Podemos Congress: Is Pablo Iglesias About to Be Dethroned?

by Javier Moreno Zacarés

11 February 2017


As Podemos descends into infighting there is a chance that its leader, Pablo Iglesias, will be dethroned at the party’s upcoming congress in Vistalegre.

After accomplishing stellar results in the general election of December 2015, only six months later the party unexpectedly lost 1.2m votes in the election of June 2016. Internal analysis of the setback, and the question of what is to be done next, has become a major source of tension between Iglesias, the undisputed leader until recently, and his second-in-command, Iñigo Errejón. Months ago, no one could have predicted the ‘psychodrama’ – Iglesias’s own words – now consuming Podemos.

Electoral war machine.

After an explosive start in 2013, when 100k members poured in and local groups (círculos) began sprouting everywhere, the current structures of Podemos only crystallised in 2014, during the party’s first congress in Vistalegre. There, Iglesias succeeded in coalescing a strong leadership around him and his entourage. The objective was to prepare the party for a string of electoral challenges on the way to the general election of December 2015, where the party hoped “to take heaven by storm,” as Iglesias put it in his speech. Granting considerable executive powers to its leadership, Podemos came into Vistalegre I as a spontaneous mass movement and came out as an ‘electoral war machine’.

The party confirmed the general direction of a left populist strategy. Inspired by the philosophy of Ernesto Laclau, Podemos diluted the traditional symbols of the left into a cross-ideological political subject, the people (la gente), and posed it against a corrupt neoliberal elite identified as ‘the caste’ (la casta), an enemy later reformulated as ‘the powerful’ (los poderosos).

Vistalegre I also identified the critics of this model: at the leftmost wing of the party, the anticapitalistas faction argued that the new structures would demobilise the grassroots. Instead, they pushed for a more decentralised organisation and to give local groups greater decision-making powers.

The June election.

Podemos steamrolled through the next regional and local elections, forming broad coalitions that seized power in many of Spain’s largest cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Cádiz, A Coruña, etc.), and contributed to the overthrow of conservatives in regions where they had been dominant for decades (Valencia). This culminated in the spectacular result of the general election of December 2015, when Podemos and its allies achieved 69 seats in Congress and its popular vote came within 2% of PSOE, the historic centre-left party. The result smashed the traditional two-party system and brought in six months of parliamentary stalemate that blocked government-formation and eventually forced a new election.

At the eleventh hour, ahead of the June 2016 election, Podemos forged an electoral coalition with United Left, a federation of parties centred around the Spanish Communist party, in an attempt to merge their electorates and finally surpass PSOE in the popular vote. This move – an initiative by Iglesias – was seen as a departure from Podemos’s previous cross-ideological discourse and met the opposition of Errejón.

Unexpectedly, the June election delivered a demoralising setback and led to a heated internal debate. Some leading members, with Errejón at the forefront, argued that the alliance with United Left had been too hard to swallow for centre-left voters. Others, like Juan Carlos Monedero, argued the problem was that Podemos needed to radicalise its discourse to distinguish itself from the more traditional political parties.

After an initial wobble, in which he argued Podemos should become less scary and “more predictable”, Iglesias came to lean towards the latter position.

‘Psychodrama’: the rocky road to Vistalegre II.

Over the following months, these tensions heated up and rippled downward. Factional struggles over the control of the party spread. The party’s internal elections in Madrid became a battle between ‘Pablistas’ and ‘Errejonistas’, in which the former purged the latter from key positions. Errejón’s protests were met by a campaign against him on social media in December.

Iglesias brings this ‘all or nothing’ approach into the party’s second congress, also in Vistalegre. Vistalegre II will elect, in two separate votes, the leader of the party and the composition of the citizens’ council, Podemos’s highest ruling body. Both factions have submitted separate lists for the council, but Errejón is not running for the leadership, as he insists that Iglesias should remain in that position.

By contrast, Iglesias is posing this as a fight to the death. If his list wins, he has promised to remove Errejón from his position. If it loses, he will resign from leadership even if he is re-elected as leader (which is more than likely); he refuses to be made a trophy leader under somebody else’s command. This uncompromising attitude has prompted important desertions in Iglesias’s camp, including founding members Carolina Bescansa and Alex Alegre, who in a recent opinion piece argued that the authoritarianism of Iglesias’s new entourage would be the end of Podemos.

The balance of forces seems tight. An important temperature check was the recent vote taken by the membership on the rules of Vistalegre II, for which Pablistas, Errejonistas and anticapitalistas presented different documents. Although Iglesias’s document came first with 41.5%, Errejon’s, in an unexpected show of force, came up close with 39%, while the anticapitalistas ended with a distant 10.5%. If this is indicative of the share of the membership backing the three main factions within the party, then – with Iglesias’s image deteriorating – there is a real chance that Iglesias might be overthrown this weekend.

A new Podemos?

As news of infighting dominates the headlines, it remains unclear what the different factions are bringing to the table in Vistalegre II. Paradoxically, what seems more clear is that which they agree on: all factions share the view that Podemos ought to transcend the top-down model of the ‘electoral war machine’ in favour of a more decentralised, polycentric, and gender-balanced organisation.

The question of strategy remains the burning issue. Errejón proposes a reassertion of the cross-ideological discourse of the party. This will likely entail putting some distance between Podemos and its electoral ally United Left, active parliamentary collaboration with PSOE – perhaps even a coalition government in the near future.

Iglesias wants to reinforce the anti-establishment image of a party that is able to build extra-parliamentary power on the streets, with a view to drawing the struggle on a few more years in expectation of a more favourable electoral context. This will surely put PSOE at a distance and might result in a more lasting fusion with United Left.

The anticapitalists propose an unflinching reassertion of Podemos’s original programme, which included the introduction of universal basic income, a public audit of Spain’s sovereign debt, and a greater degree of grassroots democracy.

Whatever the outcome of the key decisions, Podemos looks set to be a different party after this congress.

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