Last month Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias won an internal leadership contest against faction opponent Íñigo Errejón. A temporary truce has now been declared. The following extract from an article by Eoghan Gilmartin, written before the vote, explains the background and is reproduced from Jacobin online magazine.
At the core of the dispute [was] 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 centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE). Errejón prioritises “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 [overtaking] 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 centre”. 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.
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 per cent in 2008 to 41 per cent 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 centre-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. This display, they argued, had allowed the media to present Iglesias as a demagogue uninterested in serious institutional engagement. 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. In Errejón’s view this committed the party to a pragmatic strategy: navigating the narrow path between “conformism and marginality.” 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 defence 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. 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. 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... 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.
Pablo Iglesias and his supporters argue that this institutional route is, to a large degree, blocked for Podemos at the moment. 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 centre the party’s activity on the institutional sphere. Referencing Gramsci, Iglesias claims Podemos’s priority has to be to construct trenches and fortifications in civil society so as to become a militant organisation 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. Vamos! also allows for a reorientation of public debate back to the polarizing social issues that gave Podemos’s populism its original emotional force.