Spain: Podemos at the crossroads

February 10, 2017
Pablo Iglesias.

The left-wing anti-austerity party Podemos is planning to hold its second country-wide citizens’ assembly (Vistalegre II) on February 11th-12th to decide the political direction, organisational structure and its electoral strategy for the next regional and general elections.

In the last several months, tensions have risen between the two major figures within Podemos — Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejon, and their respective strategic visions of bring the organisation to power in the Spanish congress as the regional assemblies across the country. The party’s orientation towards state institutions (such as the mayoralties in Barcelona and Madrid), its relationship with the social movements, the question of de-centralising the party’s elected and executive structures, its relationship with the United Left (IU), and the kind of political line it should take towards the neoliberal centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE).

The structure of Vistalegre II is mainly focused on three major votes that will decide the party’s political makeup — the election of its 62-member, country-wide Citizens Assembly, the election of the General Secretary and adoption of four main documents that relate to party’s organisation, political orientation, ethics and gender equality.

Unlike the first congress of Podemos in November 2014, which featured only a unified ticket led by Iglesias and Errejon (Claro Que Podemos) standing against the anti-capitalist tendency within Podemos (Sumando Podemos), the Citizens Assembly will feature three different political teams contending for the majority on the council and the adoption of their respective documents. Meanwhile, Pablo Iglesias is standing as the sole candidate for the position of General Secretary.

The composition of each of the three teams reflects some important changes and developments that have taken place internally since the formation of the “Triple Alliance” government of Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP), directly supported by the neoliberal centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party with the abstention of the PSOE. Debates have also been held about the nature of the party in light of the failure of its “electoral machine” tactic during the June 26 general election and the growing polarisation between Iglesias and Errejon.

The “electoral machine” program that dominated Podemos’ approach and political structures in every single election from May 2014 to September 2016 was built upon the need to rapidly capture the vast political space opened by the rise of the Indignados movement and present a genuine alternative that best resonated among those sections of the population most impacted by the crisis.

However, the disappointing results of the June 26 election (where the combined Unidos Podemos vote lost nearly a million votes compared to previous December) and the moderate electoral successes in the September regional elections, an overall drop in the level of social mobilisation throughout the country and the return of the right-wing minority PP government have all contributed to internal debate over the limitations of the “machine” and the party’s inability to grow beyond the 20-25% of the vote that it currently holds.

Errejon has favoured prioritising the party’s work in its elected offices and state institutions, continuing with Podemos’ original slogan of “neither left, nor right, but forward”. Iglesias, for his part, has consistently emphasised the need to back away from the electoral focus in order to work with the broader class struggle and social movements, promoting deeper radicalisation of the society by continuously helping to build the opposition to the austerity of the “Triple Alliance” government.

Team Iglesias — “Podemos For All”

The Podemos Para Todas (“Podemos For All”) group includes of Pablo Iglesias, Irene Monetero (the Podemos speaker in the Spanish parliament), Pablo Echenique (Podemos leader in Aragón), Vincent Navarro (a well-known professor of economics) and Rafael Mayoral (Podemos MP and Secretary for Social Movements) among others.

Their political program mainly orients towards the original conception of Podemos as a party born out of the mass anti-austerity social movements, building on upsurge of 15M and Las Mareas (the tides). The revival of the social struggle, either by supporting the existing social movements or relating to them in other ways, has been the key argument for increasing the political space they have captured since 2014.

The political program emphasises the need to maintain distance from the “old” mainstream parties such as the PSOE, while at the same time maintaining the existing alliance with the United Left and seeking to include other anti-austerity political forces.

Reviving the “Podemos Circles” as spaces for debates and member participation also forms a key part of this push for the return to the grassroots. At the same time, the centralised leadership structure of the executive and party as a whole would remain in place, although greater attention would be paid to the “decentralisation” of the decision-making among the municipal and the autonomous branches of the party and the elected deputies in order to reflect the plurinational character of the organisation.

The concrete aim of this strategy is to “maintain the feet on the ground” and go beyond the nearly 500,000 members the organisation currently has in order to reach at least 1,000,000 members and 100,000 militants. This would then prepare the party for the regional and general elections of 2019 and 2020 respectively, with the goal of defeating the PP and securing a left-wing government.

Team Errejon — “Restoring Hope”

Recuperar La Ilusión (“Restoring Hope”) is a ticket led by Iñigo Errejon, Rita Maestre (Deputy in the Madrid City Council), Juan Pedro Yllanes (a former judge and MP from Balearic islands), Pablo Bustinduy (the Podemos International Secretary), Tania Gonazez (Podemos MEP) and Santiago Alba Rico (prominent leftist writer) among others. They aim to surpass the vote of the PSOE by appealing broadly to its disaffected voters. One of the main ways it seeks to undertake that is by emphasising the original slogan of “neither left nor right” to appeal to the middle classes.

This would then help to construct a new social contract that cuts across the economic and social class lines and seeks to interpolate and “seduce” the diverse sections of the Spanish society to join in a broad patriotic popular force that would be capable of defeating the PP government.

The program puts a particularly strong emphasis on Podemos proving that it is a different, more efficient, more honest, more competent administrator of the state institutions in the municipalities (such as Madrid and Barcelona) and regional governments (such as Valencia and Navarra).

Among its other most pressing questions, it seeks to support the decentralisation of the party, in line with the current regional divisions of Spanish state, and transfer greater decision-making powers to the regional citizens assemblies and prioritise the work within the municipalities and local governments.

Anticapitalists — “Podemos in the Movements”

Podemos en Movimiento (Podemos in the Movements) is the ticket of the anti-capitalist tendency within the party, headed by Miguel Urban, a Podemos Member of European Parliament, and Teresa Rodriguez, the leader of Podemos in Andalusia.

Taking a third position in relation to Errejon and Iglesias, the anti-capitalists seek to construct Podemos as a force for social resistance and social change, mostly in line with the rhetoric and proposals put forward by Podemos Para Todas. It sees the social movements acting as a counter to the “institutionalisation” of Podemos and ensuring it follows with its program of anti-austerity and popular struggle within the elected structures of the Spanish state.

The ticket contains criticisms of and differences with both Iglesias’ and Errejon’s visions of Podemos. While demanding the decentralisation of the party’s elected structures and citizens’ assemblies (particularly in the region of Andalusia), the group also emphasises the need for the party to act simultaneously in both arenas — institutional and the streets — instead of simply focusing on eventually winning the 2020 general election. It also supports the continuation of the alliance between Podemos and its various regional groupings, as well as the United Left. At the same time, it puts a strong emphasis on gender equality and feminism, with its main document incorporating both their own proposals and those of Podemos Para Todas.

The acute differences in strategic thinking between Iglesias and Errejon appear as the culmination of all the contradictions and internal differences that have built up within the party since October 2014. The question Vistaelgre II would therefore need to answer is what is driving the political and social pressures underlying the current dispute between its two most prominent leaders.

Most importantly, the result of the vote at Vistalegre II will determine the future of Pablo Iglesias’ position within the party. Although he faces no real challenge in the direct election for the position of General Secretary, a defeat of Podemos Para Todas and the rejection of its political documents could effectively signal the beginning of the end of his leadership.

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