In the end the close result that participants and commentators alike were expecting never happened: at the second congress (“citizens’ assembly”) of the radical Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos, held in Madrid on February 11-12, the proposals and candidate list of outgoing general secretary Pablo Iglesias easily defeated those of outgoing political secretary Iñigo Errejón.
Many people awaiting the results in the Vistalegre congress centre were taken aback by the ease of Iglesias’s win. It contrasted with the December Podemos membership vote over the rules and voting methods to govern the congress, which saw Iglesias’s position barely surpass Errejon’s, by 41.57% to 39.12%. Just under 100,000 of Podemos´s 436,000 members voted in that first Spain-wide ballot in what had already become a fight for control of the organisation.
The third most supported proposal, of the Anti-capitalists, the other major current in Podemos, won 10.5% after the failure of its efforts to find a compromise agreement with the two larger groupings.
The three tendencies, while agreeing on the undemocratic nature of the slate method used to elect Podemos leaderships from its founding congress in October 2014 (“Vistalegre I”), had different ideas about what should replace that scheme, which had allowed members to elect an entire list of candidates with one click of the mouse button.
They also disagreed about the size of the State Citizens Council (ruling body between Podemos congresses), the powers of the general secretary and how the vote on documents should relate to the election of officeholders, with Iglesias spelling out that he would not stand for general secretary if the political line he supported lost.
On politics, they differed as to the reasons for the “missing million” votes lost at the June 26 Spanish general election (26J) by Unidos Podemos (“United We Can”), the electoral alliance of Podemos and the United Left (IU) and by the broader formations in which they both take part in Catalonia, Galicia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Another important point of divergence was how to orient to their older rival for leadership of the left, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which had managed despite all polls to the contrary to stay ahead of Unidos Podemos on 26J.
However, just six weeks later, at “Vistalegre II”, the Iglesias forces achieved an absolute majority in the vote on the four congress documents—political perspectives, organisational proposals, ethical principles and gender equality. They also won a majority in the election for the 62 members of the State Citizens Council who are elected on an all-Spanish basis (the Council also includes the general secretaries elected at the level of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities and four representatives of Podemos’s local circles.)
The lowest vote achieved by Iglesias´s platform, called Podemos Para Todas (“Podemos For All”), was 53.63% (for its ethical principles document), while the highest vote received by Errejon’s platform Recuperar La Ilusión (“Recover Hope” or “Recover The Dream”) was 35.6% (for its gender equality document). The best result for the Anti-capitalists platform Podemos En Movimiento (“Podemos in Motion”) was 11.63% (for its ethics document), while the joint document on gender equality that it negotiated with Podemos Para Todas scored 61.68%.
In the election for general secretary, uncontested by Errejón, Iglesias easily defeated his only rival, Podemos Andalusian MP Juan Moreno Yagüe, by 89.09% to 10.91%. In the election for State Citizens Council 37 members of the Iglesias ticket, 23 members of the Errejón ticket and two members of the Anti-capitalist ticket were successful, winning respectively 60%, 37% and 3% of the positions. This result corresponded to 49.7%, 33.6% and 13.8% of the votes cast, with the under-representation of Anti-capitalists being due to the voting system adopted in the December ballot. The Anti-capitalists’ candidates for the State Citizens Council won a higher vote than any of the platform’s documents, while the vote for the Podemos Para Todas ticket was lower than the vote for its documents.
According to an analysis in the February 13 edition of the internet daily El Diario, the Anti-capitalists’ ticket would have won 10 seats if their own proposal on voting method had been adopted in the December ballot, and nine seats if Errejon’s proposal on voting method had succeeded. Under either system, the fourth ticket running, Podemos en Equipo (“Podemos as a Team”), would have won one seat with its 1.8% of the vote.
At the first meeting of the newly elected State Citizens Council, on February 18, a 15-strong executive was elected (by 76 votes to 0, with two abstentions). It has 11 “Pablistas”, three “Errejonistas” and one “Anticapi”. The same meeting eliminated Errejon’s former position of political secretary and replaced him as Podemos spokesperson in the Spanish parliament with Irene Montoro, who is also a spokesperson for the party, along with its organisational secretary Pablo Echenique. Errejón is now in charge of strategic analysis and political change and has agreed to be put forward as lead candidate for the Community of Madrid in 2019.
The immediate key to Iglesias’s victory was the big jump in participation in voting: with nearly 20,000 new members joining up in January, between 155,000 and 157,500 took part (around 34% as against 22.7% in December). Of the approximately 62,500 extra votes going to the three main tickets, over two-thirds (42,500) went to Podemos Para Todas, with Recuperar La Ilusión gaining 15,000 and Podemos En Movimiento 5000.
The full range of reasons for this surge in support for the positions of Iglesias remain to be pinned down, but a major factor was his declared intention to resign if Podemos Para Todas did not win. That commitment confronted the Podemos membership with the disturbing thought of their party having to fight in the cockpit of Spanish politics without its most charismatic and pugnacious spokesperson.
Another plausible factor would have been the increased participation by those Podemos members committed to maintaining united work with the United Left (IU) in Unidos Podemos. This position was supported by Podemos Para Todas and Podemos En Movimiento but cast into doubt by Recuperar La Ilusión.
Another could have been the compromise character of the Podemos Para Todas document, which picked up what some Podemos members may have seen as valid points in the two other positions and put them in a concrete perspective—that of assembling the conditions for winning the next cycle of elections in Spain (2019-2020).
Neither Podemos En Movimiento nor Recuperar La Ilusión challenged Iglesias for the position of general secretary. Their acceptance that “Pablo is the leader” could have given two contradictory impressions: either that these two platforms were not really fully convinced of their own positions (if the Iglesias’s line needed to be contested by forming an opposing faction, why should its lead exponent go unchallenged?) or that it was “safe” for the Podemos membership to vote for their positions because Iglesias would still be there.
‘A machete fight’
Iglesias’s undertaking to resign as general secretary if his platform was defeated hung over the month of debate before congress—four weeks of public meetings, daily TV and radio interviews, YouTube clips and often violent social media exchanges among the competing tendencies. Over this period and especially in the last week, discussion of political differences morphed into “a machete fight” (phrase of writer Santiago Alba Rico) of personal attacks, “revelations” about the past “disloyalty” of opponents, and conspiracy theories.
Symptomatic was a February 5 article on the internet site El Diario by Luis Alegre, Podemos founder and former general secretary in the Madrid region. He ascribed the turmoil in the organisation to a “gang” of four or five who had made Iglesias their political captive. Alegre wrote: “Since we founded Podemos I haven’t met anything as dangerous for Pablo and the project as the clique that is presently prepared to destroy everything in order to preserve their role as courtiers.”
Alegre’s vision of developments was shared by a number of left intellectuals, like philosophy lecturer Carlos Fernández Liria. He maintained that agreement between the contending sides had always been possible and “in the only desirable way—by organising Podemos´s internal pluralism. As general secretary, Pablo Iglesias could easily have sat all the parties down and forced an agreement.”
Why didn’t he? Because a few people had another strategy for achieving unity, the elimination of all those who dared to disagree…anyone who didn’t agree to participate in that war was immediately dubbed “Errejonist”. In the end, nearly everyone who built Podemos and the majority of those who made up Pablo Iglesias’s [original] team ended up being “Errejonist”.
As for the “few people” that supposedly had Iglesias in their thrall—including Irene Montero and MP Rafael Mayoral—they had, according to Fernández Liria, “decided that Podemos could be fixed up quick smart, with the same procedures they had used previously in the Communist Youth”. To back up his point Fernández Liria circulated on the social networks a photo of the team that organised Vistalegre I—28 of the 31 in the photo were now supporting Errejón.
In a February 8 radio interview, Errejón himself said that “if the theses that go with Pablo Iglesias prevail, it will be harder to get [prime minister Mariano] Rajoy out of the Moncloa [the prime minister’s residence], to change the Spanish political system.” For Errejón, “the problem isn’t Pablo…[it is] that there has been the pushing aside of the comrades who went with the original Podemos. The bulk of that grey matter is with me on the Recuperar La Ilusión ticket: at the same time an ideological turn has taken place that has distanced us from those citizens left politically orphaned since Rajoy arrived at the Moncloa.”
How much truth was there to this charge? In its campaign, Recuperar La Ilusión portrayed its position with a picture of an eggplant with the slogan “Recover The Purple”(the colour of Podemos) and the line “Neither IU Nor PSOE: Build Social Majority On the Basis of Common Sense, Not Old Labels”.
In a February 9 El País interview, Iglesias replied to this position, which implied that he had broken with Podemos’s founding self-description as neither left nor right but “transversal” and committed to “occupying the centre of the political chessboard”.
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 Iñigo himself, with his style of communication. I joke with him a lot about it: ‘Mate, how much your dress sense has changed in the last two years!’.
Iglesias also made clear that 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, pointing to comrades and talking about them as a clique is something that hurts us, is alien to our political culture, and makes people who have committed to us feel ashamed.”
The fight also spread out beyond the bounds of Podemos itself, because of differing views as to how far to take the alliance with IU in Unidos Podemos. Asked about the possibility of fusion with the older organisation Errejón replied “emphatically not”, while Santiago Alba Rico, who stood on the Recuperar La Ilusión ticket for the State Citizens Council, wrote on February 5:
Some of us have never seen a risk that Podemos will convert itself into a new PSOE, if only because we aspire to bring together the symbolic and political capital that the PSOE had in 1982 in order to carry out a completely different policy. On the other hand, we do see a very serious danger that Podemos will turn into a new IU or—worse still—that Vistalegre II will refound the old—the oldest—CP.
IU leaders Alberto Garzón and Ismael González felt compelled to take a stand on behalf of their organisation:
We view with enormous concern how in the framework of the internal debate in Podemos different factions have made a routine practice of in different ways lacking in respect towards IU. It’s not a question of using abusive terms, but of the attempt to smear the reputation of our organisation and to put it up as counterexample to the proposal of each faction. For us in the leadership of IU this is an intolerable and disloyal practice and we call on the leaders of Podemos to reflect deeply about it. All areas of political convergence, from the institutional to the social, feel the effects of this type of statement.
In this inflamed situation the attempt to bring the warring sides to a compromise agreement by two outgoing leaders of Podemos’s work, Carolina Bescansa (political and social analysis) and Nacho Álvarez (economy) predictably failed: they then announced that they would not be standing for re-election.
Roots of the conflict
How did this “discussion”, which was overwhelmingly—even excessively— public, arrive at this point of open factional warfare?
The roots of the conflict lie in the progressive breakdown of the original concept of Podemos—designed by Errejón and Iglesias and adopted at Vistalegre I—as an “electoral war machine”. The underlying assumption, encouraged by Podemos’s 8% (five seat) debut in the 2014 European election and subsequent surge in the polls, was that the new project had the dynamism and potential social support to rapidly win elections in the Spanish state and wrest political power from the establishment (in Iglesias’s phrase, “storm heaven”).
This conception of a “Podemos that wins”, which led to the centralisation of all power in a leadership elected by a slate system, left the organisations’ 600-700 local branches (“circles”) and its most committed activists with little role except to hand out propaganda at election time. At Vistalegre I it was opposed by then-European MP Pablo Echenique and the Anti-capitalists, whose joint proposal for a decentralised structure with a greater role for the circles lost to the Errejón-Iglesias ticket by 12.37% to 80.71%.
The illusion that Podemos could rapidly achieve majority electoral support through blitzkrieg did not last long. Between November 2014 and March 2015, the new party generally led the polls, but then began the counterattack of the establishment. First was the media-boosted arrival in all-Spanish politics of Citizens, “the Podemos of the right”, to be followed by concocted scandals about Errejón being paid by the University Of Malaga for non-existent research and “tax evasion” by Podemos founder Juan Carlos Monedero on income received for advising the Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan and Bolivian governments. By October 2015, Podemos had collapsed to 10.8% support in the CIS poll.
Over the same period, the “electoral war machine” model as applied to the February 2015 leadership elections in autonomous communities (states, in Australia) and municipalities led to a string of faction fights and resignations, especially as the central Podemos leadership had decided to endorse its own Claro Que Podemos (“Of Course We Can”) tickets in 12 of the 16 regions being contested, as well as in major cities. These lists were an open invitation to careerists attracted to the new party to get themselves “official” endorsement—with near certainty of election given that the Claro Que Podemos documents for the election had won over 80% support. They provoked a protest letter from ten “unofficial” teams in seven different regions, which said:
Either we’re all official or no-one is: because there’s no First Division or Second Division Podemos. We demand an express correction from the national leaders who are publicly supporting some candidates at the expense of others so that the campaign is not seen to be distorted.
The result of the election was that leadership-endorsed candidates won in 10 of the 12 regions in which they stood, with Aragón—won by Echenique’s team—and La Rioja as the exceptions. The closest-run contest was in the Community of Madrid (the Madrid region), where the Anti-capitalists just failed to win a majority of the executive. An Anti-capitalist-supported ticket also won Navarra (uncontested by the “Pablistas”) and, with European MP Teresa Rodríguez as candidate, was later to win Andalusia.
Within months, however, the newly elected regional teams started to experience crises. By the end of 2015, regional general secretaries in Galicia, Cantabria, Catalonia and the Basque Country (Euskadi) had either resigned or been replaced in new elections: by the end of 2016 new teams had to be elected in Euskadi, La Rioja, the Community of Madrid and Catalonia.
The internal atmosphere in Podemos after Vistalegre 1 and over 2015 has been described by Emmanuel Rodríguez (of Anti-capitalists):
As against the more or less chaotic but collaboration-based organisation of the previous months, the method for electing Podemos’s governing bodies inexorably gave rise to rivalry and confrontation. It was the reason that trust became an increasingly scarce commodity in the lower levels of the organisation. The primaries pitted recently formed groups mostly lacking in political experience against each other and ended up destroying the assembly-based dynamic that had been at the origin of Podemos. The “winner-take-all” prize to the ticket gaining the majority—in the form of official recognition as “leader” and later perhaps as candidate in elections—encouraged endless struggles for slices of power that were, at the end of the day, ridiculous.
For Rodríguez, the only antidote to this bonfire of the vanities was “the places with greater maturity and experience”:
There, where the circles were structured according to the heritage of the assemblies that arose out of the 15M experience, the situation somehow managed to be saved. But in most places, those where a critical mass did not exist capable of restoring a virtuous circle of collaboration, Podemos was reduced to a group of mates, now proclaimed to be its “citizens council”: a bureaucratic ghost without any implantation in those regions where living reality refused to jump through the Podemos hoop.
Podemos’s election results in the May 2015 regional elections, while reaching a respectable 14%, gave no support to the “storming heaven” thesis of Vistalegre 1. The PSOE held off its new rival in all autonomous communities and—revealingly–the broad progressive municipal tickets (“confluences”) built from below and involving both left parties and social movements won up to 25% of the vote as well as a number of important cities, including Barcelona and Madrid.
Podemos’s success in the December 20, 2015 general election (20D), where it and the confluences in which it took part scored 5.21 million votes with a campaign presenting itself as Spain’s one hope for political renewal and the only all-Spanish force committed to recognising its plurinationality, certainly showed the party recovering momentum. However, in hindsight this step forward also turned out to be a step down the road to a crisis that was to fully materialise after the June 26 repeat general election: this saw Unidos Podemos lose 1.063 million votes compared to the separate Podemos and IU results in December.
Internal tensions got a more immediate boost in March 2016 when organisational secretary Sergio Pascual, close to Errejón, was sacked by Iglesias. The reasons why Iglesias lost confidence in Pascual were various, including his support for the organised resignation of a third of Podemos’s Madrid executive in order to force the resignation of the Madrid region general secretary, concern that Pascual was exacerbating relations with various regional leaderships and suspicion that Pascual’s activities were being shared on an exclusive “Errejonist” Telegram channel within the leadership.
As a result, Pablo Echenique became the new organisational secretary, stating as condition that the Vistalegre 1 slate system be modified to allow greater representation for minorities. The sacking worsened relations between Iglesias and Errejón, who disappeared from public view for nearly a fortnight. According to Iglesias supporter Juan Carlos Monedero, commenting on his blog on December 26, “the resignations in March 2016, that sought to force a change in the general secretary [of Madrid region], showed that there were people who were setting up a party within the party.”
Other tensions lay beneath the surface. Most importantly, after December 20 Podemos had called for the formation of a left government with the PSOE, an offer the PSOE rejected in favour of forming a “government of change” with Citizens. When the Podemos State Citizens Council discussed whether or not to allow through abstention the formation of such a government, a number of its members spoke in favour. They were fearful that voting against–along with the ruling conservative People’s Party (PP)—would alienate voters for whom anything would be better than leaving the door open to the possible return of a PP government.
The issue was put to the Podemos membership, which voted nine-to-one against allowing a PSOE-Citizens government and in favour of Podemos continuing to pressure the PSOE into forming a coalition government of the left. According to the PSOE and the commercial media, that decision made Podemos responsible for Spain having to face a second general election within six months.
Meaning of 26J?
Podemos as “electoral war machine” ground to a final halt after 26J, the first reverse in the organisation’s short history. While both sides to the simmering conflict that was about to erupt could agree on that obvious fact, they had different readings as to why Unidos Podemos had lost over a million votes. That reality in turn influenced the discussion as to what sort of “machine” should replace the now-wrecked model that had been adopted at Vistalegre I, effectively making Vistalegre II a refoundation congress for the young organisation.
The growing dispute between the Igleais and Errejóm wings of what had been a single majority at Vistalegre I was exacerbated by the complexity of an election result which went against all poll predictions (creating a flurry of introspection amongst the pollsters) and allowed a range of plausible interpretations as to what had happened in the hearts and minds of voters. The statistics of the result and a post-election Metroscopia poll of 4000 voters as to the reasons for their choice made clear enough where the million-plus votes lost to Unidos Podemos had mainly gone:
- Podemos was specially damaged by the rise in the abstention rate (3.17% on average but higher among the younger age brackets in which Podemos does best). 800,000 who voted Podemos on 20D and 137,000 who voted IU abstained, being only partially offset by185,000 who had abstained on 20D and voted Unidos Podemos on 26J (a net loss of 752,000) ;
- 255,000 voters for the PSOE on 20D shifted to Unidos Podemos on 26J. However, 295,000 Podemos voters and 175,000 IU voters abandoned their December vote for these parties in favour of a 26J vote for the PSOE—a net loss to Unidos Podemos of 215,000.
- The rest of Unidos Podemos’s losses (just under 100,000) went to Citizens and other parties, most of all the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).
- The losses to the confluences Together We Can (Catalonia), A la Valenciana (Valencian Country) and In Tide (Galicia) were much less than in the rest of the Spanish state, while the Podemos vote actually increased in the Basque Country and Navarra. The percentage loss for Unidos Podemos and the confluences across the whole of Spain was 17.3%, but it averaged only 7.9% in these communities in which the national question is most felt. In the rest of the state Unidos Podemos’s losses generally ran above 20% .
What factors had most shaped this result? Why, most importantly, did so many who had voted Podemos on 20D decide to stay at home on 26J? Why, in addition, did the PSOE manage to hang onto many voters whom the polls had been saying were undecided between it, Unidos Podemos and Citizens?
Here the by now hardening trends within Podemos—and any interested commentator—could pick and choose those factors that most favoured their theses. The internal questionnaire distributed to Podemos circles by organisational secretary Echenique listed 12 options from which they could choose to make a “collective analysis” of the desertion of the million. They were: the alliance with IU; the management of the negotiations with the PSOE; support for the right to decide of the nationalities; Brexit; Podemos’s turn to a self-styled “social-democratic” message; its performance in the electoral debates; its offer to the PSOE to govern jointly; its TV advertising; the Venezuelan connection; the fear of a Podemos government; and the performance of the “councils of change” elected in May 2015.
The results of this survey, and an analysis of the electoral data by Carolina Bescansa, did nothing to establish an agreed reading. According to Bescansa, the bulk of the lost votes had deserted Podemos two months before the election, with the key factor being the aggressive way that Podemos and the confluences had made their offer of left government to the PSOE (with Iglesias demanding to be deputy prime minister). On that reading, a bigger loss was looming but was partially offset by the formation of Unidos Podemos.
For Iglesias, Podemos had lost political attractiveness because it had entered parliament on 20D and “it is difficult to keep being sexy and parliamentarians at the same time. We have been conditioned by Spanish politics.” Iglesias also stressed the basic point that, once Podemos and IU had formed Unidos Podemos and had got above the PSOE in the polls, 26 J became a frenzied crusade by the PP, PSOE and Citizens to keep the “reds” from becoming lead party on the left and out of positions of power. The PP won the election by mobilising conservative voters through its fear-and-loathing campaign, but Unidos Podemos was unable to inspire an offsetting counter-mobilisation of its potential support base.
But, once again, why? The feedback from the circles summarised by Echenique was that there had been a demobilisation of the Podemos base after 20D and that “we spoke more about parties than laws, more about candidates than people’s problems”. The most important negative factors for the circles were “fear of Podemos”, “the social-democratic message [Iglesias had defined Podemos as ‘truly social-democrat’ in the course of the campaign] and the hand held out to the PSOE” and then, of equal weight, the Venezuela connection and Podemos’s role in the negotiations over forming a government.
This reading begged more questions than it answered, invited contradictory answers to the question: “What should we have done?”. It cried out to be followed up by more thorough research because it was quite unclear how much of the loss of support was due to voter reluctance to risk Podemos in government, how much to alienation of people feeling that Podemos was becoming “just another party”, how much to an election campaign that was long on “feeling” but short on answers to the PP’s scare campaign, and how much to other factors (like growing media-boosted weariness with the deadlock in the Spanish parliament).
As a result each trend in Podemos was free to advance its preferred version of what should have been done to avoid the setback. Errejón’s current insisted that the major turn-off for voters had been the alliance with IU, despite the largely neutral role of this potential factor in the feedback from the Podemos circles. This position was summarised in the catch phrase “5 [million] plus 1 [million] don’t make 6 [million]. A document already circulated on June 28 on the Errejonist current’s Telegram channel said that “the so-called confluence with IU has been a dead weight”.
The identification with the traditional–outdated–bloc of the left, which creates no enthusiasm, the fraught coexistence in so many localities, the self-centred obsession as to who has the biggest banner, leads us to reappraise whether this is what is needed.
Do we want to keep being Podemos? That’s the question that many must be asking themselves after hearing yesterday’s words from our general secretary [reaffirming the value of the Unidos Podemos alliance].
For their part Iglesias’s supporters criticised the “feel-good” election campaign run by Errejón (slogan: “The Smile of a Country”). The June 28 commentary on the Telegram channel of Iglesias supporters read:
Over-confident of victory, we played to maintain an imaginary result, trying to consolidate what we had still not won…Maybe the campaign was too dominated by containment, by avoiding frightening people, and in the end we avoided giving people reasons to vote…Maybe the campaign was too much an Ode To Joy inappropriately played in a country that is passing through very sad times.
Jesus Rodríguez, the Anti-capitalist-aligned organisational secretary for Andalucía, was more categorical in a June 29 comment reported by web site El Confidential:
We should have done a campaign that was much more on the offensive, more aggressive, street by street, square by square. This traditional campaign format doesn’t help us. We need to be closer to the ground, with more bite, because our electorate is very afflicted and more volatile. Television is important for Podemos but it isn’t enough. We had to galvanise a very afflicted electorate and speak to it one on one.
For Antonio Maillo, the IU coordinator for Andalusia, the oscillations of the Unidos Podemos campaign message put potential supporters off: “One day it was on the extreme left, the next it was representing social democracy.”
In a July 5 interview with El Diario Iglesias warned against factionally driven analysis to explain why Unidos Podemos had lost over a million votes:
We will never know for certain because there are things that are impossible to know. The scientific instrument to detect them doesn’t exist. It’s very dangerous to allow narratives to flow not as explanations of reality but as identifiers of faction. To create a narrative according to how it helps your path in the future…It’s good that we don’t fall into this. It’s absurd to spin the yarn that going with IU cost votes, or that it was the campaign.
Towards Vistalegre II
However, Podemos did “fall into this”, and big time–driven by the Errejonist current’s reading of 26J and its determination to prevent what they saw as a reversion to old-style leftism. By now the differences were becoming entrenched, with the most sensitive points of dispute how to orient to the PSOE (and possibly partnering it in government) and what relation should hold between social resistance and Podemos’s work in the institutions. The differences also revealed that, in the vacuum created by the breakdown of the “electoral war machine”, the three main tendencies might be pursuing three different–quite possibly antagonistic—political projects.
These reflected the consequences of Podemos’s creation of a broad and heterogeneous political space to the left of the PSOE, an inevitable and natural process that its “electoral war machine” structure could suppress for a time but in no way eliminate. Each trend embodied a different, if not fully articulated, assessment of the complicated state of mass consciousness in the Spanish state and of how to transform it into an anti-austerity political majority.
Put more concretely, each trend had a different assessment of how much the existing state of mass consciousness and how much Podemos’s own shortcomings stood in the way of its first winning the battle for hegemony on the left and then challenging the PP for hegemony in the politics of the Spanish state (and, for the Anti-capitalists, then successfully defying the inevitable war with the European institutions). Did the strategic line of advance for Podemos mainly go through reassuring those still sceptical as to its competence to govern or did it go through rebuilding social resistance and drawing in people previously untouched by struggle?
The differences over political perspectives inevitably entailed differences over organisation. The Podemos of Vistalegre I had been hyper-centralised, with decision-making power and information (such as the membership list) the almost exclusive property of the three secretaries (general, political and organisational). All three currents understood the need to transfer powers to the organisation at the level of the regions (autonomous communities) and municipalities, but which powers should be removed from the centre and to what level should they be devolved?
Another, more background issue, was how Podemos should see itself ideologically–what is its political horizon? A Scandanavian-style level of welfare and economic weight for the public sector? Or the displacement of the ruling elites with some form of people’s government as first step on the road to a break with capitalist economy? Podemos’s opponents and the media have always tried to tie its spokespersons up in knots with questions as to whether it is “communist”, “Chavista”, “left-populist” etc, and probably the wisest course in immediate terms–given the organisation’s great heterogeneity–was to deflect these interested queries with some statement to the effect that “you can call us what you like but we’ve come to clean up their mess”.
Iglesias’s description of himself as “a real social-democrat” during the 26J election campaign caused more harm than good—no-one believed him, as he later recognised –while Errrejon’s assertion at the same time to the freebie newspaper 20minutos to effect that the terms “social-democrat” and “communist” have no meaning nowadays just added to the confusion.
(While not discussed in the run-up to Vistalegre II, the question of Podemos’s ideological self-description has again been put on the table by the decision of the November regional citizens assembly of Podemos Andalusia to describe itself as “socialist”.)
A separate article summarises the different analyses and political perspectives of the three main trends at Vistalegre II. The positions on politics and organisation that are summarised there—and which along with the documents on ethics and gender equality amounted to 440 pages of reading–became available to Podemos members on January 13. After the deadline for possibly combining texts had passed (February 3), members had a week in which to make up their mind and vote.
How many of the 155,000 who voted actually read all those words? It is difficult to imagine even very dedicated members finding the time and energy to plough through so much material. Many would have have taken their bearings from the YouTube clips that all sides produced and some from the public meetings they held (in some case with very little attendance).
Particularly lacking was time for organised debates among the three positions in all major centres in the Spanish state, such as would have allowed members to press spokepersons as to the real extent of their differences. As a result, this Podemos “pre-congress discussion” was not much of a discussion at all but a rapidly intensifying war for control of the organisation, with the two main groups focussed most of all on mobilising their potential supporters.
In the absence of a properly stuctured debate the overall impact on the majority of members of what was increasingly felt as a slugfest seems to have been alienation and frustration at having to choose between positions whose incompatibility they were not convinced of. For Carolina Bescansa, interviewed by the web-based discussion magazine Ctxt:
[T]he greater part of people in Podemos feel themselves to be Podemos and they don’t want to choose between one family and the other, but want to defend this project with all the comrades who are in it. I think the way this [the debate] is focused isn’t right, I think that no-one in Podemos is excess to requirement… This axis doesn’t allow us to talk about politics, nor of our historic responsibility, which is to convert all the force for social change into real political change for the vast majority in our country. That’s what we have to recover.
So polarised did the internal Podemos situation become that the conservative Madrid media (the “cavern”) was licking its collective lips at the thought of two days of dogfights broadcast live and—even better—a close vote that would leave Podemos in a state of permanent factional squabbling.
However, the hopes of this media—and the fears of Podemos supporters and voters–were to be disappointed. The reason was that the prospect of a destructive factional showdown aroused the 9000 members attending the congress to make their own feelings clear. More than an hour before proceedings opened on February 11 the cry went around the stadium: “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 Errejón and Iglesias seemed of lesser importance, letting their leaders know that they expected them to control their conflicts for the overall good of the party.
The mood created by this chant, which even broke out in the middle of speakers’ addresses, had a contradictory effect: it restrained factional aggressiveness and encouraged good behaviour while at the same time muffling 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. Urban 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 composition of the newly elected State Citizens Council epitomised the changes that took place at Podemos’s second congress. Thirty four of the 62 members elected in 2014 were not even nominated on any list, while only 19 of the remaining 28 were elected (ten for Podemos Para Todas and nine for Recuperar La Ilusión). The most notable changes were the election of Manuel Monereo, former director of the Communist Party’s Foundation for Marxist Research, Julio Rodríguez, the former head of the Spanish armed forces high command, Vicenç Navarro, well-known public policy economist, Juan Pedro Yllanes, a judge who was listed to hear a corruption case involving the Spanish royal family but instead stood for Podemos in the last Spanish general election, and respected Andalusian trade unionist Diego Cañamero.
Such additions, along with the election of Anti-capitalist leaders Miguel Urban and Beatriz Gimeno, gave this State Citizens Council some greater representativeness, depth of experience and expertise than the one it replaced. If it also operates as Iglesias promised in his closing speech—in a spirit of unity, humility and with a greater role for women as spokespeople—it will have a better chance of confronting the issues that lie at the root of the party’s divisions and which the victory of Podemos Para Todas has gone only a very small way to resolve.
The prickly issue of Iglesias’s at times take-no-prisoners political style was itself a concern in the run-up to Vistalegre. In a December 16 Público interview Errejón supporter Tania Sánchez commented when asked if a Podemos without Iglesias was imaginable:
Pablo Iglesias should continue to be the general secretary. However, I would ask him to understand that Podemos is much more than the position of his own side. He has to understand that Podemos is the sum of its parts and that his obligation, if he wants to be a good general secretary, is to collectively build a space where the discussion of ideas is not penalised, nor branded as disloyal and doesn’t get turned into an accusation of putting the collective project at risk…I agree with Errejón that we have to build an organisation where no-one is indispensable. Maybe those of us who have been part of the Podemos that shattered the electoral map shouldn’t be part of the Podemos that runs the country.
Reactions to the results of Vistalegre II were as many and varied as the commentaries during the warfare leading up to it. Emmanuel Rodríguez of Podemos en Moción listed nearly all the weaknesses in one short piece in February edition of Ctxt’s printed supplement Dobladillo:
Why are they calling us to a congress after we’ve voted? Why not do it beforehand, when we could have evaluated the proposals, got to know our future leaders, discussed with them, just as was still done at Vistalegre I? What are Pablo and Iñigo so afraid of?
And, again, why impose on us the system of primaries that only favours “the lone wolves of the computer”? Why does the future of the party have to be decided by a vote that has the same value for those who slog their guts out for the organisation and for those who hardly know anything about it, who could be sympathisers or could be members of other parties?…
How many would have read at least two or three of the 50 documents presented? Aren’t these primaries just a popularity contest, in no way the result of a real, informed political discussion?
A frustrated Rodríguez ended with the call: “Podemosites, throw out your leaders!”
Nonetheless, if the reactions of the party’s enemies and friends are anything to go by, this congress still marked a step forward for Podemos—it is now potentially better placed to confront the mountain of challenges before it. These quotes give the tone from both sides:
Right-wing daily ABC ( under the heading “Waiting for purges”): “The most rancid communism and extreme populism has won.” El País (establishment “centre-left”) : “If anything clear emerged…it is that the PSOE cannot count on Podemos…it is therefore placed as the only centre-left party with a chance of governing.” Alberto Garzón (IU general coordinator, looking forward to expanding the field of operations of Unidos Podemos beyond parliament): “We believe that what has won is a wager for unity, a wager to consolidate the political space of Unidos Podemos.”
In contrast with Emmanuel Rodríguez, fellow Anti-capitalist Miguel Urban’s assessment for Podemos En Movimiento was positive, even while he called for an end to “the culture of winners and losers” and for generosity “on the part of those who won most support”. Urban was quoted in February 12 ABC : “They [our enemies] are powerful, but they come out of this assembly more afraid. They wanted us disunited, but they find us more united, stronger ,and with plans to defeat them.”
The result also keeps Podemos unambiguously committed to representing and boosting social resistance. While there was nothing at all in Recuperar La Ilusion’s text that explicitly suggested abandonment of this, its criticism of “resistance-centred” politics combined with its silence on how Podemos should relate to the PSOE suggested a potential willingness to tail its older rival in the name of “doing good work in the institutions”. Given this ambiguity, for this observer it was for the best that Recuperar La Ilusión did not obtain a majority at Vistalegre II.
Yet even as that is said issues raised in Recuperar La Ilusión’s text retain their urgency. All polling shows a reluctance of most disillusioned PSOE voters to pass over to Podemos—their hesitations are apparently deep-going–and increased social struggle will not, of itself, dissolve them. This reality suggests that Podemos will have to find the creative ways—both ”in the institutions” and “in the street”–to combine mobilisation against the coming next wave of austerity with the presentation of alternative policies and perspectives for social action that are convincing and seductive of doubters. That will not be simple.
There is no still-to-be discovered quick fix to the situation Podemos finds itself in, locked as it still is in struggle with the PSOE for the hegemony of the left and progressive camp in Spanish politics. It faces a multidimensional challenge of building the organisation in many regions, and of extending it into areas where it has never had much implantation at all—especially in the Spanish countryside and among the poorer, older and less educated parts of the population. It has some assets for this work—in particular the network Podemos Ser Rurales (“We Can Be Rural”)—but it will require consistent, patient and organised work to make inroads in areas that have been, more often than not, heartlands of the PP.
More directly political challenges also loom, the most important of which will be the organisation’s real and effective attitude to the ever-closer showdown between the central PP government and the pro-independence government of Catalonia. To date Podemos has played a valuable role in championing the Catalan right to decide—including in the European Parliament—but it now needs to gear up for an unholy war for hearts and minds as the Spanish-centralist government of Mariano Rajoy moves (with the full support of the PSOE) to bring rebellious Catalonia to heel. Podemos will need to steel itself to campaign on the message of a Catalan right to decide that is unpopular in many regions: yet continuing to undermine support for Spanish centralism is an absolute precondition for creating a democratic Spain.
Finally, Podemos may soon have to again confront the issue that most lay at the roots of the fight at Vistalegre II and which the congress did nothing to resolve—its orientation towards the PSOE. If its former federal secretary Pedro Sánchez, whom the party bureaucracy forced to resign for refusing to allow the PP government to reform after 26J, is returned to the position by a rebellious PSOE majority in June, the permanency of the Rajoy government will be thrown into question. What alternative governmental formula should Podemos then propose? What alternative should it be prepared to accept?
The challenges that the incoming leadership of Podemos now faces can’t be underestimated. First, there is the considerable effort that will be required by all parties to put the faction fight behind it, overcoming what Monedero called in a December 26 post on his blog “perhaps its biggest mistake, not being able to organise a collective leadership”. Will the minorities act loyally, even as they express their differences? Will the majority be sensitive to the situation of the minorities? Will all sides revisit the political basis of the positions they adopted and ask whether their platform really still needs to exist in the same form as at Vistalegre II—or at all? Will they accept that convincing answers can only come through the test of practice and that the job of the entire Podemos leadership is to make that test as thorough as possible?
Confronting these crucial issues in the aftermath of Vistalegre II will require a level of political maturity that was lacking before it. One thing is certain—Podemos can’t afford a repetition of the crude fight for supremacy disguised as political discussion that was Vistalegre II.
 A reference to the overwhelming social support the PSOE had built up on the eve of its victory in the 1982 general election
 A reference to the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the main current in the United Left.
 In his book La política en el ocaso de la clase media: El ciclo 15M-Podemos (“Politics in the decline of the middle class: the 15M-Podemos cycle”), p. 104.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.