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After Podemos: Yolanda Díaz’s Post-Populist Project for Spain
Yolanda Díaz’s Sumar project promises to shake up the political landscape in Spain. Sumar breaks with the populism of Podemos, but it also takes advantage of how Podemos’s populism changed Spanish politics. This is why it is post-populist.
Last month, the Spanish Minster of Labour and Social Economy, Yolanda Díaz launched her new political project Sumar. The name means adding up, but also has the connotation of joining. The project promises to shake up the political landscape in Spain: not only is Yolanda Díaz the most senior Unidas Podemos member of the Spanish government, but when Pablo Iglesias stepped down from government and as leader of Podemos, he pointed to her as his natural successor. On top of that, Diaz has been the most popular politician in Spain for some time now.
Díaz’s project is different from that of Podemos. Most of all, she does not talk of an antagonistic frontier between the people and the establishment (la casta) in the way that Podemos has done. If Podemos were left populists, Sumar is a post-populist project.
When Podemos first emerged in 2014, their discourse was populist. Building on the 2011 Indignados movement, they spoke of an antagonism between the people and the establishment consisting of politicians, political parties, banks, and so on. Over the years, they became less and less populist. They became part of the institutions. They became part of local, regional and national governments. At the same time, the Right became more populist: the far-right Vox has surged to become the third or fourth largest party, and important parts of the big conservative party, Partido Popular, has become Trumpist. The promise of a new politics in 2011 (Indignados) and 2014 (Podemos) has largely disappeared.
Enter Yolanda Díaz. She was once a member of the Spanish Communist Party, and was part of Izquierda Unida, the party that joined Podemos to form the electoral alliance Unidas Podemos. This is how she became part of the current government.
So, what’s new? There are three things about Díaz’s Sumar project that is new compared to past and current versions of Podemos: (1) it is not an antagonistic form of politics; (2) it seeks to circumvent the existing political parties; and (3) it is transversal. This is why it is post-populist: it breaks with the populism of Podemos, but it also takes advantage of how Podemos’s populism changed Spanish politics.
(1) Díaz talks about how ordinary people are tired of the way politics is done in Spain. She wants less testosterone, and she always delivers her lines with a smile. The contrast with Pablo Iglesias is clear – and probably intended. When she talks about politics, she talks about it in pragmatic terms. Politics is about governing and about meeting the demands of the citizens rather than “playing politics.”
For instance, Díaz has argued that the Spanish fiscal system needs to be reformed. She justifies this with reference to “the real problems of contemporary society,” and it is supposed to be based in “science and pragmatism” as opposed to ideology. It is closer to a technocratic and social-democratic way of thinking than to Podemos’s antagonistic populism.
(2) What needs to be added up, and joined, are not parties, but citizens. The protagonists in the Sumar project are citizens, and Díaz channels a widespread disaffection with politicians and the political parties in Spain. This has incurred the wrath of Podemos, including Pablo Iglesias. They believe that they gave Díaz a platform when they appointed her minister and when Iglesias pointed to her as his successor in 2021. And now she says that they should, in effect, leave Podemos behind! The contrast with 2014 is ironic. Back then, the founders of Podemos created the party as an electoral machine in a very pragmatic fashion; now the party has become part of the identity of those still in the party. No doubt, this will be a major obstacle for Díaz to create a new and more inclusive political space with her Sumar project.
Instead of political parties, Díaz starts from citizens and civil society. Now that she is on a “listening tour” around Spain, they are the ones she is meeting with. Note also that Díaz does not talk about “the people” – she talks about adding up, or joining, citizens in order to create a new Spain. The terminology is significant, and it is distinct from that of Podemos.
But note also the central role of the leader. Often this defines populism, but it is really a trait of today’s mediatized politics. In the case of Sumar, it is difficult to imagine it without Díaz.
(3) Finally, the Sumar project is a transversal one. When Podemos emerged in 2014, they refused to be yet another party on the Left. They positioned themselves on the side of the people against the elites who included the old parties of the Left. They tried to be transversal. Later, they joined Izquierda Unida in an electoral coalition (Unidas Podemos) and joined the socialist party (PSOE) in a government coalition. They became a party of the Left.
Díaz wants to go back to the initial transversal strategy of Podemos, but with a twist. She does not talk about the people against the system, but of “citizens” and “persons,” And she talks about justice rather than capitalism, class and exploitation. It is not populist, but rather sounds like a catch-all party of the sort that the German Greens have become.
So, what can we expect from Sumar? Ironically, even as ordinary Spanish people have largely given up on political parties, Díaz will have to come to some sort of agreement with the existing parties on the Left. The negotiations among political parties on the Left prior to the Andalusian elections in June this year showed that this will be difficult: egos and party interests will have to step aside, and the process may well be painful to watch. In terms of rhetoric, expect Díaz to leave the populist rhetoric to the Right. In terms of politics, expect Sumar to try to make feminism and ecology central to political campaigning. And Podemos? This is likely the beginning of the end for Podemos as a political party; the progressive political landscape in Spain is in a flux.
Lasse Thomassen is Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.