One Tuesday afternoon in late January, Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, the two most powerful figures in Podemos, appeared to get into a heated disagreement while sitting next to one another in the Spanish parliament, where their young anti-austerity party is the third-largest. Brows furrowed, hands touched shoulders, fingers pointed accusingly. Their 30-minute conversation remains the stuff of hearsay, yet dozens of photographs, a 10-second video clip, and a pinch of mystery were the perfect ingredients for a media firestorm. The next day, the tense faces of the two college friends—the Lennon and McCartney of the Spanish left—appeared on half a dozen front pages. “Fight in Congress,” read the headline of the conservative paper La Razón; “Iglesias and Errejón Stop Pretending.”
Though the Podemos leaders brushed it off—“We’re Spaniards, not Dutchmen: We gesticulate when we talk,” Iglesias joked—their confrontation was the latest crack in a growing rift within the party. Over the previous six months, ever since the disappointing results in last June’s parliamentary elections, different factions of Podemos have been at each other’s throats in increasingly nasty and public ways. While the Madrid-based leadership has occupied itself with internal rivalries, Podemos representatives and allies elsewhere in Spain are busy doing day-to-day political chores: In Aragon, Podemos is pressuring the Socialist Party (PSOE) to pass increases to educational infrastructure, including the building of a new hospital; in Andalusia, the party is bringing to light the sweetened deals the regional government struck with major multinationals such as Santander and BBVA; and the party’s regional affiliate in Cantabria has proposed measures to address a gender pay gap of nearly 30 percent.
Although the party has experienced growing pains throughout the country, nowhere have they been as acute as in Madrid, where the past month alone has seen the infighting reach new heights. On January 22, the journalist Enric Juliana wrote that party sources had told him that the rift had begun when, early in 2016, Iglesias discovered by chance that Errejón’s allies in the leadership were conspiring to sideline him. It didn’t take long for counter-narratives to appear. On February 1, Carolina Bescansa and Nacho Álvarez, two of the party’s most public faces, wrote an open letter saying that they wouldn’t partake in the confrontation between Errejón and Iglesias, blaming both for trapping the party in a “thicket of noise.”
Days later, the philosopher Luis Alegre, one of the party’s founders, published a scathing piece in which he blamed the division not on Iglesias but on the slash-and-burn tactics of the leader’s current entourage, a group of operators who came of age as activists in the Communist Party and include Iglesias’s romantic partner, Irene Montero. Two days after that, the respected philosopher Carlos Fernández Liria joined the choir, also pointing to the ruthless methods employed by Iglesias’s inner circle and publicly expressing his regret for, as he put it, having served in the recent past as Iglesias’s stooge. All this happened just days before “Vistalegre II,” the party’s second national congress, which took place on February 11 and 12 and was convened to decide, by assembly vote, Podemos’s platform, representatives, and direction for the next three years.
The endless bickering between pablistas and errejonistas briefly strengthened the party’s third faction, the anticapitalistas, a group whose members are affectionately known as troskos (Trotskyites) and which stems from a small, once-Trotskyist party that folded into Podemos in 2015. Their two most visible faces, Miguel Urbán, who represents Podemos in the European Parliament, and Teresa Rodríguez, the charismatic leader of the party in Andalusia, publicly diagnosed the disputes as a symptom of a competitive, machista political culture unworthy of Podemos. They repeatedly urged their fellow Podemos founders to stop embarrassing the party and focus on the real enemies: the business elites and the governing Partido Popular (PP).
Meanwhile, party leaders in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and other regions, as well as the bulk of the Podemos rank and file, were flummoxed by the division. On the face of it, the extreme intensity of the Madrid-centric conflict between the errejonistas and pablistas seemed inversely related to its actual stakes. Explanations spilled into vague metaphors: Iglesias spoke of “digging trenches,” “not turning into a regular political party,” and “taking the battle to the streets”; Errejón underscored that Podemos needed to be “friendlier,” more “transversal,” stop scaring off potential voters who don’t care for political labels, and begin showing right away that it can be an effective, influential presence in Parliament. At rallies, the pony-tailed Iglesias preferred to clench his fist, while the clean-cut Errejón made the two-fingered sign for victory or peace. To most observers, the differences seemed anything but mutually exclusive.
Many have associated Iglesias with a more centralized party structure and Errejón with the idea that the party must tone down its radical rhetoric: a version of the old debate between revolution and reform. But the disagreement between the two is more nuanced. While both Iglesias and Errejón want Podemos to grow powerful enough to govern the country, they disagree over what road to take, which stems from their differing interpretations of Spain’s current political chessboard. In Iglesias’s analysis, Podemos must first unite the voters of the left. From the party’s pact with United Left—the coalition that is home to the Spanish Communist Party—to its traditional party leadership structure, Podemos, according to Iglesias, must become an electoral machine not unlike the country’s Socialist Party of the 1980s. But Iglesias differs from Errejón in that he opposes joining forces with today’s PSOE, whose rightward-drifting elites, Iglesias believes, have turned it into a handmaiden to the conservative PP. Errejón proposes a different route: Spain’s entire electoral chessboard should be up for grabs. This means dropping what he sees as the language and party structure of the old left and trying to appeal to voters of the PP or the new neoliberal, center-right party, Ciudadanos. Podemos, according to Errejón, can’t limit itself to first corralling Socialist Party and United Left voters; it must, from the get-go, seek the broadest appeal possible, which means shedding its leftist label and not rejecting agreements with other parties out of hand, especially on issues such as minimum wage, universal basic income, or curbing the power of utility companies.
In the days leading up to the Vistalegre II congress, as last-ditch attempts to forge agreements among the competing proposals failed, it became clear that the battle’s outcome was going to be decided at the meeting itself. Putting their fate in the hands of the party’s more than 450,000 party members, or inscritos, the party’s three largest factions—pablistas, errejonistas, and anticapitalistas—decided to run against one another. (The inscritos are regular citizens who have registered as party members at zero cost and with no pre-existing connections—a system unlike any other party’s.) It was a risk many had hoped to avoid, and some feared the worst. “The damage has already been done,” Santiago Alba Rico, a philosopher and Podemos member, wrote somberly a week before the gathering. The conflict between Iglesias and Errejón, he wrote, “has distanced many regular people who were prematurely inspired and have been traumatically disillusioned, and it may alienate even more.” “This is no longer a moment of hope but of simple survival,” he continued. “This isn’t going to be a celebration but a duel, not a moment of reflection, but a war.” Would the assembly, meant as a way to animate democratic participation in party politics, instead estrange everyone but the most avid participants in the day-to-day activity of the party? Or worse still: Would the conflict rip Podemos apart?
On February 11, Podemos supporters arrived at the Palacio Vistalegre, a bullring-cum-sports complex located in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Carabanchel in south Madrid, brimming with a mix of anxiety and enthusiasm. Film crews from the television channel La Sexta interviewing the scores who arrived in the morning registered high hopes and little explicit partisanship. Once the assembly got under way, this sentiment proved widespread. Iglesias had barely begun his inaugural speech when the more than 9,000 people inside the arena interrupted him, chanting “¡Unidad, unidad!” (Unity, unity!)—implicitly scolding both protagonists of the party’s internal division. Observers inside the arena called the chants for unity “constant” throughout the day and “deafening” when Iglesias and Errejón stepped onto the stage.
At the congress, six items were up for a vote: the post of secretary general; the 62-seat Citizen’s Council; documents outlining the party’s political, organizational, and ethical goals and principles; and a white paper on equality. The party’s three major political factions each presented rival proposals for most, although all three supported Iglesias as secretary general. Online voting opened the week leading up to the congress and continued into the weekend—a procedure that, some critics noted, curiously put the cart (the vote) before the horse (deliberation). The first day of the congress was dedicated exclusively to speeches presenting each of the proposals. Errejón defended his big-tent idea of a “Podemos without labels,” shedding the ideological markers of “left” and “right,” while Iglesias pushed for a “historical bloc for change,” a concept borrowed from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Perhaps surprisingly, the speech that received the biggest ovation was a joint appearance by the anticapitalistas Miguel Urbán and Teresa Rodríguez. Responding to the crowd’s chants for unidad, Rodríguez said, “We need another word that rhymes with it: humildad (humility). We have boats for everyone, but we’re all oarsmen and oarswomen.” The complaint was clear: the problem was not just the rivalry between Errejón and Iglesias, but their arrogance.
The crowd’s cheers echoed Rodríguez’s irritation at the leadership’s cockfights. Many in and close to Podemos have been exasperated with what they see as childish and irresponsible behavior from the party’s founders. “Frustrations ran very high, to the point of disaffection,” says Noelia Adánez, a political scientist and radio commentator. “But to be honest, I don’t think the conflict ever managed to divide the rank and file, in part because it wasn’t ever clear what it was about, beyond the human factor in a young party made up largely of young people.”
“Some of us who are a bit older had a hard time understanding how the same people who had made such smart use of the media before could take so much risk, and be so irresponsible, in the way they managed this internal conflict,” Ariel Jerez, a political scientist and Citizen’s Council member, told us. Iglesias and Errejón were even compelled to publicly acknowledge their petulance. “Forgive me, I know we’ve been embarrassing you,” Iglesias had written in a public letter in December. But ironically, the hostilities became only more intense in the months following. “The damage and disenchantment have been considerable,” Magda Bandera, the editor of La Marea, an independent and cooperatively owned newspaper, says. “I’ve got friends who have been active in the party’s circles, who are seriously considering throwing in the towel—or at least to take a break from politics.”
The election results came in just before noon on February 12, day two of the congress. Despite revealing a significantly more divided party than the first Vistalegre congress two and a half years ago, the outcome unambiguously favored Pablo Iglesias. Iglesias and his team harvested more than 50 percent of the vote on each item, while support for Errejón hovered between 33 and 36 percent. Over 155,000 party members—34.5 percent of registered members—voted, a figure made more impressive by the fact that, because of its open-door policy, many of those who are registered are not active members of the party. In a speech following his re-election as secretary general, Iglesias echoed the thousands of voices that had called for unity on day one. “You have voted for a Podemos that is choral, more feminine…fraternal, and united,” he said. After the weeks of doubt and infighting, the voters had decided and the party had survived. The collective relief was palpable. But the foreboding clouds hadn’t quite cleared. How would Iglesias manage his victory? Would the errejonistas be purged? What would be done with Errejón’s valuable criticisms of the party’s status quo—particularly, the heavy-handed internal hierarchies and aggressive tactics toward other parties?
While Podemos was celebrating Vistalegre II, elsewhere in Madrid a very different party gathering was taking place. The conservative Partido Popular hosted its eighteenth congress in the Caja Mágica, Madrid’s major stadium tennis court, with little fanfare and near absolute predictability. Unlike Podemos’s constituent assembly, the PP’s congress happened behind closed doors and just over 2,500 members attended. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s current prime minister, won a symbolic re-election as party president. Equally symbolic, though slightly more dramatic, was the defeat, via placard vote, of a proposed amendment that would have limited the number of positions party leaders could hold. The amendment was pointedly directed at María Dolores de Cospedal, Rajoy’s number two, who currently holds four offices: defense minister, secretary general of the party, president of the party’s regional branch in Castile-La Mancha, and congresswoman. Perhaps in an effort to quell concerns, Rajoy delegated some of Cospedal’s responsibilities to Fernando Martínez Maillo, an up-and-coming conservative figure from Zamora. “I won’t say that there are parties that fit inside a bullring,” Rajoy said sarcastically, referring to the Podemos assembly. “What I will say is that ours fits neither in a bullring nor in any place, because it’s as extensive as the entire area of Spain.” The irony of the PP holding its assembly in a tennis court one-fourth the size of Vistalegre was apparently lost on Rajoy.
Rajoy’s assuredness during his own party’s congress was symptomatic, the philosopher José Luis Villacañas pointed out two days later. “The man who at one point had good reason to fear he’d be facing a trial,” he wrote in reference to the PP’s widespread illegal financing, “may now expect to hold on to power for decades.” For Villacañas, the Spanish left has squandered its window of opportunity, as the prospect of real political change in Spain has once again drifted beyond the horizon. In a harshly worded column, he placed the blame squarely on Pablo Iglesias, whose sectarian and “erratic” leadership, he said, had damaged Podemos. His victory at Vistalegre II, Villacañas predicted, will only serve to strengthen the conservatives’ grip on the Spanish government.
For others, the problems ran deeper than Iglesias. Emmanuel Rodríguez, a leading figure in the 15-M or indignado movement of 2011 that Podemos recognizes as its inspiration, pointed to the congress as proof that Podemos has now officially become yet another political party. Rodríguez has long been critical of the party’s lack of commitment to internal democracy and its failure to imagine, let alone implement, a different political culture in Spain. “Given [the party’s] rapid political degeneration,” he wrote, “and the…laughter…[of] corporate boards and the leaders of other political parties in response to the spectacle [Podemos] is putting on, which at times has been grotesque, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and ask ourselves if Podemos still is, or isn’t, a useful political tool.”
“I’m not sure whether to be more or less hopeful about Podemos’s future,” Magda Bandera, the editor, says. “A lot will depend on what happens in the Socialist Party.” The center-left PSOE, which in the last elections barely eked out more votes than Podemos, allowed the Partido Popular to form a minority government in November and has since been mired in an internal power struggle. The PSOE’s ousted leader, Pedro Sánchez, has vowed to run again in his party’s primaries. “Sánchez is now edging to the left and arguing for a pact with Podemos,” Bandera says. “With Iglesias’s position strengthened, Podemos may adopt a more clearly leftist profile, similar to Die Linke in Germany. I’ve always thought it didn’t make much sense for Podemos to become a younger, improved version of the center-left PSOE, which is how I understood Errejón’s project.” But Podemos has a difficult time ahead, she adds. “The conflicts have led to a loss of momentum. They need to get their act together and present an actual leftist program with specifics. It’s not clear, for example, how they plan to tackle the issue of retirement pensions, which is one of the largest worries of Spaniards today.”
Immediately following the congress at Vistalegre, Iglesias and Errejón holed up behind closed doors to negotiate one-on-one. Their deal, which was revealed at the first meeting of the newly elected national Citizen’s Council, a week after Vistalegre, involved Errejón securing three seats of the party’s 15-member executive council. (Eleven of the remaining seats are reserved for Iglesias and his group, while Miguel Urbán will serve as the sole representative of the anticapitalistas.) Meanwhile, Errejón will be replaced by Irene Montero as the party’s spokesperson in the national parliament in exchange for Iglesias’s support of Errejón’s candidacy for the regional elections in Madrid, which are scheduled for 2019.
“Thanks to last-minute agreements, the biggest risk, a split, has been avoided,” Jerez, the Citizen’s Council member, told us, before pointing to the silver lining: “True, our system of open primaries has led to excessive internal competition. But if you look at how the rest of the parties operate, our process may be tumultuous but it’s fundamentally different—and it breaks all records of participation.” There is another silver lining, according to Villacañas, the philosopher: With Iglesias more powerful than ever, it’s clear who should be held responsible if things don’t go as well as expected.
The negotiation may have restored peace, but some have balked at the sidelining of internal democracy for what looks like horse-trading. Urbán was quick to point out that the national leadership has no business pre-selecting candidates for regional elections. “The important thing is winning,” he scoffed, “but that is something you don’t do with any one candidate. You first need a coherent project for Madrid, a debate which starts from the bottom up.” “These post-congress deals have not been well received,” Bandera, the editor, confirms. “Podemos was supposed to empower the party base to make those kinds of decisions—which is what happened when people voted at the congress. This is a step backward.” But even at the congress the shift from internal democracy to party hierarchy was palpable, as journalist Nuria Alabao noted. At one point on day two, as a speaker on stage was explaining the details of the program the voters had just approved, “a swarm of journalists turned their backs on him…in an attempt to catch a good picture of the party’s leaders” in the front row.
But Spain is larger than Madrid. The same Saturday that Podemos was tending to its wounds in the capital, the city of Barcelona was home to the largest protests ever held in Europe in support of refugees. The demonstrations were organized by the volunteer refugee-aid group Casa Nostra, Casa Vostra (Our House, Your House). Over 160,000 people gathered at the Plaça Urquinaona, in the center of the city, to pressure the Spanish government to accept more of the many thousands who have fled to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa in search of asylum. So far, the Spanish government has displayed woeful negligence in the refugee crisis: The country has granted asylum to only 1,034 of the 16,231 refugees it agreed to take in last September.
In the crowd, alongside her husband and son, was Ada Colau, Barcelona’s mayor, who has been a vocal critic of the EU’s refugee policy and had called upon the entire city to “fill the streets” in a massive show of support. An anti-eviction activist not more than two years ago, Colau was swept into office in May 2015 representing a broad citizen’s platform—allied with Podemos—focused on questions of social justice, participatory democracy, and, ultimately, reclaiming the municipality of Barcelona from the tourism industry and the pockets of political elites. “The citizenry is always ahead of institutions, it’s always been like that,” she said in a TV interview during the protests. “In order for institutions to move and do what they should do, it is essential for the citizenry to be in the streets, mobilizing. I’m very happy that Barcelona, one more time, has been the stage of solidarity and hope.… In a Europe that right now is witnessing the rise of racism and xenophobia, as the United States has entered the Trump era, I think it’s more important than ever that thousands and thousands of us come out and shout that we reject racist politics.”
Colau’s leadership in Barcelona sharply contrasts with the melodrama in Madrid. “In the face of this fruitless battle for [Podemos’s] leadership,” no one embodies the solution better than Ada Colau, the historian Sebastián Martín wrote in early February. “Her leadership is a unifying force that rises above old divisive habits, is recognized by Tyrians and Trojans, and capable of reconciling, with intelligence and without discord, the ethical rigor of social movements with the pragmatic flexibility of institutional action.” Alongside Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena and Valencia Mayor Joan Ribó, who, like Colau, came to power thanks to citizens’ platforms with allegiances to Podemos, Colau is one of Spain’s politicians with the highest approval rating.
As recently as a year ago, after the European Union crushed Syriza’s attempts to resist austerity in Greece, Podemos shone as a beacon of hope for the European left. Today, just as Europe is bracing for a series of elections that could strengthen the xenophobic far-right in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, a left counterweight seems more necessary than ever. A number of people we have spoken to over the past year have said that Colau has ruled out running for prime minister of Spain. But as the far-right tide in Europe rises, the pressure will certainly mount for Colau and other highly respected local politicians in Spain to take the leap to national politics. Meanwhile, Iglesias and Errejón have both lost political capital. Their intellectualized disagreements make little sense to a population crushed by unemployment, precarity, and never-ending cuts to education, health, and other public services. But then again, Podemos was founded by academics, who are used to turning small stakes into personalized battles.