Podemos leaders battle for party’s soul in search of winning formula

Madrid Letter: Pablo Iglesias wants to steer party to hard left, but his deputy disagrees

 Pablo Iglesias: The Podemos leader has had a major falling out with his deputy, Íñigo Errejón, exposing rifts in the party. Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

Pablo Iglesias: The Podemos leader has had a major falling out with his deputy, Íñigo Errejón, exposing rifts in the party. Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

 

Taken a year ago, it’s become something of a famous photograph, symbolising Spain’s recent political upheaval: Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias stands next to his deputy, Íñigo Errejón, and they smile broadly, lapping up the applause from their supporters. The pony-tailed Iglesias has his fist raised in the air while the baby-faced Errejón makes a victory sign.

On January 15th, 2016, this was the scene in Spain’s congress at the start of the new legislature, as Podemos, with 69 deputies, entered a national political institution for the first time.

Amid all the uncertainty following the inconclusive electoral victory of conservative Mariano Rajoy a month earlier, the two-year-old Podemos appeared to be in an enviable position, and many were even betting on it being part of the next government.

Central to that success had been the relationship between Iglesias and Errejón, two leftist political scientists in their 30s who had carefully plotted Podemos’s rise. In public, the considered, analytical Errejón seemed the perfect foil to the fiery leader, a dynamic that was bolstered by a genuine friendship.

A year after its parliamentary début, Podemos stands on much rockier ground. It remains in opposition, the country’s third-largest force. Now a major split between Iglesias (38) and Errejón (33) threatens to destabilise the party and has left it uncertain of which part of the political spectrum to occupy.

“[The division] seems to be a question of deep political differences, although there may also be a personal dimension to it,” says José Fernández-Albertos, a political scientist and author of a book about Podemos.

“Errejón has seen an opportunity to appeal to a type of voter who supported the party back in 2014, when Podemos was leading national polls, but who has deserted them since.”

Overtly leftist

That willingness to reach out to moderate, floating Spaniards clashes with the view of Iglesias, who prefers a more aggressive, overtly leftist approach, which, as he puts it, “scares the shameless, the corrupt, those responsible for inequality and those who get rich on the back of the poor”.

The tensions have been simmering in earnest since June, when a rerun of the December election saw Podemos suffer losses after teaming up with the communist-led United Left. Errejón is known to have been unconvinced by that alliance, which chased away many centrist voters, but as chief campaign strategist he shouldered much of the blame for the disappointing election result.

Since then, the two men have maintained a very public, at times heated, debate over where they should lead the party, often via social media. During the festive period a twitter campaign, apparently organised by Iglesias supporters, targeted Errejón with the hashtag “InigoAsiNo (or “Not Like That Íñigo”).

Apparently stung by the criticism, Errejón appeared to hit back at the leader, saying: “The maturity of Podemos as a political force means that nobody is indispensable. And when I say nobody, I mean nobody.”

Away from the internet, Madrid has been a battleground for the two rival factions for several months, with Iglesias finally asserting his control there with the party’s recent election of his preferred candidate, Ramón Espinar.

This ongoing conflict has meant that Podemos has not been able to fully capitalise on the troubles plaguing the Socialist Party, which has had a caretaker leader since October. Nor has it been able to perform as cohesively as it would like against the new, minority government of conservative Rajoy.

Instead, the party seems to be holding its breath ahead of its second major national convention, in Madrid’s Vistalegre stadium in February, in the hope that over those three days it can hammer out its differences and rediscover the energy that made it a political phenomenon when it first emerged in February 2014.

Horizontal rules

On December 26th, a referendum was held among Podemos members to decide on voting rules ahead of that event. However, despite being an example of the horizontal democracy Podemos prides itself on, it only made the party’s division more apparent than ever. Iglesias’s proposed voting formula won, but with only by 2,400 votes more than that of his deputy, who came out of the contest emboldened.

As well as exposing rifts, the constant debates about strategy and the party’s internal mechanics have threatened to overshadow its policies, which focus on rolling back austerity, wealth redistribution and bolstering the welfare state.

“For some time we’ve been talking about ourselves, about Podemos, rather than what Podemos needs to do to improve people’s lives and that’s been a problem,” Miguel Urbán, a cofounder of the party and senior figure in its Madrid chapter, told The Irish Times.

“I hope Vistalegre will see us leave that phase behind.”

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