A version of this article was published at Jacobin Magazine (10/02/17)
2016 was a challenging year for Podemos. Since its historic success in December 2015’s general election the party has had to deal with growing internal tensions, with leader Pablo Iglesias and his deputy Íñigo Errejón clashing over the party’s future direction.
For months these differences have played out in the national media but this weekend they will take party-political form at Podemos’s second national congress. The stakes are high: members will not only vote for a new national executive but also between competing strategy documents and on a new organizational model. Adding to this is Iglesias’s promise to resign as leader if his electoral list loses.
At the core of this dispute between the Pablistas and Errejonistas is the question of how Podemos, a party that traces its origins back to the indignados movement, should approach its new role as a force in the country’s political institutions. The divisions are particularly pointed on the subject of relations with the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE).
Errejón prioritizes “constructive” engagement in the hope of reaching out to a wider range of voters than their young, urban base. He views the party’s failure to achieve a sorpasso of PSOE in the second elections last June as proof that the idea of Podemos as an “iconoclastic party,” railing against the establishment, has reached its limit.
If the party is to grow, Errejón argues, it has to demonstrate that it can operate as an effective institutional force capable of “governing a different Spain.” As he put it: “the powerful already fear us — this is not the challenge. It is to seduce those who are suffering but don’t trust us.”
In contrast, Iglesias believes that the last year of political deadlock has revealed a Socialist leadership incapable of breaking from the “extreme center.”
Both are in agreement that Podemos should continue to be a “transversal” force, capable of appealing to a wide social spectrum, but Iglesias cautions against this becoming a rationale for Podemos to abandon its opposition to the Spanish regime.
Rather than turning Podemos into “respectable” parliamentary force, Iglesias keeps faith with its original populist hypothesis: that a radical force could come to occupy “the center of the political board,” redefining Spanish politics around a divide between the neoliberal agenda of the elites and the economic welfare of the rest of society.
“A political crisis is a moment for daring,” he said, “it is when a revolutionary is capable of looking people in the eye and telling them, ‘those people are your enemies.’”
Differences between the two leaders first flared in early 2016. December’s elections had swept away Spain’s old two-party system, with the combined vote of the Socialists and the conservative PP collapsing from 84 percent in 2008 to 41 percent seven years later.
Podemos’s post-electoral stance was that it would only accept a coalition agreement of the left. This would have included a firm break with austerity and the Spanish state’s subordination to EU budget rules as well as providing a form of popular consultation on Catalan independence.
However, faced with strong internal opposition, as well as explicit threats from his party’s corporate allies, then-Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez rejected the left option. After reaching a surprise coalition agreement with the smaller center-right party Ciudadanos, Sánchez insisted that negotiations with Podemos would be limited to a centrist pact.
As pressure mounted from the mainstream media for Podemos to find some agreement to end the ongoing political stasis, differences within the party’s leadership began to emerge.
Iglesias defended the party’s original line but Errejón emphasized the threat of blame being attributed to Podemos for the unprecedented political deadlock — he supported a more minimal agreement being reached to allow PSOE to govern alone but with Podemos’s support.
Iglesias rejected his deputy’s compromise, arguing that any accord for minority government would leave Podemos with little leverage. The party’s recent experience in Extremadura, where the Socialists sidelined Podemos and pushed through their proposals with the abstention of the Popular Party, was cited as an example.
Errejón and his allies, frustrated at Iglesias’s inflexibility, were infuriated at the antagonistic stance he took in the parliamentary debate on a PSOE government, particularly the reference to the Socialists’ links to state terrorism in the Basque country. This display, they argued, had allowed the media to present Iglesias as a demagogue uninterested in serious institutional engagement.
This protracted stand-off led to an open confrontation between the two wings of the leadership in mid-March, ending with Iglesias firing one of Errejón’s closest allies from the executive.
Podemos did manage to rally for the June elections. Despite his reservations, Errejón accepted Iglesias’s proposal to form an electoral pact with the Communist-led Izquierda Unida as a means to quickly turn around the party’s declining poll numbers. But when this failed to deliver the desired second-place finish, strategic tensions re-emerged.
Errejón views Iglesias’s recent turn to the left, with its confrontational stance towards PSOE and renewed focus on social resistance, as further alienating moderate voters.
His supporters fear that the party will become a “noisy minority” which forcefully opposes austerity but cannot actually earn the trust of the Spanish people to govern. He reminded Iglesias in a recent open letter that Podemos’s stated ambition since its foundation has been to win power.
It was also a project posited on a particular moment. With the political mainstream mired in corruption scandals and unable to offer a credible response to the social crisis, its initial cadre believed there was a historic opportunity to build a progressive electoral majority.
Its aim was to “bring together very different social sectors” around a set of “transversal” demands: the defense of social rights, the deepening of Spain’s uneven welfare state, and the need for democratic renewal.
In Errejón’s view this committed the party to a pragmatic strategy: navigating the narrow path between “conformism and marginality.” It involved putting forward a social agenda that could challenge the existing neoliberal consensus but which a majority of the population could also come to accept as both realistic and desirable right now.
If co-option within the system was one possible outcome for any new political movement, both Iglesias and Errejón saw the greater threat for the contemporary left as never being able to engage and mobilize ordinary people in significant numbers.
This was the thinking behind Podemos’s much-discussed move away from the traditional language of the radical left. Instead of talking in class terms, the party followed the indignados by framing their discourse around a series of populist oppositions: the defense of the people against the political class (la casta), of democracy against the oligarchy, and of the rights of the social majority against the privileged.
The idea was to turn electoral politics into a clear choice between a continuation of the old regime and a new, insurgent politics representing the spirit and energy of 15-M.
For Errejón the two general elections over the past year have largely vindicated this approach, even if the party fell short of victory. It is now the dominant progressive force among young and urban voters, drawing the support of struggling middle classes, unemployed graduates, and precarious younger workers.
However, it failed to challenge PSOE’s strength among older voters and those living on low incomes outside the major cities. This has remained the case even after the Socialists were thrown into a deep crisis by the coup against Sánchez.
Disillusioned by this heave against their popular leader, only 50 percent of those who voted for the Socialists in the June elections would now support them in fresh ones. Yet despite this, Podemos has only managed to pick up 14 percent of PSOE’s lost votes with the vast majority remaining undecided or intending not to vote.
Errejón explains this reticence as a result of the fear and uncertainty the idea of a Podemos-led government provokes among older voters. If the party is to avoid becoming a sectoral organization content with representing the urban precariat, if it is to be the “nucleus” of a much wider “national-popular” project able to take power and govern, it has to overcome this limitation. The clearest way to do this is to prove their reliability to more conservative voters through engagement in the institutions.
Thus, without abandoning the populist framing of the party’s discourse, Errejón believes Podemos needs a softer image, to focus less on attacking its opponents and much more “on setting out its constructive position.” Podemos under Errejón would talk not only about how it governs differently to the established parties but how it governs more effectively.
A key reference point would be their running of the Madrid city council, where a Podemos-led coalition has increased social spending by over 20 percent and launched an ambitious investment plan in social housing while also having, through increased revenue, reduced the city’s debt.
At a national level, Errejón views the new minority PP government propped up by PSOE as providing Podemos with an opportunity to set the agenda. With the Socialists deeply divided and uneasy about working with their historic enemies, he wants the party to take the initiative, proposing a series of concrete progressive measures that the Socialists would find it difficult not to support. Together they have already passed Podemos-drafted legislation on extending parental leave and raising the minimum wage.
But Pablo Iglesias and his supporters argue that this institutional route is, to a large degree, blocked for Podemos at the moment. With the PP in government, proposing legislation and working with PSOE would likely amount to little more than a series of symbolic gestures over the coming years.
More than that, it risks obscuring the current correlation of forces in Spanish politics by providing the Socialists the cover they need to gloss over their role in returning the Right to power.
Having abstained in the vote on Rajoy’s investiture in October, PSOE reached an agreement with PP on further reducing the limit on government spending in 2017 by €5 billion. They are expected to at least abstain on a full austerity budget in May. For Iglesias, this is not a weak minority government but a grand coalition in disguise.
Furthermore, he believes that this arrangement will allow the current government to see out most of its term. Within this context it makes little sense to center the party’s activity on the institutional sphere. To meaningfully oppose the further entrenchment of an economic model which continues to deepen Spain’s social crises, the party has to concentrate much more on popular mobilization and coordinating campaigns with social movements and unions.
Referencing Gramsci, Iglesias claims Podemos’s priority has to be to construct trenches and fortifications in civil society so as to become a militant organization capable of confronting the power of elites through mass social resistance.
The party’s grassroots campaign Vamos! has brought thousands onto the streets in recent months on the issue of energy poverty, gaining media attention for an issue no other party wants to touch. Prices in Spain’s deregulated energy market have risen by 20 percent over the past year and the number of homes that have had their electricity cut off for non-payment has risen to half a million a year.
By mobilizing on issues that directly impact living standards, and forcing concessions from corporations and government, Iglesias hopes Podemos can clarify their difference from their political rivals. While the traditional parties seem devoid of ideas and wary of damaging their close relations with the powerful energy conglomerates, Podemos have promised to restructure the sector under “public control” putting forward an ambitious set of regulatory proposals, while not ruling out renationalization.
Vamos! also allows for a reorientation of public debate back to the polarizing social issues that gave Podemos’s populism its original emotional force. For Iglesias, Podemos’s transversality, that is, its appeal beyond existing left-wing constituencies, is based on its capacity to “politicize social pain” along anti-establishment lines.
After a year in which the party’s energy was consumed by institutional intrigue and the interminable negotiations with PSOE, Iglesias views mobilizations as an opportunity for Podemos to return to its role as the political “outsider” willing to defend the rights of the social majority against those intent on sustaining the status quo.
He also sees it as an opportunity to re-energize the hundreds of thousands of their predominately young voters who stayed at home in June’s election. The effects of the crisis have created a deep generational divide with a disproportionate number of young people being subject to highly precarious living conditions. For Iglesias, Podemos’s best bet for securing electoral victory is to continue building on their process of politicization.
These voters who are hungry for change can’t merely be taken for granted as the party tailors its message to older, more conservative ones. The recent election campaign, with its fixation on potential coalitions and party-political deals, showed a serious risk in Errejón’s path: that for every PSOE voter gained, multiple voters from Podemos’s traditional base could be lost.
Podemos was founded as an insurgent force in Spanish politics, but one that aimed to challenge for power as its predecessors on the Left had failed to do in the past. It is the tensions between these positions that will be tested this weekend.
For Errejón it is a particularly difficult moment to advocate an institutional strategy. European politics is in a moment of extraordinary polarization. Compromise and political moderation could substantially weaken Podemos.
But Iglesias has to make a much less certain case, arguing for a party that has tasted relative success in two national elections, as well as government in some of Spain’s largest cities, to return to the streets. His political future will be determined by whether he can win a majority to this perspective.
A new and diverse political project, Podemos’s coalition has always been unstable. Thus far, its compelling but contradictory vision has been sustained by opposition. It will enter next week having defined its politics more clearly than at any point to date. Much will depend on whether this clarity limits the party’s scope or gives it a new purpose.