comparable to other European countries. The Socialist Party here had to copy our discourse. Sometimes we laugh when we see their interventions because they talk about privileged elite, they talk about the people at the bottom, they talk about correcting austerity plans and so forth. I think we are changing the European political scene and we're moving towards those two models. So, whilst it’s true that the European elites are going to take action, they're going to try to buy time. But, I think that the political opposition space in Europe is being taken over by us. [Italian Prime Minister] Renzi rectified: he was able to incorporate the defense of social rights and criticism of austerity into his government, even if it was more rhetoric than reality. But assuming that we're redefining the field. And in the beginning, he had a soft and sympathetic attitude versus Tsipras. So even if we think in terms of the next few weeks, the situation is very difficult for the Greek government. I don't think that anything will ever be the same in Europe. And if we're able to hold out, we'll find that this coalition between Social Democrats and Conservatives will break-down and there really will be a real democratic alternative in Europe.

In Spain, this situation is historical. The Basque, Catalonia in particular, Galizia even to a certain extent, were crushed, were tortured, there are still 8,000 Basques in prison still today. And in Catalonia we have seen a huge emergence of a national movement. The question of civic nationalism, of self-determination, or Catalan control of Catalan space arises. Where do you stand on that?

We said something which is very hard for us to say, especially coming from where we come from. And that is that the transition process in Spain was a success from a social point of view with one exception: the national issue. What was not resolved was the national issue: mostly in the Basque Country and in Catalonia. And to a lesser degree, as you pointed out, in Galicia. Here, we say that we are in favor of the right to decide. And, I also believe in the right to self-determination. But, I don't want Catalonia or the Basque Country to leave Spain. But they have to decide this. However, we also say that this is only possible, legally, by opening a constituent process in the whole of the state. And it is in this constituent process that everything has to be discussed. Also with the possible independence of Catalonia, we would like to say that our priority is different. We are sovereigntists, but we think that sovereignty is about public services, that the importance of a hospital or a school is not so much the flag that it flies but rather if these are quality public services. Just like in the UK, I think that there should be different national sports teams for the Basque Country and Catalonia and that the player could choose. If a football player in Catalonia feels more comfortable wearing the Spanish colors over those of Catalan, he should be able to decide. We are democratic. We liked the referendum in Scotland. They held the referendum and that was fine. But that is not our priority. And we believe that if we govern in Spain, there will be fewer Catalans and Basques that want to leave because in our view no one has produced such a feeling of independence in the Basque Country and Catalonia as the Spanish right and the conservative Partido Popular has caused.

And what about the Basques?

The Basque Country is a little bit more complicated because they went through the political violence of ETA. We believe that it is very good news that ETA has removed itself from the political scene and terrorism is no longer a key element of Spanish politics. There was tremendous consensus in Spain around the anti-terrorism policy which prevented a state-wide debate on the issue. But still, the National Basque Party, the most important party in the Basque Country, is a very conservative party. We, again, believe that within a constituent process we should put all of the different elements on the table. But I think that in the Basque Country, over the last several years, there has not been a sovereign movement as important as in Catalonia because it's still very important to close the wounds of political violence. And, there has to be a certain period of normalization. This normalization is related to what is happening in the Basque Country but also, in our opinion, it involves state responsibility by the Spanish government that should be translated in penitentiary policies.

How is democracy within Podemos, how does it work, how should it work? People are being critical of the leadership for having dissolved the circles, saying we need a constituent assembly, we should meet maybe once, twice a year to discuss issues. What's your opinion on that?

At the assembly that we had in the autumn, we designed a one year plan. And an immense majority of the organization was behind this, a vision which focused on the general election and with an understanding that 2015 could be the year of change. And, I think that we have achieved many things. It's good that the debate is open, that there is criticism. It's also good that there are circles [local assemblies] which are telling us “be careful.” “Be careful of the contradictions that power involves.” But there is a very broad consensus about how I’m doing things as the General Secretary and how our political management is performing. That's not to say that we can't do things better and that criticism isn't extremely important. But I do believe that we have the support of the majority of the people.

How do you view the existence, development of Ciudadanos? Because its a clever operation which has been mounted, one can't deny it. And yet even as we speak, you read in El Pais and other Spanish papers that they're negotiating with the PP – can we reach some sort of arrangement? So its not a big secret. This is a group – or some of its leaders – have emerged from within the PP, and thats the need they will serve, like Potami. Potami in Greece, that's a very similar operation. That one failed by the way, this one appears to be more successful.

Yes, very much more than Potami, which shows that when the Spanish elite start working together, that they do it very well. The president of Sabadell Bank, this was some months ago, made a statement saying that we need a Podemos on the right. And, I think that Ciudadanos has filled that role well. This should make us respect the ability of our adversary to play this game of chess. It’s true that Albert Rivera and many of its leaders come from Partido Popular, that they had previous connections with the extreme right, and that their economic manifesto was very similar to that of the Popular Party. So, they’re reinventing themselves on the right, and have done it very well. So, we have to recognize that when we change the political scene, our adversaries are also playing and they have new players. In this case, Ciudadanos have a very intelligent leader, who's a very good political communicator. They know how to move into a space that we opened up and that has to do with the way the different [political] positions are moved, not only on the right but also at a social level. We believed that we were only going to have two political adversaries, but it seems like we now have three.

After the European elections and the big rise of Podemos, Felipe Gonzalez came out of the grave and said that perhaps what we need in Spain is a national coalition of PSOE and the PP. Was this serious, or was he flying a kite?

It's very serious. It’s connected to the main regime institutions in Spain which are the El Pais newspaper and the PRISA Group. It seems very strange, but since ‘78 the Spanish regime has had more to do with PSOE and the PRISA Group than it has with the right or the politicians that came from the dictatorship. If one wants to know what the establishment really wants, you have to read the editorials of El Pais newspaper, because El Pais took over the whole political center in Spain. Ironically, they became the organic intellectuals in Spain at that time. I remember an editorial entitled “the urgency to make agreements” from 2012, long before the beginning of Podemos, in which they discussed this major coalition to stop the emergence of new political players. It was a large coalition like in Germany, the European Parliament or like the one in Greece. And Felipe Gonzalez followed this logic, which is a regime mentality. But this mentality is in contradiction with ‘party’ mentality, which also affects the Socialist Party. I have to admit that I would like this to happen because if there was a major coalition between PP and PSOE, then the Socialist Party would really start to fold, and we would be much more comfortable with this dichotomization. But, there are sectors in the Socialist Party that are not willing to sacrifice their party for this regime logic. Felipe Gonzalez obviously does.

How do you think the elections are going to turn out?

It is a huge challenge. It's going to be very important to look at those final numbers. It's not an ideal scenario for us. The ideal scenario for us would be the general elections. But, we do think that there could be pleasant surprises. We believe Ada Colau could become mayor of Barcelona as could Manuela Carmena in Madrid. We could lead a new majority in the region of Madrid as well and also in other places like in Asturias or in Valencia, or even in Aragon. I think that these regional elections are going to show that the Socialist Party and the Popular Party with the worst results in their history, are not going to be the only pillars of Spanish political life any more. Yet the main battle, the crucial moment, is going to be the general elections. In the general elections, many different things could happen. But even if we don't win the general election, it's clear that there will be an irreversible change. We will have a bright future, but it will be a different future. We'll be a consolidated political force with government officials, with a stable presidency in the parliament. We will no longer be outsiders. Right now we are outsiders. We’re like the barbarians who are arriving but who now have an opportunity. If this window of opportunity closes and we are the opposition, the politics will always be there and we'll always have a future, but that will be a future with different characteristics. And, I don’t know whether or not I will have such a relevant role in that future.


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