In the end, the expected close result never happened. At the second congress (“citizens’ assembly”) of Spain’s radical anti-austerity party Podemos, the proposals and candidate list of outgoing general secretary Pablo Iglesias easily defeated those of his rival, outgoing political secretary Inigo Errejon.
In a December Podemos membership vote over the rules that were to govern the congress, Iglesias’s position had only won marginally (41.57% as against 39.12% for Errejon’s).
However, just six weeks later, in the vote on the four congress documents, Iglesias’s position won an absolute majority. This was repeated in the election for the 62 members of the State Citizens Council (the ruling body between Podemos’s congresses).
Iglesias’s platform was called “Podemos For All” and had a return to social resistance as its centre of gravity. It lowest vote was 53.63%.
Errejon’s platform was called “Recover The Dream” and emphasised winning undecided voters through good work in the institutions. Its highest vote was only 35.6%.
A third platform was the Anti-capitalists-sponsored “Podemos in Motion”, whose highest result was 11.63%. However, the joint document on gender equality it negotiated with Podemos For All scored 61.68%.
In the election for State Citizens Council, 37 members of the Iglesias ticket, 23 members of the Errejon ticket and two from the Anti-capitalist ticket were successful.
In the election for general secretary — uncontested by Errejon — Iglesias easily defeated his only rival, Podemos Andalusian parliament MP Juan Moreno Yague, by 89.09% to 10.91%.
The immediate key to Iglesias’s victory was the big jump in participation: with nearly 20,000 new members joining up in January, between 155,000 and 157,500 took part (about 34% of members as against 22.7% in the December ballot).
Of the approximately 62,500 extra votes going to the three main tickets, more than two-thirds (42,500) went to Podemos For All.
The full range of reasons for this surge in support for Iglesias’s positions remain to be identified, but a major factor was his declared intention to resign if Podemos For All did not win. This confronted Podemos members with the disturbing thought of their party having to fight in the cockpit of Spanish politics without its most charismatic and pugnacious spokesperson.
Another factor may have been the greater participation by Podemos members committed to continuing united election campaigns with the older United Left (IU). This united campaigning began in general elections last June under the banner Unidos Podemos.
Podemos For All and Podemos In Motion supporting continuing this alliance, but it was cast into doubt by Errejon’s ticket.
‘A machete fight’
Iglesias’s pledge to resign as general secretary if his platform was defeated hung over the last month of intense pre-congress debate. This was four weeks of public meetings, daily media interviews, YouTube clips and often violent social media exchanges among supporters of the competing tendencies.
Discussion of political differences morphed into “a machete fight” — as writer Santiago Alba Rico called it — of personal attacks, conspiracy theories and “revelations” about past “disloyalty” of opponents.
Symptomatic was a February 5 article in El Diario by Luis Alegre, Podemos founder and its former general secretary in the Madrid region. Alegre ascribed the turmoil in the organisation to a “gang” of four or five who had turned Iglesias into their political captive. He said they were “prepared to destroy everything in order to preserve their role as courtiers”.
Alegre’s perspective was shared by philosophy lecturer Carlos Fernandez Liria, who maintained that “as general secretary, Pablo Iglesias could easily have sat all the parties down and forced an agreement”.
However, “a few people had another strategy for achieving unity — the elimination of all those who dared to disagree”.
In a February 8 radio interview, Errejon said that “if the theses that go with Pablo Iglesias prevail, it will be more difficult to get [right-wing prime minister Mariano] Rajoy out [and] change the Spanish political system”.
For Errejon, “the problem isn’t Pablo [but] that there has been a displacing of the comrades who went with the original Podemos. The bulk of that grey matter is with me on the Recover The Dream ticket: at the same time an ideological turn has taken place that has distanced us from those politically orphaned since Rajoy’s arrival.”
Recover The Dream projected its position with a picture of an eggplant with the heading “Recover the Purple”(the colour of Podemos). It argued for a perspective of “Neither IU nor PSOE [the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party]: Build The Social Majority on the Basis of Common Sense, not Old Labels”.
In a February 9 El Pais interview, Iglesias replied: “I believe we are in a historical phase in which Podemos needs to continue to be broadly based, but that doesn’t mean looking like other political parties.
“It’s not about becoming normal, not about beginning to dress or talk like the usual politicians. It’s about continuing to look like our society. It’s what I call coherence.
“There are comrades who, legitimately, have the view that Podemos should look like the rest of the parties: that’s something that’s obviously happening a bit with Inigo himself, with his style of communication. I joke with him a lot about it: ‘Mate, how much has your dress sense changed in the last two years!’.”
Iglesias also said his positions were his own, adding that “in politics you have to be courageous, and if there are differences these need to be openly confronted.
“To try to discredit someone’s ideas by creating scapegoats, by pointing to comrades and talking about them as a clique, is something that hurts us, is alien to our political culture, and makes the people who have committed to us feel ashamed.”
In this inflamed situation, attempts to bring the warring sides to a compromise by two outgoing leaders of Podemos’s work, Carolina Bescansa and Nacho Alvarez, predictably failed. The two then announced they would not be standing for re-election.
The situation became so polarised that the conservative Madrid media was licking its collective lips at the thought of two days of dogfights broadcast live and a close vote that would leave Podemos in a state of permanent factional wrangling.
But those hopes were to be disappointed. The prospect of a destructive factional showdown aroused the 9000 members attending the congress in Madrid’s Vistalegre stadium to make their own feelings clear. More than an hour before proceedings, the chanting began: “Unity! Unity! Unity!”
Here was the most active part of the Podemos membership — more often than not from parts of the Spanish state where the Madrid-centred battle between Errejon and Iglesias seemed less important — letting their leaders know they expected them to control their conflicts for the good of the party.
The mood created by this chanting, which even broke out in the middle of speakers’ addresses, had a contradictory impact: it restrained factional aggressiveness and encouraged good behaviour, but muffled the expression of differences.
The clearest indicator of the mood was the stormy standing ovation given to the speech of lead spokesperson for Anti-capitalists, European parliamentarian Miguel Urban.
He said: “We are as big as the enemies we choose, and as small as the fear we have of them. We are not here to pick internal enemies. There are no enemies here, here we are comrades. Our enemies are outside, outside Vistalegre.
“Our enemies are powerful [but] we are comrades and we’re going to defeat them.”
The changes that took place at the congress were clearly shown by the composition of the newly elected State Citizens Council. Thirty four of the 62 members elected in 2014 were not nominated on any list and only 19 of the remaining 28 won a position.
The new additions, including the election of Anti-capitalist leaders Miguel Urban and Beatriz Gimeno, give this State Citizens Council greater representativeness, depth of experience and expertise than the one it replaces.
If it also operates as Iglesias promised in his closing speech — in a spirit of unity, humility and with a greater role for women — it will have a better chance of confronting the key issues that lie at the root of the party’s divisions.
Probably the most critical issue is what approach to adopt towards the PSOE, itself going through a civil war mirroring Podemos’s. Over the three years of Podemos’s existence, its spokespeople huve sung nearly all possible tunes to the main party of Spanish social democracy — from calling it the “left leg of the regime” to a “brother party” — without it ever becoming clear for millions of potential voters what the bottom line of Podemos is for a left governmental alliance with PSOE.
But if the reactions of the party’s enemies and friends are anything to go by, the congress marked a definite step forward. The right-wing daily ABC (under the heading “Waiting for purges”), declared: “The most rancid communism and extreme populism have won.”
IU general coordinator Alberto Garzon, however, said: “We believe that what has won is a wager for unity, a wager to consolidate the political space of Unidos Podemos.”
How Podemos acts to help strengthen social resistance to the Rajoy government and pressures the PSOE will become even more crucial factors in the politics of the Spanish state as the year unfolds.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent based in Barcelona. A more detailed analysis of the Podemos congress will appear soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]