The surprise setback suffered by Unidos Podemos in Sunday’s repeat election has sparked a crisis within Podemos. Many in the party are questioning the wisdom of the alliance with the Communist Party-led United Left (IU), particularly in light of the poor showing precisely in provinces where IU garnered its best results at the original December 20 election. Far from increasing its presence in Congress by attracting more support, the coalition lost a million votes.
A significant number of IU voters, influenced by the skepticism shown by long-standing party figures such as Cayo Lara or Gaspar Llamazares, seem to have turned their backs on a coalition seen as having strayed too far from its political principles. This marriage of convenience, as some in Podemos have dubbed the coalition, failed to inspire voters.
Pablo Iglesias projected himself as a social democrat keen to cut a deal with the Socialists, thus trying to cover the entire spectrum of the left
Another key factor in the setback has been the uncertainty and lack of credibility produced by the ideological twists and turns that have characterized Podemos’ campaign. Despite the presence of leading figures from Spain’s far left such as Julio Anguita, Diego Cañamero and Manuel Monereo, party leader Pablo Iglesias very much projected himself as a social democrat keen to cut a deal with the Socialist Party (PSOE), thus trying to cover the entire spectrum of the political left.
While simultaneously maintaining the populist, nationalist strategy that catapulted Podemos into the political arena, Iglesias also sought to appeal to voters in Catalonia and the Basque Country by insisting on those regions’ right to decide their future. This strategy of trying to please everybody, along with the decision to block the Socialist Party’s efforts to form a government with Ciudadanos, largely explains why so many long-standing Socialist Party voters deserted Podemos after voting for them in December.
Pablo Iglesias now finds himself in a very difficult position. Five million votes and 71 seats in Congress is a magnificent result for such a recently created political party. That said, Iglesias’s decision to force a second election in six months and to create a coalition with IU has turned out to be a big mistake. Iglesias’s leadership has been sustained until now by his aura of invincibility. Now that Podemos and its leader have not only reached their high watermark but have also begun to recede, there are growing demands within the party for major changes that would allow for internal debate and give a voice to the concerns of the grassroots, sympathizers, and leadership.
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The risk is that such a process could lead to fragmentation within Podemos, which, far from being a cohesive party, is made up of myriad ideological and regional factions that manage to rub along, even though their positions are often irreconcilable.
The possibility of attaining power has, until now, been the main thing keeping Podemos together. After two years of elections at local, regional, national and European levels, Podemos has now emerged as a major opposition party, but with little leverage to influence the national political agenda. Podemos’s zero-sum approach has backfired and the party would do well to rethink its strategy in the coming months.
English version by Nick Lyne.