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Pablo Iglesias consolidates his leadership of Podemos

On its hard fought 2nd party congress, the membership of Podemos re-elected Pablo Iglesias as general secretary with overwhelming support, and passed his team’s political and organisational documents, in a clear defeat for the right wing of the party. 155000 voters participated, and chose a slight leftward turn, independence from the social democratic PSOE, and an emphasis on continuing struggle and resistance inside and outside Parliament and the institutions.

Podemos placed third in the elections of December 2015, but it proved impossible to reach a viable deal with the PSOE, second force. After months of stalemate, new elections were called on June 2016, and Podemos, in electoral coalition with United Left and other forces, undershot the very favourable electoral forecasts which placed it ahead of the PSOE. Since then, the PSOE capitulated to the right, and allowed the conservative PP to rule through its abstention in Parliament. This situation has opened difficult debates inside Podemos, which have been conducted in public, giving an impression of disunity, and highlighting its lack of a clear direction.

The main two contending views are represented, respectively, by Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón. While Iglesias proposed working with other political leftist forces such as the PCE-led United Left, a coalition of Communists, Republicans and Greens, Errejón claimed Podemos must appeal to the vast majority of Spanish society, and called for a “neither left nor right” discourse of popular patriotism, and a closer relationship with the PSOE. As a third option, the anticapitalist current proposed a more radical role for Podemos, calling for a new constitution.

In preparation for this congress, the right wing of Podemos attempted to become respectable to the forces within the Spanish establishment: the PSOE, the press, and even traditional right consituencies like the military. Attacks on other leftist forces for being fruitlessly purist and outdated were common. In discussing the direction the party should take, the electoral alliance with United Left was blamed for the bad electoral results by some, and the opportunism and rightist drift of the party by others.

During the congress, which took place on the 11th and 12th of February, chants of “unity” were heard, and this will be one of the major challenges for the newly elected citizens’ assembly, Podemos’ highest organ. Pablo Iglesias, after his re-election as general secretary, has vowed to make unity and humility his bywords, after very acrinomious public confrontations on TV programmes and Twitter which shook the party and its viability.

Before the congress, there was considerable debate on whether the lists for the citizens’ assembly should be voted for separately from the strategic documents. Errejón, until now speaker for Podemos’ parliamentary group, but whose political future is uncertain, got his way in splitting the vote for the organs and the political strategy, hoping perhaps that even if Iglesias’ team would win the former, his proposal might win the latter. The results are conclusive, however: Iglesias obtained 89% of the votes for general secretary. While his personal leadership was strengthened, his strategic orientation won much narrower majorities, showing large differences on what the party’s direction should be.

The open nature of this congress contrasts with those of Ciudadanos (liberals) and PP, also held this month, which were pre-arranged events where everything was known in advance and only a few party representatives were involved. The PSOE is still in crisis after its general secretary was deposed, as a necessary step to allow PP to govern. Until June it will be governed by a management board on a temporary basis.

Iglesias’ victory has put a stop, at least for a time, to those voices, inside and outside Podemos, who want it to become entirely absorbed by the Spanish establishment and play an equivalent role to that of the PSOE, as a political escape valve for the left, but within the confines of respectability. However, the balance of forces could easily change, especially in case of further electoral losses. Podemos’ commitment to the left is tenuous and contested, and even Iglesias has attempted to distance himself from so-called traditional leftism. Alberto Garzón, general coordinator of the PCE-led United Left, denounced these attacks conducted for the sake of Podemos’ internal politics against a nominal ally. Accommodation to the right was narrowly averted this time, but the potential remains.

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