Articulating Radical-left Populism and Social Movements: The Podemos Case

Political Parties
Political Theory
Social Movements
Southern Europe
Laura Chazel
Sciences Po Grenoble
Laura Chazel
Sciences Po Grenoble
Guillermo Fernández Vázquez
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

The Spanish political party Podemos was born in January 2014 in a country deeply marked by the Great recession (2007-09) and by the 15-M movement (2011).  The founding members of Podemos regularly repeat that the « the 15-M movement existed without Podemos but Podemos couldn't have existed without the 15-M ».  The aim of this work is to show how a political and economic crisis, followed by a social movement, creates a breeding ground for the birth of a radical-left populism. A left-wing populism can find its roots in a social movement by articulating its claims, expectations and protests. Podemos can be considered as the result of a synergy between a social movement and a political party, and, therefore, appears as a textbook case.

The party was created by a dozen of  political sciences professors from the University Complutense of Madrid. They saw in the crisis and in this social movement a « window of opportunity » allowing the creation of a new political force. The main goal of this new force was to « turn outrage into political change » (« convertir la indignación en cambio político »). Noting the failure of the left and the rise of far-right parties all over the European continent, the founding members decided to reject the left/right axis and to mobilize a new opposition, which finds its origins in the 15-M movement : the people (« el pueblo ») against the elite (« la casta »).  This strategic fracture was mainly inspired by three authors : Antonio Gramsci, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (and, more generally, the Essex School). Leaning on their concepts, theories and insights, the founding members began with the ambition to create a radical-left populism.

Our main question is: Did the leaders of Podemos really manage, by leaning on the work of the authors above-mentioned, to aggregate the heterogeneity of the claims of the 15-M ?  In other words, is this new political identity the result of the aggregation of social claims born from the Great Recession or is it the result of another logic ?  To answer to those questions, qualitative methods will be used. Firstly, by analyzing the theoretical production of the leaders of Podemos which shows how they tried to create an hegemonic force. Secondly, discursive analyses of the election campaigns will be made.

The Podemos case presents several interests. Firstly, as Kriesi and Pappas showed, the combination of a political and an economic crisis, intensifies populist phenomena (Kriesi, Pappas, 2016). The Spanish case, which was not studied by those two authors, brings an additional empirical support to the assumption of the authors. Secondly, the founding members of Podemos are in line with the recent analyses using the work of Gramsci as a tool to understand new social movements and how to transform « subaltern subjects » in « political subjects » (Ciavolella, 2015). Lastly, the Podemos case shows the tensions that can exist between the strict logic of a political party and the horizontal logic of a social movement.
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