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Íñigo Errejón: Podemos Missed Its Chance to Transform Spanish Politics

Íñigo Errejón
David Broder

A decade since the 15-M protests rocked Spain, the country has its first left-wing coalition government since the 1930s. But as Íñigo Errejón tells Jacobin, today it’s the nationalist right, not the heirs to 15-M, who are dominating the political agenda.

Íñigo Errejón, cofounder of Podemos and now leader of Más País, speaks to the press at Madrid-Barajas Airport on September 15, 2021. (Alejandro Martinez Velez / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Interview by
Àngel Ferrero

When Podemos’s cofounders clashed at the Vistalegre II congress in February 2017, a key bone of contention was relations with the center-left Socialists (PSOE) after a failed bid to form a coalition government in 2016. For secretary-general Pablo Iglesias, this pillar of Spain’s institutions was too wedded to the neoliberal center to be a plausible ally. But a minority led by Íñigo Errejón insisted that Podemos above all needed to show Spaniards that it was ready to govern, if it was to reach beyond its existing young and urban base.

Fast forward to today, and not only is the party (today called Unidas Podemos, UP) weakened, but roles have changed radically. It was Iglesias who finally led the party at the start of 2020 into coalition with Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE, but with its parliamentary strength halved after four general elections in four years. The broad left coalition’s first year in government brought some important legislation, but also political setbacks for UP — and this spring Iglesias quit as deputy prime minister, before retiring from frontline politics altogether.

As for cofounder Errejón, he left Podemos at the start of 2019, and is now leader of Más País, a small green-progressive force whose three MPs provide confidence and supply to the PSOE-UP government. In an interview with Jacobin’s Àngel Ferrero, Errejón revisits the 15-M protest movement that helped give rise to Podemos, his time in the party, and its failed bid to transform Spanish politics — opening the way to a new insurgency by the nationalist right.


AF

This May was the tenth anniversary of 15-M. How would you assess its legacy?

IE

There hasn’t been any serious political reflection on 15-M. But it’s telling that today a reactionary reading is emerging (albeit still a minority view) claiming that 15-M was a middle-class demand for meritocracy, that it was all pointless, etc. It’s a bit like the counter-wave that the French right created after the defeat of May ’68. In Spain today, the Right is in opposition, but setting the cultural agenda.

I see 15-M as an accumulation of discontent that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people with very different objectives. A common denominator was the demand for democracy, meaning more than just the competition between parties. It was also a challenge to the economic elites who rule our country, no matter what the ballot box says. 15-M denounced official Spain for forgetting the real Spain.

This changed the political climate. It didn’t have any direct political translation — and couldn’t have, given the breadth of grievances. According to one poll, 70 percent of Spaniards agreed with 15-M’s demands. It wasn’t a movement of the traditionally mobilized — and I say that with the knowledge you get being an activist since age fourteen.

At its peak, 15-M moved from large square occupations to neighborhood assemblies, and dominated the media agenda. Then it encountered a problem typical of social movements: despite its scale, it didn’t want to mount an institutional challenge through electoral means, and nor did it have the capacity to produce power on its own. Faced with this dilemma, it began to experience a crisis of growth. This didn’t mean that the climate it generated had vanished, just that it didn’t have a political and institutional catalyst.

AF

Did Podemos want to be that catalyst?

IE

The early Podemos was intended to do that, though it wasn’t a political expression of 15-M. It wasn’t an initiative of this movement, but of some people who’d been in it.

When we launched Podemos, our understanding was that 15-M was not a movement of the Left, not a challenge to forty years of liberal democracy in Spain, and not an attempt to relitigate what was done badly in the past. Rather, it confronted the existing political regime with what it had itself promised.

That gave it an ambivalent character. On the one hand, it was conservative: it didn’t challenge the order imposed by those on top but held it up to the mirror of its own principles. This is important, because it shaped the course the movement took: 15-M had more of a regenerative than revolutionary character, but this also allowed for its ideological transversality.

15-M went far beyond the Left and its symbols, and mixed anti-capitalist elements with technocratic or meritocratic ones. All these seemingly contradictory contents were blended. Podemos’s initiative was explicitly stated in these terms: We aren’t just another leftist formation, but one that listens to citizens’ will and desire for change and radical democracy.

For two years Podemos shaped Spanish politics, especially after the 2014 European elections. From 15-M in 2011 to the December 2015 general election, elites and the Right were on the defensive culturally, and Spain made the indignados’ reasoning its own. Even though we weren’t in Congress yet, we were a counter-hegemonic force that, without being a majority, clearly set the institutional agenda. We topped 5 million votes in December 2015. All this lasted until the failed negotiations to form a government with the PSOE, in March–April 2016.

AF

What remains of all that today?

IE

I think that cycle is over. Much of Spanish politics cannot be understood without 15-M, but the populist pendulum, which had a progressive, regenerative, and democratic sense from 2011 to 2015, has swung in a reactionary direction. Although there is a progressive government, it is mostly constituted as a defense against the Right, which is not only leading the polls but also the public conversation. Things are being said in today’s Spain that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, and it’s not just the neoliberal, authoritarian right-wing Vox; it permeates other formations too.

This summer we have had a wave of attacks on LGBT people, also connected to a broader normalization of hate speech against anyone different, the weakest, a kind of socialization of cruelty. Meanwhile, the progressive camp is in government but culturally on the defensive, and attempting a recomposition in which new ideas and projects are still only timidly emerging.

AF

In January 2019 you resigned your seat in Congress and a month later the platform Más Madrid decided to stand in the regional elections. In September of that year, it changed its name to Más País and became a Spain-wide party. But what led you to break with Podemos?

IE

The media typically interpret it as a group of friends falling out. Obviously, for those of us who understand politics not as a profession but as a commitment and a passion, decisions among people who’ve been working together a long time can bring ruptures, sometimes painful ones. But that’s the effect, not the cause. Of all Podemos’s founders, not one is still in a leadership position. I say that not as a criticism, but for the sake of historical context.

In my opinion — and that of many of us who founded Podemos to start with — the reason is that, from June 2016, Podemos began to shift ideologically. It started as a political force claiming to be national-popular, radical, democratic, and transversal, seeking to subvert the left-right axis — not because it wanted to belittle the values and ideology of the Left, but because the construction of a new popular majority goes beyond that. We came from the Left, but it was necessary to build a movement in terms of patriotism, social justice, and democratic regeneration, like in Latin America. These were the hallmarks of the earlier Podemos.

I think it was this discourse and this way of understanding politics that allowed Podemos’s initial electoral breakthrough. Back then it was accused of dividing the Left, but it attracted people who identified more with other movements like Occupy, who identified with a progressive, populist discourse, with a more radical democracy. There were people from different traditions: people from Youth Without a Future, people from student activism, and we were influenced by the progressive cycle in Latin America, framed in national-populist terms. But soon a bunch of people came in around the secretary-general [Pablo Iglesias], who came from more traditional left activism in the Communist Party (PCE) and its youth wing. Fine. You could see it in the symbols, in the words. But you soon started noticing big differences in who we appealed to, in what kind of politics we were doing.

AF

How important in this were the negotiations with PSOE on forming a government?

IE

When we negotiated in early 2016, we did it practically as equals with the PSOE: they had 5.5 million votes, we had 5.2 million. The clear majority feeling in the country was for renewal and progress: the Right had a lot of difficulties and Vox hadn’t yet emerged.

The deal between PSOE and Podemos in winter 2019 had been possible almost four years earlier, but it was only eventually agreed to when both were weaker and the country much more right-wing. The government agreed by PSOE and Unidas Podemos (UP) in December 2019 was the worst possible outcome. It came after four years when it could have been based on much better conditions and with a balance of forces where Podemos was on an equal footing with PSOE.

But there was no deal in 2016 — not only because the bulk of PSOE leaders didn’t want it but also because comrades from the traditional, more Communist left believed a repeat election would let Podemos overtake the PSOE. How? Because Podemos would unite with Izquierda Unida (IU), with its 5 million votes and IU’s 1 million. From then on, an accelerated process began in which Podemos begins to take on the way of speaking, the political messages, the self-positioning of the traditional left. We opened our rallies with Cuban and Soviet flags. I have no problem with those flags, but Podemos didn’t get 5 million votes by appealing to admirers of those flags but rather by transcending the Left and appealing to commonsense issues to achieve a country that treats its people better. 

When Podemos began to renounce the national-popular and transversal path and began to orient itself towards the traditional left, it started getting traditional left election results. Since then, Podemos has not stopped losing votes. The polls are already bringing it very close to IU’s best results — that is, an offer for traditional postcommunist voters, until recently also banking on having Pablo Iglesias, surely the best candidate in Spanish politics, before he retired. The Right speculates that this space is going to disappear. This is not true. There is a comfortable space, with a solid basis but also a solid electoral ceiling, for a political formation of convinced people to the left of the PSOE.

AF

How did this change occur?

IE

First, it’s because I founded — and I take personal responsibility — a very vertical political formation, which legitimizes its decisions through a very concentrated leadership, very focused on electoral competition and the charismatic power of the secretary-general.

Why? Because I understood that we needed an organizational tool not exclusively in the hands of its militants. In all political formations there’s a gap between what the militant wants and what the voter wants. The militant spends more time on political activity and ends up setting the party’s agenda, usually pushing toward more traditional ideological positions than the voter would want. I understood that, to pick up on 15-M’s momentum, we had to open beyond traditional left-wing militants, to whose ranks I belong. This provided the basis for Podemos’s “electoral war machine” — very agile, very fast, very concentrated, but difficult to self-reform.

Who’s in charge in a caudillista, plebiscitary electoral war machine? The head of the cartel. At a certain moment, the secretary-general and the leaders around him began to veer toward a traditional left position. We opposed that, we defended our ideas, we went to a second congress. We got about one-third support, 33 percent, they got 49 percent, and a third Trotskyist-rooted grouping 9 percent. Many people who preferred our course would vote for Podemos at the ballot box, but not in its internal elections. Moreover, when congresses become more combative — and this one was — less politically committed people turned away: they didn’t like what they saw and left.

AF

And this is where the rupture began.

IE

In a political formation educated in charismatic leadership, we challenged the secretary-general’s line and lost. For a while, we thought cohabitation was possible as a minority, but our existence became increasingly complicated. The inner workings of a party can make certain things very difficult.

Since then, Podemos has been in decline. It loses votes in each election, it has begun to disappear in certain territories where it is no longer represented, and something has happened that can’t be measured in numbers: Podemos has ceased to lead the public conversation. In 2014–15, Podemos was in vogue among analysts and intellectuals. But it quickly lost that and became a traditional party, occupying the old space of IU and the PCE. A very small percentage of Spaniards like it a lot, but it doesn’t speak to a bigger percentage of Spaniards.

I’d won a primary to be Podemos’s candidate for president of the Madrid region. But I had neither the means nor the support from the party to run. The decision was taken to push me aside, to suffocate me politically. So I launched a platform together with Manuela Carmena, at the time mayor of Madrid, called Más Madrid, which we invited Podemos to join. Like in Barcelona, where it’s part of Barcelona en Comú, it is clearly involved, but the platform is broader and Podemos doesn’t pick the lead candidate. I understood that the only way to keep Madrid City Council and win the region was with a gesture of openness, incorporating traditional left-wing militants but also part of the citizenry that doesn’t speak our jargon yet identifies with a program of democratic regeneration, of improving public services, of recovering the idea of community, of recovering the social contract broken by thirty years of neoliberalism.

Podemos’s leadership reacted vitriolically, saying in a communiqué that I had placed myself outside its internal discipline — in real Communist Party language — and I was asked to resign my seat in Congress. I did so, and with sadness, because it’s an organization that I helped found and lead as political secretary and campaign director, helping it win 5 million votes.

So I resigned and dedicated myself to Más Madrid. We got a great result: we came first in the elections in the city, although it wasn’t enough to keep control of the council. Since then, we began to build our own platform, which today, after the May 2021 elections, is the second force in the Madrid region. It’s the main opposition to the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and has overtaken the PSOE — something that had never happened before in an exclusively Spanish-speaking region.

In the general elections Más Madrid decided to launch a Spain-wide platform, Más País, for which I’m an MP. But the representation we achieved was below our expectations — and our objectives. We knew it would be a slow building process. But Más País’s visibility far exceeds its institutional weight: we are much more seen than groups with ten or twenty MPs. We hope it will be the seed for the development of a green force for social justice and radical democracy in our country.

AF

What’s your assessment of the “progressive government” formed by PSOE and Unidas Podemos — and UP’s trajectory within it? It seems, ironically, that UP first rejected your strategy, before adopting it after the last elections, but now from a position of weakness.

IE

It’s true, Podemos is applying our prescriptions four years late. That’s not a problem: it’s a classic political move to implement someone else’s proposals once you’ve gotten them out the way.

But the reason this is more than an irony of my personal experience is that these proposals are being implemented after Spain has already changed. The balance of forces is drastically different from 2016. Back then, Podemos was leading the progressive camp and was Spain’s most powerful force with the mayoralties of many big cities: Madrid, Cádiz, A Coruña, Bilbao, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia . . . We had the wind in our sails; it seemed clear that we were going to take over the government at some point. Moreover, the far right hadn’t yet emerged, the PP was in a dire crisis over its corruption cases, and the national conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish state — helping explain the later rise of Vox — hadn’t yet exploded in all its virulence.

In 2016, we negotiated practically on an equal footing with PSOE, either for a government including Podemos or else one reliant on its external support and conditioned by its pressure. There was still the sense that we were on the up, that our ideas were Spain’s ideas. But when an agreement was reached four years later, it came after a notable erosion of both signatories’ forces, and especially that of Podemos, which had lost almost half of its support and much of its intellectual, media, and political leadership capacity. In the meantime, we’ve seen the rise of the far right and — with all the repeat elections — a certain anti-politics. Superficially, it may seem like this is the same climate in which 15-M was born, but it’s the opposite.

So this government emerged with a tactical objective: to stop the Right. That’s understandable, but a much more reformist objective than in previous years. Our aim had been to open a constituent process. In 2015, very radical objectives were set out in very mild words. The current Podemos has very soft objectives with very radical words. It seeks to hold back the Right with inflamed discourse and rhetorical and ideological grandstanding. This is basically the reestablishment of the categories of the bipartidismo that governed Spain since the 1980s, meaning not just two dominant parties but also a small party to the left of the PSOE.

My analysis of what the government is doing? It’s halfway through the legislature and in a good position to change course. But so far it has more in the debt column than to its credit. It has not fulfilled even a fraction of the expectations it raised, despite having social support. Never as in times of pandemic has the Spanish citizenry understood that the common good exists and that a strong state is necessary, not only to pay debts and provide loans but also to intervene in the economy, set a political horizon, and guarantee rights. Moreover, it has the important resource of European funds, with an expansive policy from Brussels, and the possibility of directing them toward a change of model. And, above all, it has a parliamentary majority to do whatever it wants, like repealing the labor reforms that made Spain’s labor market more precarious, ending the “gag law” that restricts the fundamental rights of assembly and expression, regulating the electricity market faced with the energy giants, etc.

But so far this government hasn’t given its supporters much cause to defend it. It has managed the pandemic in a more socially sensitive way than the PP would have done. But that isn’t enough to keep it in office. It needs to produce real, far-reaching transformations in citizens’ lives, so that they see that there is a substantial difference between the Right and a progressive coalition governing. Today, most citizens watch the news with immense emotional disenchantment. When this cynicism spreads that everything is a lie and the only truth is the “nature” of the market, this always translates into reactionary results.

AF

Would you say that the government is doomed?

IE

I don’t think so. It has two years left and can change course. But it needs to go on the offensive, or it will pay the price. It’s been very timid in economic and social matters, yet the Right still treats it as if it were communist. It is paying for its bark, not its bite.

This is also about making future progressive governments a credible prospect. If Spanish society continues along the road of growing inequality, destruction of public services, job insecurity, and oligarchization, then the neoliberal common sense will become ever more naturalized.

The PSOE should understand that it needs to be bold. Not because of my ideological preferences but because if it doesn’t transform the Spanish state and society, with an urban policy showing that our future is a shared problem, it may turn out that, while progressives’ proposals sound better, there’ll be no concrete examples of them working in practice. Public health is another example of this — a little piece of socialism in the heart of a capitalist society. That’s why it is attacked so harshly: it’s a constant demonstration that decommodification can work and that the provision of public services for social purposes is not only fairer but more effective.

Without such experiences, when election time rolls around, the Right only has to ask citizens to behave like they do in every other area of everyday life under neoliberalism: you’re on your own, it’s every man for himself. So, it’s essential to expand these pieces of democracy in everyday life, or else the wave of cynicism and apathy will only benefit the Right.

Our own modest role in this is to support the government when it moves forward and to open discussions about the offensive. That means talking about a new generation of rights, such as a shorter working day, transformative green policies, and the strengthening of the health system.

It’s essential that the government isn’t just besieged by the Right. With the Right as aggressive as it is, Pedro Sánchez can think he’s Salvador Allende just by standing still. The government needs encouragement to move in a direction that translates into tangible changes for the majority. If, by election time, it’s ensured that there’s more public psychologists, more workplace rights, a guaranteed right to housing, regulated energy, and the promotion of new sources making electricity cheaper, European funds producing a green industrial revolution with social justice and thousands of jobs . . . if it does these things, then there’ll be tangible, concrete examples that having a progressive government is a good thing. If it hasn’t, there will be more “they’re all the same,” more sense that politics is useless, and thus more calls for Spain to be run like a business.

AF

Labor minister Yolanda Díaz has proposed creating a space that brings together the forces to the left of the PSOE. What does this mean to you?

IE

I have a good relationship with Díaz. She’s not a member of Unidas Podemos and I don’t know if she shares this idea with them; their leaders have said other things. But that’s not our business. It’s two years before the elections. I have no bad opinion whatsoever of the labor minister’s work. But I think it’s more important that her ministry repeals the labor reform and makes jobs secure again. I think those are the steps that can help regain support for the progressive government. We have to get back to talking about everyday life — and politicizing it.