Why Podemos’ populism isn’t fighting cartelization (not even within the same party?

Ana Vidal González


“The mass party is dead”. The nietzschean sentence by Katz and Mair in 2009[1] was contested by a new-born Podemos in 2014 whose first words were: “a bottom-up candidacy”[2][3]. Notwithstanding, as its electoral success grew on its internal structure and functioning became increasingly cartelized and as such is unlikely to help fighting cartelization on the party system as a whole[4].

As state financiation and regulation become more and more  important  to  mainstream parties, and taking into account parties are not only ‘objects’ but also ‘subjects’ of the national  decrees that affect them,  the  locus of decision-making and access to resources moves inside the  party from the members to parliamentary leaders or, in terms of Katz and Mair, from the party on    the ground (POG) to the party on pubic office (PPO)[5]. Noting as well that public officers do have personal organizational and career interests, these will become gradually identified with the interests of the party as a whole, enhancing PPO’s cartel-like actions in order to limit competition within the party as to secure their privileged position. How does this relate to the populist upheaval? Cartelization hinders all democratic logic: it breaches the agents’ representativeness, main source of democratic legitimacy, distancing politicians from their role as mere spokespeople of the citizenry before the institutions[6]. As a reaction, the populist movement is born pleading for a more direct democracy both at system and individual party level (in other terms, a higher resemblance between the principal – the people – and the agents – public officers). And how does Podemos fit within this phenomena? Aiming at being the institutionalized inheritors of 15M movement, they brought these same claims to Spanish public debate. Nonetheless, as they won the assault to public office (consolidated  with  the  obtention  of  71  seats  at  the  Congress  during  the  GE2016) and therefore became  part  of  the  ‘governing  parties’[7]  we can  appreciate  how  their  intra-party  democracy mechanisms only disguised an enlarged power of the PPO.

There are three key indicators that denote internal cartelization, and  which  are  tightly  related to the threats it faces – mainly pressure from within (POG and PCO) towards the holders of public office. Hence, the PPO will try to reduce dependency on the other two faces of party organization as well as undermining their power of influence on the decision-making process.

  1. Financiation: a decreased dependency on members’ periodical donations in favour of public financiation denotes this movement of access-to-resources locus that ignites cartelization. The ‘public-origin income category’ comprehends both state subventions and contributions from institutional groups (i.e. regional legislative assemblies). In the case of Podemos,  to  state financiation we must add financial dependency on the compulsory transferences all Podemos public office holders must widen the party bill with and which are equal to their salary minus three times   the Spanish interprofessional minimum wage. Although this would fit under ‘private-origin income’  it indicates the influence the PPO



As we can very clearly appreciate in the graph, Podemos follows a logically expected evolution: as    it gains seats in Parliament, the State – according to the organic Law 5/1985[9] – grants the party increased subventions; and more public office holders also means more income from them. Accordingly, the party evolves from a private membership based financiation to one that heavily  relies on both state subventions plus contributions from institutional groups and contributions from  the PPO.

2. Faux intra-party democratization: in order to undermine activists’ power (POG), decision-making procedures as primaries and congresses are opened to a larger spectrum of society (for instance, all supporters or marginally committed members) instead to depend only on involved membership or militants. As stated in May’s special law of curvilinear disparity[10], floating voters or supporters are not so emotionally invested in the party or have such strong ideological convictions   as middle-elites who volunteer their free-time to political activism and therefore, as Katz and Mair also point out they have a greater tendency to be attracted towards the leaders rather than to the specific political program and as such be more complying with them. In the case of the lilac party, registration is completely free and gives access to all the benefits of full membership such  as attending national Congresses – Vistalegre 1 and 2 – and voting for the ballots to lead the party[11], expectedly with the aforementioned result: PPO enlarges its power sphere  crippling  that  of  the POG.

3. Campaigning methodology: as the welfare state consolidates we assist to a generalized rise in living standards with a consequent dulling of socioeconomic cleavages, all of which gives  birth to an increasingly homogeneous society. With party identification and membership rates falling (known as partisan dealignment) the importance of electoral campaigns increases[12]. For instance, analyzing data related to the 25M European elections we find that 60℅ of Podemos voters made their choice during campaign or the same electoral day[13]. Paired with the welfare state mass media is also born and – due to ‘cognitive mobilization’[14] – become the most effective way of seeking, in Downs’ terms, the “median voter”[15]. For parties, this means the necessity to turn to professionalized communication experts as the way to remain competitive. As such, campaigning is centralized: instead of remaining as a competence of the PCO and relying on the volunteering of the POG (with partisan loyalty as the basis), the PPO remplaces that loyalty-based campaign by “the cash nexus of  an employment contract”[16] for, at least, counseling tasks. Podemos campaign-related expenditure in 2014 dedicated 2% of the total budget to ‘professional political counseling services’, while in 2016 this sum raised to a 12.8%[17], evidencing the decreasing reliance on POG and PCO for campaigning purposes.

The lilac circle is aimed at symbolizing the disruption of traditional hierarchical party organizations and the strengthening the weakened tie of parties with civil society and, more specifically, with its membership. But as its electoral success and the expectations of holding public office in the foreseeable future grew, this circle turned into a pyramidal shape and an internal cartelization process began. Cross and Blais analyzed how intra-party  democracy  generalizes  in party systems through a strong contagion effect within the same[18] – if we could expect the same to happen with decartelization, after analyzing Podemos’ evolution we discern they won’t be the spark  to start this as they’ve entered the same cartel-like internal organization. The mass party is dead, the mass party remains dead.



[1] Katz, Richard and Mair, Peter, 2009, “The Cartel Party Thesis: A Restatement”, Perspectives on Politics, 7(4), 753-766.

[2] Monedero, Juan Carlos et alii., 2014, Mover ficha: convertir la indignación en cambio político. Available at: <http://tratarde.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Manifiesto-Mover-Ficha-enero-de-2014.pdf>.

[3] In 1951, Duverger (1951, Les Parties Politiques. Paris: Collins) had  defined  party  organization  as  essentially a product of social forces, being cadre parties the result of limited suffrage while  the  universalization  of  the  same in the 19th century gave birth to ‘mass-membership’ parties that represented  those previously excluded (this is thus the foundational moment of most leftist/workers parties). As time goes  by – from the 70s onwards – parties abandon their grassroot-oriented character and  become  institutionally-driven as they relied on state financiation and competition regulation to a greater extent due to diverse exogenous and endogenous changes to the party system and the electorate. This was inferred by Katz and  Mair  (1995,  “Changing  Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: the Emergence of the   Cartel Party”. In Party Politics 1: 5-28) from a set of data gathered from eleven Western European countries plus the US since the 60s and entitled ‘the cartel party thesis’: “political parties increasingly function like cartels, employing the resources of the state to limit potential competition and ensure their own electoral success”.

[4] Note that Katz and Mair distinguish between these two dimensions of cartelization: the“party cartel as a system-level characteristic” and and individual level – “cartel  party  as  a type analogous to the mass or the cadre party” – referring to how each party internally organizes (Katz and Mair, 2009, op. cit.).

[5] Challenges to the notion of a political party as an unitary actor began in the 80s with, for example, Dalton (“The  Comparative Study of Parties and Party Systems: An Overview” in Hans Daalder and Peter Mair,     1983, Western European Party Systems. London: Sage) or Laver and  Schofield  (1990,  Multiparty Government: The Politics of Coalition in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press). Then, most divisions simply differentiated between members and leaders, with sometimes the inclusion of ‘intermediate leaders’. Katz and Mair (“The Evolution of Party Organizations in Europe: The Three Faces of Party Organization”, in 1993 The American Review of Politics, Vol. 14, 593-617) elaborate a classification that aims to overcome this imperfect  dichotomy by making a distinction between the ‘party on the ground’ (members), the ‘party on  public office’ (parliamentarians or government) and the ‘party on central office’ (internal organizational leadership).

[6] E. Schattschneider: “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties”. A more detailed explanation on how party system is harming democracy in Schattschneider, 1941, Party Government. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

[7] ‘Governing parties’ refers to “all parties that have a reasonable expectation that they might be included in a national governing coalition or in a significant (defined jointly by number, size, and range of competences) of subnational governments within the reasonably foreseeable future” (Katz and Mair, 2009, op.cit.).

[8] Graph:         private                       elaboration                from                                 data                       source: https://transparencia.podemos.info/cuentas-claras/partido/gastos. Numbers indicate percentage of total budget.

[9] Art. 127. BOE-A-1985-11672.

[10] For this, he distinguishes between party elites  (full-time  professionals), middle-elites (loyal party voters, party members and regional or local party leaders) and non-elites of floating (occasional) voters. May, John, 1973, “Opinion  Structure  of  Political Parties: the Special Law of curvilinear disparity” In Political Studies,  21: 135–151.

[11] We could identify this as de facto ‘open primaries’. The practice is uncommon even amongst other pro-intra-party democracy parties. The Labour Party, for instance, establishes a 25-pound donation condition. More information on different primary procedures, focused on the UK, can be found in: Agnès Alexandre-Collier and Avril, Emanuelle, 2017, “The Use of Primaries in the UK Conservative and Labour Parties: Formal Rules and Ideological Changes”. Paper for the ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops 2017. Available at <https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/29186df0-d562-4c25-8161-a49b6fc1008f.pdf>.

[12] Consequences  of  partisan dealignment are studied in depth in Dalton, Russell and Wattenberg, Martin,  2002, Parties Without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies, Oxford Scholarship Online; and include voters waiting longer to make their choice due to the nonexistence of party identification shortcuts and more split voting when possible.

[13] Simón, Pablo, 2014, “Diseccionando la campaña electoral del 25M”. In Politikon.

[14] Societal change as a result of changes in media and formal education (Inglehart, Ronald, 1990, Culture Shift  in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[15] Downs’ spatial model of party competition argues in a two-party system political parties acting as rational individuals will seek to maximize their votes by appealing to the ‘median voter’: the one that  divides  population into two halfs. (Downs, Anthony, 1958, An Economic Theory of Democracy. In The American Economic Review, Vol. 48, No. 3, 437-440). Even if Spanish actual party system is not a bipartisan one, political parties still act rationally seeking to enlarge their electorate by appealing to those in the frontier of the same.

[16] Katz, Richard and Mair, Peter, 2009, op. cit.

[17] https://transparencia.podemos.info/cuentas-claras/elecciones.

[18] Blais, André and Cross, Williams, 2011, “Who selects the party leaders?”. In SAGE Journals, Volume: 18 issue: 2, page(s): 127-15.