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Divided We Fall

Antonio Maestre

5 years ago, Podemos made a thunderous first entrance into Spanish politics. Now, clashes between leaders Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón threaten a lasting split and acute demoralization.

Inigo Errejon and Pablo Iglesias at the Spanish Parliament on January 13, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin

Last Thursday, as Podemos marked its fifth anniversary, party co-founder and chief strategist Íñigo Errejón stunned the Spanish left by announcing he would be running as the candidate for a new formation in the upcoming Madrid regional elections. Until then he had been committed to head Podemos’s own campaign for the powerful Madrid presidency.

But with negotiations deadlocked between Errejón and the national leadership over the makeup of his electoral list, the thirty-five-year-old chose to join forces with Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena’s new platform Más Madrid. This was then followed on Monday by his resignation as a member of the Spanish parliament, though he insisted he remained a member of Podemos.

Given Errejón’s increasingly fraught relationship with party leader and one-time close friend Pablo Iglesias, such a split was always possible. But the announcement caught the Podemos hierarchy off-guard. Errejón phoned Iglesias, who is currently on paternity leave, only minutes before the announcement with most of the leadership learning of the move through social media. In an open letter to Errejón released Thursday, Iglesias hit back claiming “the party membership deserved more” than such secret maneuvers and that he “could not believe Manuela and Íñigo [had] hidden their plans to launch their own electoral project.”

The Podemos leadership has repeatedly described Errejón as definitively “outside” the party, portraying his actions as having “burnt all bridges.” He insists the door remains open for a joint candidacy in Madrid, though this would now have to take place through Carmena’s platform. He has defended his surprise move by maintaining that after poor election results for Podemos in Catalonia and Andalusia, the Spanish left needs a reboot.

His gamble is that with a joint ticket with the universally popular Carmena, who is running for re-election to Madrid’s city hall, the Left can recapture the energy and momentum that saw Podemos catapulted onto the national stage five years ago. Yet with a radicalized right in the ascent, the risk is that further divisions in the Left will simply lead to electoral disaster.

Jacobin contributor Eoghan Gilmartin sat down with Spanish journalist Antonio Maestre  to analyze these developments and to discuss the possible consequences for Podemos and the Spanish left as they enter into an intense electoral cycle destined to culminate in a general election sometime in the next twelve months.


Relations between Iglesias and Errejón have been strained for a number of years now. But what exactly led to Errejón’s decision to break with the party last week?


There has been a definite rupture between the two since the Second Vistalegre party conference in early 2017, which has set them on diverging political courses. The dispute then was centered on questions of strategy but above all on alliances. Errejón was opposed to the alliance with [the Communist-backed] United Left, an obstacle which they have never been able to overcome. In turn this led to a breakdown in their personal and working relationship, with the two finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate political from personal differences.

After the Vistalegre conference the two reached an unconvincing truce with Errejón agreeing to head the party’s regional campaign in Madrid. It was unconvincing because at the same time Ramon Espinar [a close ally of Iglesias] continued as the party’s leader in the region. Given this precarious balance, there was always a sense this was going to blow up at some stage.

It finally happened [last] week for two reasons. First is Errejón’s strong opposition to how the party has responded to its poor results in the Andalusian regional elections in December. With the breakthrough of the far-right Vox party, Podemos has called for a renewed antifascist struggle. In Errejón’s view, while this stance may play well with the party faithful, it cannot hope to turn around Podemos’s increasingly poor polling numbers amongst the wider electorate. Second is a belief that the national leadership is making it impossible for him to run his own campaign, particularly through its imposition of an agreement with the United Left for a joint electoral list whose composition he opposes.

These factors led him to seek a joint ticket with Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena. In his view, such a ticket has greater potential. Yet at the same time, intentionally or not, it also delivers a mortal blow to Iglesias’s strategy in the region. Right now, Errejón has the initiative, as Podemos has few alternative candidates strong enough to run against him.


So is the split final? Or is there the possibility of further negotiation?


The split in this moment is a fact but the very weakness of Unidos Podemos’s position [Unidos Podemos is the name for the coalition between Podemos and United Left] could in fact facilitate an agreement — in other words, it increases the chance that they will be pushed towards a deal with Errejón and Carmena. Otherwise we will have to see if they can construct a viable alternative candidacy to Errejón that can carve out its own electoral space on the Left.


With the elections in Andalusia, the Left in general, and Unidos Podemos in particular, failed to mobilize its vote with the majority of its losses down to abstention. Is this latest split going to create further demoralization among left-wing voters?


The results in Andalusia [which saw the first right-wing majority returned in over thirty-five years in the traditionally Socialist region] created a political earthquake across Spain. Right-wing fragmentation [with the vote being split between the established Popular Party and its new rivals: Ciudadanos and Vox] had been expected to damage the Right’s overall prospects. However in the end it came out on top, primarily because of left-wing demobilization but also because increased competition allowed the three right-wing parties to mobilize distinct electorates.

This is not to say this dynamic will hold in the upcoming electoral cycle. For example, the fear of further far-right gains could in fact lead to greater mobilization of voters on the Left. Right now, we are in a new situation where everything is still up in the air. It is very difficult to say whether fragmentation on the Left will either be damaging or whether it will have similar beneficial effects as to those seen on the Right, though I would say that normally the electoral dynamic on the Left is distinct to that of the Right.

In this new conjuncture, in which the existing tactical analyses no longer seem relevant, Errejón views Unidos Podemos’s strategy as a losing one and a joint platform with Carmena as the only way to generate renewed momentum. Rather than being forced into a strategy and an electoral list in which he does not believe, he now has complete freedom to choose his team and is freed from the restrictions the party was placing on his number of media appearances. At an individual level, he has everything to gain from this. But we don’t know yet what this split means for the Left in general.


The other main protagonist in this dispute is Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena. A very popular figure, in the elections four years ago she headed a broad coalition, which included Podemos, the United Left, and various figures from the city’s social movements. Where does she fit into this and how would you differentiate her new formation Más Madrid, which Errejón has joined, from Podemos?


It has taken all of Carmena’s charisma to govern the Madrid city hall with such a diverse coalition. You are talking about people with completely different understandings of politics. Though she was a member of the Communist Party [in the 1970s], Carmena’s politics have for a long time been very moderate, much closer to the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) than the United Left. For those lifelong activists in her coalition such as Celia Mayor or councilors from the more radical sectors in the United Left, it has been a very difficult experience and they have been unable to connect with her form of doing politics.

With the launch of Más Madrid before Christmas, Carmena sought to leverage her popularity to force Podemos and the United Left to accept a new candidacy of her own design for May’s local elections — that they would have little choice but to accept her terms.

Carmena was always close to Errejón and shared his belief in an inclusive transversal politics. In this sense you could say that Más Madrid looks a lot like the original Podemos, i.e. a broad transversal movement that is populist in a Laclauian sense whereas Podemos as it is now resembles a more traditional, combative left-wing formation like the United Left or the Labour Party in the UK. Errejón was the strategist and practically the ideologue of this original Podemos which sought to attract and seduce a wide-ranging electorate.


But there does seem to be one key difference between Errejón’s original strategy for Podemos and Más Madrid. Whereas the former still articulated an antagonistic image of Spanish society divided between la casta (the elites) and the people, Mas Madrid seems more influenced by the softer image of Carmena who has repeatedly stressed the very anti-political idea of “governing for all.”


Yes, Errejón’s populist strategy has clearly evolved, in part because the antagonism felt towards traditional politics no longer has the same force that it did five years ago. He has now assumed the idea that Manuela Carmena represents a new way of doing [progressive] politics. She represents a gentler politics and [unlike Iglesias] is a figure who provokes little if any negative reactions in the wider electorate.

This speaks to one of Errejón’s constant concerns: how to reduce people’s fear of Podemos. For him this has to be a priority: demonstrating that when Podemos takes office, it will be able to govern and that it will be able to improve people’s lives without disorder. Yet the constant here is the aspiration to be a transversal force which can attract votes from across the spectrum.


In contrast Iglesias’s idea of left populism seems directed towards a more clearly defined social majority.


Well what has become clear, particularly since the PSOE has come into office, is that Iglesias is now focusing on the concrete questions that define the material welfare of the working class: labor struggles, increasing the minimum wage, energy poverty, rent controls, etc.

These are clearly important questions for the Left. But at the same time Podemos also seems to have put to one side all the rhetorical and symbolic strategies associated with populism, which at one time defined the party. For example, in nearly all Iglesias’s recent TV appearances, his interviews have been conducted from remote locations where there have been labor disputes with him talking to camera surrounded by striking workers. This seems more like a traditional left-wing party.


In terms of their poor polling numbers, which have the party seven points below their 2016 election result of between 14-15 percent, one of the difficulties for Unidos Podemos is that their immediate fate is tied to that of Socialist PSOE prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s government. They backed him nine months ago in the no-confidence motion which brought down the previous (conservative) Partido Popular administration. They bet they could push a minority PSOE government to the left. However, Sánchez’s agenda has been largely gridlocked due to the Catalan crisis and the pro-independence parties’ decision to withdraw their support for his anti-austerity budget.


Yes, but the only social and material advances this government has secured have come because of the pressure applied by Podemos. The clearest example is the 22 percent increase in the minimum wage [which was passed by executive degree in December]. PSOE would never have sought such an increase by itself. This is a real achievement for Pablo Iglesias and Unidos Podemos and the party is now also saying they will only back Sánchez in his ongoing fight to pass his budget if he agrees to regulate rental prices.

In this sense Podemos’s engagement with PSOE is achieving gains which through other routes would have been difficult to secure and having signed up to this governing arrangement, the only thing that they can sell to voters are these material advances. However I do not know if this is enough to turn around the party’s numbers.

In part this is because the current conjuncture in Spain is dominated by the territorial question. The Catalan crisis has polarized the political field to the detriment of Unidos Podemos which had bet on the possibility of Catalan and Spanish authorities reaching some agreement for a jointly recognized referendum.

Instead, the forces benefiting from this ongoing standoff are those in Catalonia who are pushing for a clear rupture from Spain, that is to say independence, or those in Spain demanding a hard line against the independentists. The national question has always been the Left’s weak spot and for nearly eighteen months it has completely dominated the political agenda.

This has been an extremely difficult context in which to operate for Unidos Podemos and when a situation is so polarized in this way, there is little you can do. Until the national conflict cools down, it will be very difficult for them to make any headway.


Is Errejón hoping to set up a rival national organization that would allow him to stand in a general election?


In this moment, no. Right now, he is focused on the Madrid regional elections in May and aiming to launch a project in this arena, one which he hopes will be able to break out of this dynamic that has left Unidos Podemos’s electoral numbers resembling more those of the United Left while the PSOE concentrates on battling for voters with [the liberal-to-center-right party] Ciudadanos. We don’t know what’s possible: it depends on the results in May.

But ultimately, I think Podemos will have to accept some sort of incorporation of, or agreement with, Errejón’s candidacy before the regional elections. If Podemos decide to go alone and get a bad result, it would do much more damage to their brand than accepting a unified list. It would in turn give Errejón greater legitimacy to mount a national campaign.


One of the main weaknesses of Podemos as well as many of Spain’s municipalist formations is that they have failed to develop internal mechanisms and democratic processes to deal with such disputes and differences. Why do you think that is the case?


In Podemos the degree of internal conflict has to be traced back to the fact that after the party’s initial breakthrough in the 2014 European elections, Errejón was left in charge of constructing and staffing the party machine while Pablo Iglesias was in Brussels in the European Parliament. When Iglesias returned and their political differences started to become evident, he began removing those closest to Errejón from the most important internal positions and replacing them with those loyal to him.

Consequently, we were left with this power struggle which has alienated many people who supported the project initially, not least because it is these internal battles which dominate the coverage of Podemos. In other parties, clearly such internal conflicts exist but they are better able to keep them out of the public spotlight.

In the end, the party has been unable to find ways to integrate the various factions into the same formation; rather each sector knows that if they are not part of the faction that wins [internal elections and primaries], you will be excluded.


How has this split affected Pablo Iglesias’s leadership? What is his political future?


It is complicated. He is on parental leave so cannot engage in this dispute on a daily basis nor lead a counterattack against Errejón. That is now up to Irene Montero [his partner and Podemos’s deputy leader]. But more generally the form of hyper-leadership he has exercised within the formation means that whenever there is a controversy or crisis associated with Podemos, his authority takes a hit. And so, the Errejón split will most likely lead to a further erosion of his standing.

Right now Errejón’s hands are free, and with Iglesias off the political scene until the beginning of April, he is going to be appearing on television constantly, further building up his profile and candidacy.