Originally published in Techpresident, this recent report by Carola Friedani details the unstoppable rise of Podemos and the participatory tools that have enabled it. We’re especially happy to see our friends at Loomio mentioned as one of Podemos’ go-to tools.
It has been called “a radical left sensation”; a “fledgling party” born out of the ashes of the Indignados (“the outraged”) or 15-M movement; and “the new-kid-on-the-block” whose success is yet another example of modern technopolitics or, as some experts have put it, “the power of the connected multitudes.”
Podemos (“We Can”), a new Spanish party established in March 2014, disrupted their nation’s political scene when it swept up five seats out of 54 and 1.2 million votes (8% of the total) in the European elections in May even though it was only 100-days-old. With 704,585 likes on Facebookand 321,000 followers on Twitter, it has more online fans than any other Spanish political party.
Founded by left-wing academics, and led by a 35-year-old political science lecturer, Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’ platform strongly advocates for anti-corruption and transparency measures, is supportive of participatory democracy and critical of the two main parties – the PP (the center-right People’s Party) and the PSOE (the Socialist Party) – as well as the government’s austerity measures. As Iglesias told the Guardian, Podemos is about “citizens doing politics.”
Iñigo Errejón, a researcher at the Complutense University of Madrid, and the coordinator of Podemos’ electoral campaign, tells techPresident, “The rise of Podemos is about their new way of reading and articulating widespread citizen discontent, which had previously surfaced within the 15-M movement.”
Podemos is considered an offshoot of 15-M, a tech-savvy group that from 2011 to 2012 protested against the country’s political inefficacy, high unemployment and other political and economic woes.According to Cristina Flesher Fominay, founder and co-chair of the Council for European Studies Social Movement and a professor at the University of Aberdeen, Podemos’ popularity was made possible in part by its roots in 15-M as well as the charismatic and media-savvy leadership of Iglesias and the party’s ability to mobilize the youth, unemployed and voters that tend to abstain.
The party’s success also came from deep changes to the way politics has been done, says Errejón, a combination of bold reforms and use of technology to make the decision-making process as inclusive and transparent as possible.
Compared to a standard campaign, which in Spain can cost more than 2 million euros per party, Podemos succeeded with hardly any money, initially raising 100,000 euros (US$133,650) through crowdfunding.
“Since the beginning, we believed that we needed to be financially independent from banks and corporations, and for this reason we asked for citizen funding,” Eric Labuske, 26, and Miguel Ardanuy, 23, who are members of Podemos, wrote in a joint e-mail to techPresident. “We have used crowdfunding for specific projects, such as building servers for our web platforms and materials for our political campaigns. We also use a monthly donation system to cover all our expenses.” Labuske coordinates citizen participation activities within the party and Ardanuy is part of a working group that is organizing Podemos’ Constituent Assembly (Asamblea Ciudadana) in October 2014 when members will debate and vote on proposals for an agenda, as well as the future trajectory of the party.
Not only is crowdfunding important in distancing themselves from the sway of corporate funding, according to Labuske and Ardanuy, it also enables citizens to get involved politically and, as a result, forces the party to be as transparent as possible. “As our funding depends on small donations from citizens, we have the obligation of being accountable and transparent, by publishing our accounts and balances online,” they explain. Podemos also documents its crowdsourcing process online.
Even now, crowdfunding is Podemos’ main source of funding, making up more than half of all its resources with the rest coming from regular donations. The party has collected more than 150,000 euros (US$200,450) since March 2014 through more than 10,000 funders.
Some of the money is used for specific projects; for example, when the PP accused Iglesias of associations with the Basque terrorist group, ETA, Podemos raised more than 16,000 euros(US$21,380) in three hours to defend themselves against libelous attacks.
Podemos also met their 23,000 euros (US$30,735) goal for organizing its Constituent Assembly. Any member can participate and anyone can become a member by filling out an online form.
Podemos’ lean crowdfunding model is also reflected in their bold reforms for public spending. It aims to set MEP salaries at 1,930 euros (US$2,580), or triple the national minimum wage, as opposed to the standard 8,000 euros (US$10,690) a month, and use the extra income towards building the party or towards a particular cause. Podemos also hopes to set a minimum guaranteed income and reform financial regulation.
Online voting and decision making
A large part of Podemos’ digital strategy is turning decision-making into an inclusive, citizen-driven process. It used an online platform, Agora Voting, to select their Euro-MPs during the primaries, attracting 33,000 voters who were verified through SMS. While those votes only account for 3 percent of their actual voter base, Podemos was the only party aside from Partido X, a 15-M spin-off founded over a year before them, that used open primaries, which allowed any voter regardless of party affiliation to throw in their support. Podemos also used Agora to select their executive coordination team, a group of 26 in charge of organizing the Constituent Party Assembly.
So far the platform has been used to vote directly for candidates, but in the long run Podemos may use some of the other voting models supported by the platform, such as liquid delegation. This form of voting allows a participant to delegate his or her vote to someone else they feel has more expertise, but the delegation can also be revoked. Agora also supports single transferable voting, a system that seeks to create proportional representation through the ranking of candidates in order of preference on a ballot.
Currently, Podemos is working on an even more ambitious project. LaboDemo (Laboratorio Democrático), a techno-political consulting and researching organization that is focused on how to use Internet tools to optimize democratic processes, began to collaborate with Podemos in June on testing new apps that would allow for instant mass polling.
“We started to test a number of tools after a national meeting of all the ‘Circulos’ on 14th June,” Yago Bermejo Abati, the coordinator of LaboDemo, tells techPresident. The ‘Circulos’ or Circles are local, offline places for citizen participation that are open to all, launched by Podemos in order to fulfil its ambition of being a real citizens’ party. The Circulos have been one of the key factors of Podemos’ success. Today there are around 800 Circles scattered throughout the country. During meetings, members discuss policy issues, such as debating the proposals that will be brought to Podemos’ National Party Assembly. They often use Titanpad, a tool that allows many people to edit one document. “That means that everyone can take part in the building of Podemos. This is democracy,”says a post on one of the local Circulos’ Facebook page.
Podemos also uses the Circulos as a place to test new apps. “Appgree was first tested at the national meeting,” says Bermejo Abati. Appgree is a mobile app that filters proposals by type and can quickly poll thousands of people simultaneously. More than 9,000 participated during the national Circulos meeting in June and more than 5,000 were on the app simultaneously. A number of questions were proposed, for example, like suggesting a collective tweet to the president of Spain.
“We think Appgree will be useful in the future to allow very fast feedback regarding proposals or polls,” explains Bermejo Abati.
Another online platform Podemos just began to use in order to maximise participation is Reddit. “We believe that everyone needs to be part of the construction of Podemos,” say Labuske and Ardanay. “And unlike the other political parties in Spain, we want to use [Reddit] to enforce democracy in our country. We think that transparency and direct contact between politicians and citizens are vital to reach the level of democracy we want.” After LaboDemo suggested it, Podemos decided to use Reddit’s “ask me anything” feature to enable the party’s political candidates to debate with citizens.
“We wanted to create a massive national debate. We have chosen Reddit as our platform and we call it Plaza Podemos,” adds Bermejo Abati.
Plaza Podemos received more than 80,000 unique visits and more than 400,000 page visits since its launch about one month ago. During this time the party also hosted four Reddit interviews with Podemos Euro-MPs Pablo Echenique, Lola Sànchez, Carlos Jiménez and Teresa Rodrìguez, each of them answering hundreds of questions posed by users.
“We conceive Plaza Podemos as a virtual square to deliberate, discuss and visualize all the issues that concern Podemos’ followers,” says Bermejo Abati. “Since these interviews are done directly by the people, they produce truly interesting questions. It is also a great way for the MPs to explain some of their actions in the European Parliament.” Plaza Podemos is also enabling the offline Circulos to connect to each other virtually.
Podemos intends to utilize Reddit to debate the ethical, political and organizational principles that are going to be voted on at their National Citizen Assembly in October. The Reddit debates provide a new way of interacting with a political party and Bermejo Abati believes it will develop into a “new kind of politics.”
Another participatory platform that Podemos is currently experimenting with is Loomio, a collaborative and open source decision-making platform that allows groups of people to discuss issues, propose actions, gauge group opinion and are given a set deadline to vote. It aims to encourage consensus-making rather than the polarization of an issue.
“After Podemos adopted our platform, several thousand Podemos folk have now started 396 groups within the last month,” Ben Knight, co-founder of Loomio, tells techPresident. Some of them are local groups, like Podemos Toledo. Others are thematic, like Podemos Economistas, which as its name suggests, debates the party’s economic policy. “[Loomio’s] user-base and total activity have almost doubled as a result,” adds Knight.
The problem with “e-democracy”
Despite Podemos’ success, it is not without its critics, especially those who pursue similar goals of using online participation to create a more inclusive democratic process.
“[The party] has been very efficient on social networks,” Simona Levi, a prominent former 15-M activist and a co-founder of Partido X, says to techPresident. “However it still hasn’t addressed some problems, such as the risk of clicktivism, of implementing a fallacious idea of participation.” She wonders how Podemos will prevent decisions being made primarily by those with the time to participate or whether people who vote online are really informed before they cast their ballot, especially when it comes to complicated policy issues like political or economic reform.
Levi explains that Partido X tried to address these problems with their own version of online political participation based on the idea that online participation by itself is not enough and that people don’t need to express an opinion on everything, especially if they are not informed enough.
“Our methodology seeks to go beyond clicktivism, introducing the idea of responsibility, competence and scalability in the participatory decision-making process,” she says. For instance, Partido X tried to implement a decision-making process based less on majority voting and more on consensus, less on opinion and more on expertise.
However noble Partido X’s attempt at creating a more meaningful platform for political engagement, it was less effective at communicating its vision to the public. While Partido X was often considered the main heir to 15-M, it was unable to win any seats in the last election while Podemos has become the fourth largest national political force and the third largest in many regions, including Madrid.
Podemos’ founders do realize its methods are far from perfect. “We are always looking to improve our participation systems and looking to find new ones,” say Labuske and Ardanuy. “Improving democracy is one of our main objectives, and we believe that technology is very important in reaching that goal.” And despite its flaws, Podemos is leading the way in online politics in Spain.
Carola Frediani is an Italian journalist and co-founder of the media agency, Effecinque.org. She writes on new technology, digital culture and hacking for a variety of Italian publications, including L’Espresso, Wired.it, Corriere della Sera, Sky.it. She is the author of Inside Anonymous: A Journey into the World of Cyberactivism.
Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident’s WeGov section.
Lead image: The Podemos banner asks, “When is the last time you voted with hope?” (Podemos Uvieu/flickr)