For all its clarity, novelty and wit, there was perhaps something foolhardy in Podemos’s decision to model its last election manifesto on the Ikea catalogue.
The symbolism was not hard to fathom: here, cooed the pages showing candidates at home, was a bright, straightforward, modern party; an explosion of youthful colour along the musty, dark-wood corridors of traditional Spanish politics.
On the eve of the election in June – Spain’s second in six months – Podemos had every reason to cheerful. Bolstered by the decision to run on a joint ticket with United Left (IU), a leftwing coalition that includes the Communist party of Spain, things were looking overwhelmingly positive. Experts and polls alike predicted that the new alliance, Unidos Podemos, would consolidate the phenomenal gains made by the grassroots social movement in the December vote and achieve its dream of replacing the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE) as the pre-eminent voice of the left.
Until the first exit polls came in on the evening of Sunday 26 June, the sorpasso (overtaking) was taken for granted. A few hours later, though, it seemed that in true flatpack fashion someone had mislaid the instructions, snapped the dowels and lost a few vital screws. Unidos Podemos failed to make gains and lost more than a million votes. No party achieved a majority and Spain, not for the first time, found itself without a government.
Since then, the question for Podemos supporters has been simple: why had the blisteringly successful force that erupted from popular discontent over austerity and corruption to threaten four decades of two-party rule suddenly fallen short? A few obvious answers suggested themselves. Perhaps the UK’s Brexit vote, three days before, had sent voters scurrying back into the familiar arms of the PSOE and the conservative People’s party (PP); perhaps the attempts by the Podemos party leader, Pablo Iglesias, to reach out to the centre ground by diluting the revolutionary rhetoric had confused and alienated people.
Whatever the reason, the party’s poor performance led to weeks of introspection that have further revealed the ideological tensions at its core. Most visible has been the rivalry between Iglesias and Podemos’s policy chief and number two, Iñigo Errejón. If Errejón has pushed for a more pragmatic approach to the PSOE, with a view to sharing power after December’s election, then Iglesias has gone out of his way to antagonise the Socialists, once memorably reminding parliament of the anti-Eta death squads that operated under the government of former PSOE leader Felipe González.
Now the growing tensions are coming to a head in Madrid, where competing factions are vying for control of Podemos’s birthplace and its future. On one side is Tania Sánchez, a former IU MP, who, along with Madrid councillor Rita Maestre, hopes to make the local party a more “friendly, female and decentralised” outfit.
Opposite them are the Iglesias loyalists, such as the party’s general secretary in the capital, Luis Alegre, who has long had a troubled relationship with the Errejónista faction.
To complicate things further, Sánchez, who is standing to be the party’s new leader in Madrid, is a former girlfriend of Iglesias, while Maestre used to go out with Errejón. In an attempt to head off the inevitable innuendo, both women put out a statement: “We are not girlfriends or ex-girlfriends, we are human beings who make our own decisions. We don’t need a man to help us or lead us … We’re protagonists who defend a Podemos for everyone.”
Iglesias responded coolly, saying he was convinced there would be “far better candidates”.
“There’s no division between Iglesias and Errejón when it comes to objectives, but there is one when it comes to means and strategies,” says the sociologist and commentator Jorge Galindo.
“Iglesias has forged an alliance with the anti-capitalist movements because he thinks about a strategy involving a Leninist assault by the proletarian vanguard.
Errejón, on the other hand, who’s more of a populist in the Latin American sense – Ecuador, Bolivia – has a much closer alliance with the policy-oriented group: first you deliver and do things for the people, then you create dominance.”
Though it may object to the religious image, Podemos is indeed a broad church or, as Galindo puts it, “a half-formed political animal, a coalition of pretty varied interests that’s kept together by electoral success and by the drive to occupy new space”.
Antonio Barroso, an analyst at the political risk advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, sees the internal divisions as a sign that the party is coming of age politically. “It was like a virgin party when it emerged, formed of círculos [working groups] to represent the people. At the end of the day it’s just becoming a classic party with its internal quarrels.”
In one way, says Barroso, Podemos is now little different to the PSOE. The Socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, is facing growing calls from within the party to reverse his long-held refusal to end Spain’s nine-month political impasse by allowing the country’s acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to form a minority government led by his People’s party.l
Rajoy, whose recent bids to break the deadlock have been thwarted by his opponents, has few such internal problems. As well as benefiting from a more hierarchical structure, the PP was also the only party to increase its seat count in June, taking 14 more seats than in December and finishing first, albeit well short of an absolute majority.
With third elections now looming in December, the pressure is on the other parties to rescue Spain from an unwelcome Christmas present. With the PP holding firm and the Socialists starting to squirm, it is up to Podemos to show that it can regain the unity and momentum that it lost on 26 June.
“They didn’t live up to expectations, and that’s true. But to go from zero to 69 seats in one election is insane by Spanish standards,” says Barroso. “They have shaken up the debate and they have shaken up parliament. The question now is: where does it go from here? Does it become another party in parliament that will continue growing or does it become a marginal force?”