Podemos’s Road to Somewhere

A year of perplexing U-turns has left the Podemos project muddled — and the party falling in the polls.

Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias listens the speech of Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez, (not in the picture) during a debate to form a new government at the Spanish Parliament on March 1, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

On February 11, 2017, Pablo Iglesias took the stage at Madrid’s Vistalegre arena and addressed an apprehensive audience. The increasingly harsh standoff with his number two man, Íñigo Errejón, was finally resolved in favor of Podemos’s leader, whose list of candidates for the party’s Citizen Council received over 50 percent of votes against his rival’s 33 percent. Iglesias reassured the public, still concerned about the possibility of a schism, that it had given Podemos a mandate for “unity and humility.” With Errejón — presented as the party’s leading moderate — defeated, the stage was set for a shift to the left and a return to the combative, anti-establishment ethos that made the party widely successful in its first two years of existence.

The turn, however, has yet to reenergize Podemos. With Spanish nationalism on the rise, progressive forces have experienced setbacks in opinion polls and Catalonia’s December election. In fact, Podemos’s poll standing is now at its lowest level since the period before its first general election campaign in 2015. The center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) remains ahead of Podemos in spite of its support for Mariano Rajoy’s conservative (Partido Popular, PP for short) government. Faced with this state of affairs, party loyalists will point to Catalonia’s failed bid for independence and the media’s constant attacks against the party.

These explanations hold some truth, but fail to contextualize the pervasive sense of stagnation. Podemos’s position on Catalonia, far more accommodating than that of the Spanish government, was a source of strength rather than weakness in the past. Media hostility alone shouldn’t be enough to corner a party that until recently displayed outstanding communication skills. The challenge that Podemos faces is a deeper one: determining what the party stands for at Spain’s present juncture. The party’s raison d’être, once so compelling, has become muddled by a succession of tactical swerves.

The “War Machine”

Podemos was born in 2014 as a tool to dismantle a dysfunctional system, in which support for austerity policies and cronyism discredited both established parties in the eyes of most citizens. The means to this end was electoral victory. Podemos had two years to rise from nothing to power or, at the very least, defeat the PSOE — which Iglesias viewed as torn between its commitment to the post-Franco regime (a logic that compelled it to oppose Podemos) and its self-identification as a progressive party (discouraging a grand coalition with the Right).

This “blitzkrieg” strategy — a series of fast-paced moves designed to shock, awe, and overcome Podemos’ rivals — demanded shedding the horizontalism of the 2011 indignados movement, which the party sought to represent politically, in favor of a tight chain of command. The first Podemos congress, held in Vistalegre in October of 2014, witnessed the creation of the so-called “electoral war machine”: a disciplined, vertical organization with the founding team — Errejón and Iglesias, but also Complutense professors Juan Carlos Monedero, Carolina Bescansa, and Luis Alegre — at its helm. Their blueprint received overwhelming grassroots support, displacing the anticapitalist left’s proposal for a less hierarchical party.

In the December 2015 elections, Podemos obtained above 20 percent of the vote — unprecedented for a new party, and only 1.5 points behind the PSOE. Spain’s two-party system was shattered, giving way to a hung parliament. But this feat seemed insufficient, and the party leadership placed its hopes on a second round of elections, to be held in June 2016. Against Errejón’s objections, the party formed an alliance with United Left (IU), Spain’s traditional left party. Polls consistently placed the coalition second only to the PP. But voters were demoralized after seven months of negotiations that failed to dislodge Rajoy. Ultimately, this resignation benefited the conservatives. The PSOE’s vote shrunk, but remained ahead of Podemos and IU, which obtained 1 million less votes than they had won separately in 2015.

Siege Mentality

Frustration set in. “Failure is too coarse a word, but it is probably the most appropriate for a party fixated with the rhetoric of ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ and which from the beginning insisted it was born to ‘win,’” a critic of the Vistalegre model pointed out. As internal tension built up, it became clear that the “war machine” structure, so successful in ensuring rapid electoral growth, had generated an all-or-nothing party culture, obsessed with victory and incapable of managing setbacks or dissent.

Diverging views on how to proceed split the founding group apart. Monedero, nominally outside Podemos but a skeptic of Errejón’s Latin American-inspired populism, accused him of running a moderate campaign that demobilized the party’s base. Podemos had, in fact, abandoned some of its platform during this time, such as its calls for a universal basic income and a public debt audit. Errejón and his followers, however, considered that it was the coalition with IU that made Podemos forego its transversal approach and the progressive language it inherited from the indignados, which retained a much stronger appeal than the communist left’s traditional discourse.

The debate largely missed the point. Podemos’s leadership had clung to a reading of voting patterns that was excessively dependent on the Interior Ministry’s polling, and had launched a campaign based on the assumption that it was within striking distance of the PP. Podemos’s errors rested not so much in its campaign tone or the alliance with IU as in the failed negotiations with the PSOE between both rounds of elections, when voters perceived it placed greater emphasis on exacerbating the center-left’s contradictions than attempting to remove the PP from power.

And it was precisely this question that divided the party as the second Vistalegre congress approached. Iglesias, now pivoting toward the anticapitalist left and led by an entourage of former communists, pressed for direct confrontation. Errejón, retaining a majority of party cadres behind him, stressed that a more conciliatory approach would make it easier for disgruntled socialists to join Podemos. Josep María Antentas has drawn an apt comparison to The Wire, with Errejón playing the subtler Stringer Bell to the secretary-general’s unapologetic Avon Barksdale. At stake was whether Podemos’s strength stemmed from its capacity to seduce voters or its power to make elites afraid, and whether it should harness outrage across the country’s streets or develop policy to work inside its political institutions. These choices were presented as binaries, and debated publicly in sectarian, unintelligent terms.

In the weeks leading to the second congress, Spain’s leading media outlets sided stridently with Errejón, presenting him as the “reasonable” alternative to Iglesias’ extremism. In a display of siege mentality, a large section of the party accused the errejonistas of conspiring to destroy Podemos. A contest fought in these terms was always going to produce more heat than light. The aftermath of Iglesias’s victory brought a sense of stability to a previously fractured party, but the battle left a bitter aftertaste for Podemos’s members and voters.

The sense of disappointment was compounded by events across Spain. If Vistalegre had proved frayed, its 150,000 participants at least constituted an example of grassroots democracy. The PP, which held its own congress simultaneously, witnessed party insiders reelecting Rajoy without internal debate. The PSOE, meanwhile, caved in to the Right. Pressured by the party’s old guard, Secretary-General Pedro Sánchez resigned in October 2016. A technical directorate led the majority of socialist MPs to abstain during Rajoy’s election, inaugurating a grand coalition in all but name. Against this relatively favorable backdrop, Podemos failed to garner additional support from progressive voters.

Back and Forth With the PSOE

The relationship with the PSOE has continued to haunt Podemos. No sooner had the dust settled on Vistalegre than PSOE members, ignoring the demands of the party elite, reelected Sánchez by an overwhelming margin, ousting Susana Díaz — the right-wing, Hillary-esque candidate supported by the party establishment — as well as the directorate that had supported the PP.

Previously an ordinary third-way centrist known for his good looks and a comical tendency to seem out of his depth, Sánchez now presented himself as a Corbyn-style firebrand, blasting the PSOE old guard for blocking the possibility of a left coalition government and supporting policies previously advocated by Podemos. While his conversion was mostly performative, Sánchez’s victory against the party apparatus and its powerful media supporters gave him a compelling outsider narrative. Polls reflected an immediate rise in his party’s popularity.

This electoral upset presented a problem for Podemos. In the run-up to Vistalegre, Iglesias’s supporters challenged the errejonistas on the grounds that the PSOE was a lost cause. The “triple alliance” formed by the PP, the PSOE, and the liberal-right Ciudadanos (C’s) meant Podemos must oppose the entirety of the post-Franco regime, not just conservatives. The party continued to defend this position by late March, when it was becoming clear it might be overtaken by events.

In May, as Sánchez’s comeback suddenly loomed large, Podemos’s leadership switched gears and presented a no-confidence vote against Rajoy’s government. It was the kind of institutional, parliament-based project that would have been derided as futile two months before, but it was now upheld as the party’s flagship proposal. The vote was well executed and helped to reenergize Podemos, but seemed designed, one more time, to place simultaneous pressure on the PP and the PSOE instead of actually ejecting Rajoy. The PSOE, which at the time was not yet fully under Sánchez’s control, got away with a fumbled evasion.

The idea of cooperation persisted. Podemos and the PSOE, Errejón suggested, would henceforth challenge each other through a dynamic of “virtuous competition.” In July, he co-published a column with Iglesias identifying two projects for Spain — the PP’s and Podemos’s — and arguing for collaboration with the PSOE in order to defeat the Right. The two parties entered a governing coalition in Castilla-La Mancha — a region governed by a centrist from PSOE. Again, the strategy seemed in open contradiction with the ideas that had won out at Vistalegre. Podemos supporters were left wondering whether the congress disagreements had been substantial or an excuse for party cadres to jockey for power.

The attempt to collaborate with the PSOE ended shortly thereafter. In the context of the Catalan government’s flirtation with unilateral independence, Sánchez heeded King Felipe’s intransigent speech on October 3, 2017, dumped his progressive rebranding, and rallied behind the government. Iglesias responded by excoriating the king and the parties supporting the government, now repackaged as the “monarchic bloc” — a term that seems pulled out of the old left’s rhetorical playbook, which Podemos leaders once derided as useless for reaching a wider public.

If Catalonia pulled the PSOE into the government’s orbit, it has also opened a significant rift between Podemos’s leadership and its voters outside the region, many of whom opposed the party’s ambiguous stance toward Catalan nationalism. Here, too, Podemos has sought to change course as its Catalan chapter became increasingly aligned with the pro-independence movement. But the rectification came too late, allowing C’s to establish an impressive hold on working-class voters opposed to Catalan independence as Podemos lost ground.

Beyond Vistalegre

One year after Vistalegre, Podemos is back where it set out. Opposed to all other parties, it has retrenched to time-honored left-wing niches: reflexive calls against fascism and recurring condemnation of the monarchy. The succession of swerves have taken a toll on Iglesias, who has become a polarizing figure, respected within the party but rejected by public opinion. Of the original Complutense team, Monedero remains behind the secretary-general, but Bescansa recently broke ranks on account of what she views as the party’s indulgent attitude toward Catalan nationalism. Errejón has retreated to Madrid politics, and plans to challenge the region’s conservative president in 2019. The PSOE is still torn between placating its progressive voters and upholding the status quo, but these inconsistencies come at a lower cost, because it retains a loyal base of older voters and can fall back on its established image as the default alternative to the PP.

Perhaps more concerning than the second congress’s lackluster outcome is the fact that the original Vistalegre vices have become ingrained. The party remains rigidly hierarchical, its talent and creativity sapped by internal suspicion and a working culture that prizes a narrow conception of loyalty as its cardinal virtue. Still geared for immediate victory, its restless, self-referential disposition generates frustration as soon as its supporters become demobilized. For a party in which Antonio Gramsci remains a universal reference, the necessity of distinguishing between a war of maneuver and a war of position seems oddly distant from its mind.

Ultimately, these limitations get in the way of assessing achievements during the last four years. Podemos-backed coalitions govern four of Spain’s five largest cities — Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Zaragoza. Its mayors are not immune to the contradictions that come with governing, but represent a break from the corrupt, antisocial agendas of their predecessors. Displacing the PP on a regional level has required conditional support for a number of uninspiring PSOE figures, but the 2019 regional and municipal elections offer a chance for Podemos to establish a strong presence beyond urban enclaves. This position was unimaginable only four years ago, when the PP boasted absolute majorities in almost every single lever of public power.

Above all, Spanish elites are unable to tackle the problems that led to Podemos’s surge in 2014. Joblessness, austerity, and systemic corruption remain prevalent. Neoliberal labor market reforms have impoverished workers and increased economic inequality. The country is once again hooked to a real estate-based growth model — this time fueled by gentrification and tourism instead of a domestic housing bubble. While much remains to be accomplished, Podemos has established a powerful foothold from which to develop. To mature it must abandon its fixation with immediate tactical gains, concentrate on the long term, and overhaul the stifling structure it inherited from both Vistalegres.