Luis Alegre Zahonero is one of the founders of Podemos, a political party in Spain that has transformed the Spanish political landscape since it formed in January 2014. He is also a professor of Philosophy at the Complutense University of Madrid. On the 23rd of August 2015 I met Luis in Madrid to talk about his party and changing politics throughout Europe.
Firstly, I want to ask you about the possibility that a party like Podemos could grow in the UK.
I think there are significant differences [between Spanish and UK politics]. To start with, the electoral system in the United Kingdom is complicated. But yes, I believe that the 20th Century way of doing politics is changing across Europe and all european political structures have had to reinvent themselves…I imagine the British ones too. So, in this sense, of course there is space for something. Like Podemos, I don’t know. But space has opened up and the reinvention of political structures seems obvious to me.
In the UK there is currently much debate about the Labour Party and who will be the new leader. Can the Labour Party reinvent itself or does the British political landscape require a completely new party?
I insist that I don’t know British political life very well and cannot comment more than that which I know of Spanish political life. But I imagine that the machinery of the Labour Party, with its synergies, syndications, its economic system…I believe they are very difficult structures to reinvent, however much they change the leadership for someone more left-wing. I think that, as I’ve said, solid machinery so linked and integrated in a system is very difficult to transform.
Podemos is a new political party in Spain, but it is true that its creation was not possible without ‘Izquierda Anticapitalista‘, right? So, does a new political formation like Podemos always require previous party machinery?
It is true that if you do not have a group with at least some political and organisational experience to begin with, it is very difficult to start up. But big machinery is not required for this. At the end of the day, great historic changes can be initiated by very few people. For example…I don’t know…the French Revolution was started by a few hundred people. It’s true that without a few hundred people, with political experience and initiative, it is very difficult to launch. But, although party machinery may be necessary, one can start a party with little. For example, with a group of friends, as we have done with this (referring to Podemos), pushing the right buttons…you can never know very well which are the right buttons to push…but through this it is possible to bring about political change in a country.
With regards to current events, and how they affect the political situation in a country, Podemos has benefited from time. For example, it formed just before the European elections of 2014 and several corruption cases at particular moments have contributed to the growth of Podemos. In a similar way, will the events that are happening at the moment in Greece harm Podemos?
Yes, the truth is that we will not benefit from all that is happening in Greece. The other things that you mentioned were calculated. In other words, we knew that corruption is a blight of this nation and that it is truly unsustainable, and placing that at the centre of our agenda and linking it to social culture and the cuts in social rights are part of the key to the hypothesis with which we launched. Launching before the European elections of 2014 wasn’t a coincidence either. We decided to form before the European elections to put ourselves in a good position with potential to grow.
With regards to Greece, it is obvious that it is harmful and that a great part of our opposition’s campaign here is to compare us to Greece. In fact, we have more or less reasonable suspicions that the level of strangulation and cruelty that Greece has suffered has a lot to do with giving a warning to other emerging forces, all the forces of change, throughout Europe. And I don’t think that this rigid approach by the Troika was aimed just at Greece, since a message has been sent to other emerging forces in Europe. And right now, of course, what has happened between Greece and the Troika, is something that will harm us. In fact, the keystone of the campaign against us is «Greece, Greece, Greece» and everything they say ends with «Greece».
If that’s the case, do Podemos need to avoid things such as having Twitter profile images embracing Tsipras and openly supporting Greece?
We are not going to do that. Podemos is a party of principles and we are always going to be that way. We will not hide our sympathy for parties that defend national sovereignty, that let their people decide, that respect democracy, that are more concerned with their citizens than their banks, and prioritizing these citizens above the European financial system. We have done this until now and will continue to do so.
We are friends and comrades even if some don’t like it. We fight for a democratic Europe. Syriza Podemos Venceremos! pic.twitter.com/Ndcm5DLetm
— Pablo Iglesias (@Pablo_Iglesias_) August 18, 2015
You mentioned emerging parties in Europe. Why has a new right-wing party not grown in Spain as UKIP have in the UK?
To start with, our resistance. I believe that our resistance is an antidote to extreme right proposals. Party systems and the political map are going to change throughout Europe. There will be some countries that find outlets on the left and others that find outlets on the right. I think that Podemos offered an antidote to extreme right proposals because, following the crisis of the old regime, a new force was required to piece the scattered parts together. The hatred of the political establishment, that is a completely transversal and shared hatred, can be achieved through a package of hatred towards the bankers and the revolving door or hatred towards immigrants as Frente Nacional have done in France. The group that wins the battle for hatred of the political establishment, has won the game. And this all depends on what the aforementioned outlet has been. I believe that in Spain we were also lucky to have 15M, which generated authentic social antibodies against fascism. This is one of the reasons for which there has not been an outlet to the right in Spain.
I am interested in the role of individuals in emerging political forces, especially in a party like Podemos that is known for its intelligent, popular leadership. How important are individuals to Podemos?
Absolutely decisive. This has to do with crisis of regime. When there is a regime crisis, a crisis of confidence in the institution, and citizens wish to articulate themselves in a new way, this cannot take place without a charismatic leadership that is socially approved. In situations of decomposition, of dissolution of confidence in institutions and reconstruction of a new system, in this moment of transition only a strong leadership is adequate. It is something that can be defined well by looking at Latin America, but generally, in all historic processes of transformation, there is a constant type of iron leader. And in the case of Spain, Pablo Iglesias represents this. And we are lucky here to have someone as charismatic as Pablo Iglesias and not Marine Le Pen.
With regards to this topic, the age of the Podemos founders has caught my attention. When one compares current British political leaders, that are generally over 50 years of age, to those of Podemos, that have an average of 35 years, the difference is obvious. Does the age of a political leader matter?
Yes. With regards to the general situation across Europe of older politicians, in Spain I believe there is a particular peculiarity. And it is that until now all the constitutional system has been concerned by those that played a part in the political leadership of the transition period. The strange thing about Spain is that, well, it’s normal that people grow old and die, but here in Spain the peculiarity is that they died all at once. The institution has been concerned with the transition generation and now that has ended. There is a very strong generational element of those under 40 that are claiming the right to be protagonists of political life in our country.
So, should there be a party of young leaders in the UK to bring about political change? Or is there no need for a party with young leadership?
Well, the truth is that I don’t know. It is not an absolutely essential requirement. I think that the movement that drives change is always, traditionally, fundamentally young. But the person that crystallizes and symbolises this process of change does not necessarily have to be so. For example, we have seen what has happened in the Town Hall of Madrid. In the Town Hall of Madrid it is obvious that the citizen movement, largely made up of young people, drove the change. But the person that crystallized the change in Madrid, Manuela Carmena, is a person over 70-years-old. The electorate of Podemos can be seen as the electorate of the future. In sociological terms, the young person’s vote tends to mark the pattern for what will come next. In the same way that the urban vote marks the pattern for what will happen in the rural vote…same with the vote of highly qualified individuals. So, you find that, the electorate of change is normally quite young, urban, highly qualified…and historically this has been the type of profile that accompanies the electorate of change.
Interesting. With regards to your role in Podemos, what have you done before and since Podemos was formed?
Pablo [Iglesias] and I have been friends for a long time and we decided at the end of 2013 to launch the party. I helped organize the congress of ‘Vista Alegre’ and managed organizational and ethical documents that we presented. From then, well, we started the campaign for the European elections. Now, as part of the leadership, I am busy more with the process of popular unity and I focus on things to do with the opening of Podemos for the incorporation of new actors, new profiles and the attempt to open Podemos so that everyone sees us as their own project and not as an already-closed project that does not allow the incorporation of external elements.
This opening that you talk about has been criticised as a lack of definition recently, right? For example, an article in El País the other day entitled ‘The Dilemma of Podemos‘ said that some people would like a more defined stance with regards to the Cataluña question.
That is something we have been accused of but is not true. Our stance is not undefined, it is just difficult to interpret. With regards to the Cataluña question our stance is absolutely clear. We recognize the right to decide about the organization of the State and all related matters, for example about the organization of the economy. We defend the right to decide in general, but nevertheless defend the possibility of living as Spaniards in a form of cohabitation with which everyone feels comfortable. We defend both things at the same time. We defend that political unities cannot be constructed against the will of the parties. And at the same time, we defend that it is possible to construct a unified project in which all parties can feel comfortable. In fact, I believe that right now Podemos, being one of the few parties that believe in the right for Cataluña to vote, are the only party capable of providing a true national project.
This is in contrast to the Partido Popular, whose strategy is truly unpatriotic. As the question of Catalan independence is still ongoing, the Partido Popular use it to generate ‘catalanophobia’ and get votes in the rest of Spain. The Partido Socialista has failed to bring about its vision of Spain. We believe we are the only party that right now seriously proposes an integrated and achievable project for the country.
I recently went to Ecuador. Whilst there, a lot of people told me that they are happy with public sector improvements and poverty reduction that have taken place since Rafael Correa came to power in 2007. However, a week ago, I read an article in The Guardian, that said there have been demonstrations in Ecuador, against which the government have used several violent measures to control [the Ambassador of Ecuador to the UK, Carlos Abad, has written a response to this article refuting its content since I conducted the interview]. Moreover, I’ve heard censorship of the press is a big problem there. Having watched the interview between Pablo Iglesias and Rafael Correa on Salvados, I couldn’t help but think that public relationships with controversial figures may be harmful to Podemos?
Perhaps. But Correa, for us, is a valiant leader. A leader that, above all, has defended the sovereignty of Ecuador and democratic solutions, as well as respected the right to decide by the Ecuadorian citizens and taken a stand against the financial sector. We consider that he has been a brave president, that has been capable of managing Ecuadorian debt well and rejecting illegitimate debt by investigating the accounts of the debt that his government was being charged to see if it made sense. It’s like if you’re in a restaurant and the bill seems exorbitant, the first thing you do is ask to see the receipt to check what they are charging you for and that they are not charging you anything they shouldn’t, right? Given the current structure of the world, I think this requires an extraordinary courage.
The problem with the press, and specific social movements, are more local issues that are quite complicated to analyze. The subject of the press is very complicated. It is in Spain as well as Latin America. The way in which big media companies are driven by economic interests that in turn have specific political interests are serious obstacles for the freedom of press and an obstacle for the free work of the staff. It is a very important matter. Journalists are not left to do their own work. If they try to inform as they would like to according to their personal and professional criteria, they get fired or are threatened to be fired. It seems absolutely intolerable to me. We want journalists to be custodians of fundamental rights that give them special protections, in the same way that no one can fire a judge if they don’t like their sentence, or no one can fire a professor if they don’t like the way in which they communicate.
To finish, before the General Elections in Spain I imagine there is a mountain of work to do. What will you be doing exactly?
Of course. We need to incorporate more people to the process of change and, from there, launch the electoral campaign. It is going to be an exhausting task, but when the machinery of the campaign starts working in your head, it gives you the energy to work hard. After September, we will enter into the key part of the campaign with the mentality that we will win.
Great. Thanks very much Luis. [Laughter]. Good luck with the electoral campaign and the hard work that you have ahead.
This interview has been translated into English from Spanish. For the original transcript, click here.