As Pablo Iglesias pulled the elastic band off his ponytail and swished his famous mane behind him before addressing the party faithful in Madrid’s Vistalegre arena on Sunday, it was tempting to think that now, finally, everything was going to be alright.
Podemos’s second national assembly, held at the weekend, had been a triumph for party leader Iglesias. Months of conspiracy theories, snide comments, childish tweets, suggestive photographs and weird social media-hosted plots had all suggested the party was on the brink of disaster. But its leader’s performance in the slew of ballots prevented a disastrous splinter, while making it clearer than ever before that this is his party.
The leadership contest was merely a sideshow, Iglesias easily swiping aside the challenge of the little known Juan Moreno Yagüe. Instead, the focus was on the other votes, for organisational and policy platforms and, above all, the election of the 62-seat State Citizens’ Council (CCE), which governs the party. In all of those contests, the challenger was Íñigo Errejón, the party’s deputy leader and not long ago Iglesias’s political soulmate.
The story of the falling out between these two men is so packed full of incident and telling detail that I won’t recount it in full. But, in summary: Errejón is unhappy at the leftward lurch Podemos has performed over the last year, preferring to return to the party’s original incarnation, which saw it dodge the “leftist” label and appeal to outraged, disillusioned Spaniards across the spectrum, while keeping a high parliamentary profile; Iglesias, by contrast, wants to lead an overtly leftist party, a rabble-rousing outfit which can mobilise people on the streets and avoid being tarred by the dreaded “traditional party” brush.
The result of the CCE vote, which gave Iglesias allies 37 seats and Errejón’s camp only 23, would seem to resolve that argument. There was even a brief, slightly anaemic, embrace between the two men on stage before Iglesias acknowledged his win.
But it’s hard not to feel that something important has ended, leaving us scrabbling around for historical parallels. Felipe González and Alfonso Guerra is the most obvious one, but why not, too, José Mourinho and Iker Casillas? Or, for the less political, Simon & Garfunkel?
For Iglesias and Errejón, Vistalegre is their Bridge Over Troubled Waters: the moment when it becomes clear there is no way back for an extraordinarily fruitful partnership.
The question now is whether Podemos’s five million voters are a springboard or a ceiling. The hoo-ha of the last few months will strengthen the argument of those who claim it is destined to be the latter. And even before the Iglesias-Errejón rift became so poisonous, there were signs last year that the party was unsure where it was heading. That might explain Iglesias’s unconvincing and confusing drift into the centre ahead of the June general election, when he declared himself a social democrat and voiced admiration for Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. What were voters who had been drawn to Podemos’s early promise to break the PP-Socialist duopoly and everything it stood for to make of that?
Such equivocation has now been banished. What’s more, prowling behind the scenes will be Miguel Urbán, of the “Anticapitalista” wing, whose conversation with Iglesias in early 2014 sowed the seeds for the party’s creation. Now, Urbán has a seat on the CCE and the roar from activists on Sunday when his name was called out highlighted his growing status as the bearded, horn-rimmed conscience of Podemos, preaching unalloyed leftism, but also a more horizontal organisation that listens to its bases.
Where does all of this leave Errejón? He cast a forlorn figure at Vistalegre, his projects and personnel roundly defeated.
But the results showed that a third of the party supported him. What’s more, Errejón enjoys a 17-point lead over Iglesias among voters of all parties (Iglesias leads Errejón by 51 percent among Podemos voters, says the same study). At the age of 33, it’s hard to see him cast into irrelevance.
Iglesias had seemed to hint there would be no night of the long knives after his victory, no purge of errejonistas, when he repeated “unity and humility” over and over again in his acceptance speech. But the deputy leader now looks likely to lose his parliamentary spokesman post (which the party is keen to “feminise”) and possibly also lose his political secretary portfolio – the title that essentially made him co-leader. If that is the case, the “humility” will belong to Errejón alone and his camp’s discontent is unlikely to melt away.
Iglesias the great tactician, the Game of Thrones geek, scored an important win on Sunday. But nobody seriously believes that those votes and a half-hearted hug have solved the Podemos rift. It will take a lot more than that.