Spain’s Podemos licks its wounds on its fifth birthday
Infighting, policy clashes and Venezuelan crisis leave leftist party in near-chaos
Íñigo Errejón, former deputy leader of Podemos, and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias in October 2016. File photograph: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
In a recently released video, members of Podemos in different parts of Spain speak into a camera to proclaim the party’s presence across the country. “Podemos está aquí” (or “Podemos is here”), each participant says, the phrase repeated more than 100 times in the space of two minutes.
The video, which is part of a promotional strategy ahead of primaries for local elections in May, underlines the leftist party’s reliance on technology and down-to-earth slogans. But it can equally be seen as a sign of desperation for a force which, following a meteoric rise, has been thrown into near-chaos by ideological clashes and infighting, just as it celebrates its fifth anniversary.
With a snap general election looming on April 28th, followed by the May local ballots, many are wondering if Podemos will be able to compete as anything more than a shadow of its former self.
“The worst thing about this crisis is that it has happened just when we have the most genuine influence on politics to change things,” the party’s deputy leader, Irene Montero, told La Vanguardia newspaper.
The catalyst for the party’s current woes was the apparent departure of Íñigo Errejón, a co-founder of Podemos and formerly its deputy leader. In mid-January, he announced he would run in May’s election for president of the Madrid region on the Más Madrid ticket, alongside the capital’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, who will run for re-election. Podemos backed Carmena’s successful campaign in 2015, but Errejón’s decision appeared to surprise many of his colleagues.
“It’s a shame Íñigo has done this behind our backs and without consulting with anyone,” said Montero, who accused Errejón of “plotting a secret plan”.
Errejón has claimed Más Madrid is simply a platform, not a separate party, but the Podemos leadership does not agree. Days later, Ramón Espinar, the leader of the party in the Madrid region, resigned.
“When you have no margin to lead and you don’t share the path, you have to go,” he said.
Podemos was formed in early 2014, when a group of leftist academics at Madrid’s Complutense University decided to channel the anger of the “indignados” protest movement, which had sprung up in response to austerity and corruption. The new party was led by Pablo Iglesias, a ponytailed professor in his mid-30s with a gift for soundbites and public speaking. Errejón, whose boyish looks hid a formidable intellect, was his deputy and close friend.
In the 2014 EU elections, Podemos won five seats and within months was going toe-to-toe with the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists in national polls. In the 2015 general election, it came a close third, winning five million votes having connected with Spaniards who felt economically and politically marginalised.
But since then the party has suffered a series of setbacks, including poor electoral performances (most recently in Andalucía), the rise to prominence of the Ciudadanos party to its right, and some very public disputes over its political direction.
The most notorious of these clashes has been the falling-out between Iglesias and Errejón. Their longstanding conflict came to a head last April, when a leaked document drawn up by advisers to Carolina Bescansa, a senior party strategist, showed an apparent proposal for her to team up with Errejón and unseat Iglesias as leader.
“Often in the media it’s portrayed as a kind of soap opera: ‘The two friends who don’t like each other any more’,” Podemos MEP Miguel Urbán told The Irish Times. “But that’s not the real problem here. This isn’t about friendship, it’s about political differences.”
The disagreement between Iglesias and Errejón has widely been seen as reflecting two contrasting ideologies within Podemos: the leader’s unapologetically leftist stance and Errejón’s relative moderation. Urbán, however, says the real quandary is whether to be a party that agitates for change from outside the establishment, or to work within the system.
Podemos now appears to be on the inside of the system it once excoriated, even though many within the party remain uneasy about the fact
“Now, political majorities are built on the margins of the system and in confrontation with the system,” said Urbán, who advocates just such an “outsider” approach. “In countries like Greece the left has managed to capitalise on this.”
But, having established itself as a parliamentary force and propped up the Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez in recent months, Podemos now appears to be on the inside of the system it once excoriated, even though many within the party remain uneasy about the fact.
Last year, Iglesias and Montero, who are a couple, lived out that dilemma in a very personal way when party colleagues criticised them for buying a €660,000 house on the outskirts of Madrid. They eventually quelled the dissent by holding a referendum on their leadership, which they won. However, many felt that the image of disunity, which has long plagued the country’s left, had only been compounded.
“There’s always been a basic problem for the left, particularly in Spain,” says political scientist José Fernández-Albertos of the National Research Council (CSIC). “How do you make sure people turn out to vote, particularly those who aren’t very politically minded but who lean towards the left? And those voters tend to lose interest when they see a divided party.”
Several Podemos leaders have been awkwardly rowing back on the admiration they once declared for Nicolás Maduro’s government
The context of Spanish politics in recent years, particularly the Catalan dispute, has also hindered Podemos. Taking a moderate unionist stance that advocates dialogue and a negotiated referendum on independence for Catalonia, the party has struggled to make its voice heard above the polarised clamour surrounding the territorial debate.
Podemos’s existential problems have been given an international twist in recent weeks, as Venezuela has dominated the headlines. The Spanish party has had close links to the socialist regimes of the Andes – Errejón spent formative years in Bolivia, observing the government of Evo Morales, for example, and one of the party’s founders, Juan Carlos Monedero, was an adviser to Hugo Chávez. As the Venezuelan humanitarian situation has become a prominent domestic issue in Spain, several Podemos leaders have been awkwardly rowing back on the admiration they once declared for Nicolás Maduro’s government.
“Podemos’s early rhetoric placed it alongside these Latin American movements,” says Fernández-Albertos. “If we suddenly have a case whereby the most visible of them all turns out to be a disaster, then that will inevitably hurt [Podemos], more than it hurts other European leftist parties.”
A resurgent political right is seeking to keep the Venezuelan and Catalan issues centre stage, knowing how thorny they are for Spain’s left. These right-wing forces – the Popular Party (PP), Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox – are hoping to remove the Socialist, Podemos-backed central government in April’s election and extend their control of the country in May’s local elections.
Those electoral dates present Podemos with a major challenge. But, for now, the party’s most immediate task is to recover from its latest bout of infighting.