Seven years after revolutionising Spanish politics by founding Podemos and inspiring imitators around Europe, the unabashed leftwing populist Pablo Iglesias resigned from all his posts on Tuesday night. Does this spell the end of the Podemos dream?
Having stood down as deputy prime minister in order to lead his party into Tuesday’s Madrid regional elections, where Podemos faced a wipeout, Iglesias decided that the results obliged him to go. His party won just 7% of the vote, less than far-right Vox. “It’s the best thing for Podemos now,” he said.
In fact, Iglesias boosted Podemos’s vote compared to the 2019 Madrid election, but he failed utterly to stop Spain’s latest political phenomenon – the rightwing Popular party (PP) president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso – from storming to an unassailable victory.
Iglesias ended his farewell speech with a line from a song by Cuban poet Silvio Rodríguez: “I don’t know what destiny will bring, but I have walked my path.” The charismatic former university lecturer’s destiny is indeed hard to predict. Iglesias is still only 42 years old. He was careful to say that he was resigning from “party” and “institutional” politics, leaving the door open to other forms of activism.
In a recent conversation, Iglesias told me that he was inspired by the role that streamed drama series on Netflix and other platforms are playing in promoting progressive values. “Films don’t even come close to this,” he said, referencing Steve McQueen’s Small Axe.
It has long been a joke among his opponents that Iglesias is obsessed by TV series (Podemos intellectuals even wrote a book analysing the politics of Game of Thrones) but he would not be first leftwinger to believe that their message is best spread through culture. In fact, the Podemos project itself emerged from a self-made television debate show led by Iglesias, and even as deputy prime minister he continued to interview writers and historians for the party’s website.
When I was his guest in February, Iglesias was clearly frustrated by being deputy prime minister in the Socialist-led government of the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, where Podemos has struggled to impose itself. As a result, I was less surprised than others when he swapped an apparently powerful position in government for the redblooded, if minority, sport of campaigning in a Madrid region of just 5 million voters.
It is unimaginable, though, that Iglesias will leave politics completely, since it has consumed his life since he was a young communist in the working-class Madrid district of Vallecas.
To many voters, however, he had gone from being a messenger of change and hope to an increasingly angry, cornered radical. Podemos began by selling alegría – joy – yet in Tuesday’s election, the person selling joy was the PP candidate, Ayuso.
Her campaign presented Podemos, now partnered with Spain’s communists, as Unidas Podemos, a bogeyman that radicalised central government. Ayuso also claimed that her policy of allowing bars to remain open during much of the pandemic had made Madrid the freest and happiest place in Spain. Her provocative, heavyhanded campaign slogan was “freedom or communism”.
Iglesias responded with similar bombast, proclaiming that the contest was between “democracy or fascism”. The more realistic message that Madrid’s ghastly Covid record (a city with one of the worst death rates in Europe) was largely Ayuso’s fault did not hit home.
By leaving the political stage, Iglesias will also allow Spain’s far left to complete a female turn. Leadership of Podemos will probably go to the labour minister, Yolanda Díaz, the most effective and popular of its government ministers.
A party called Más Madrid (More Madrid) set up by Iglesias’ former ally and Podemos co-founder, Íñigo Errejón, overtook the region’s Socialists on Tuesday to come second after the PP. Tellingly, the party is led by a woman, Mónica García, a hospital doctor.
Barcelona, meanwhile, has activist Ada Colau as its mayoress. Much the same has happened in Valencia, where the local progressive party Compromís – led by Mónica Oltra – is the socialist regional government’s coalition partner. All seem better at fulfilling the original Podemos mission of knitting together disparate leftwing movements.
There was much swooning about Iglesias and Errejón when Podemos was founded in 2014, but also complaints that women were blocked from progressing. Iglesias’ departure not only makes Irene Montero – his partner and the minister for equality in the government – the family’s senior politician, it also may bring the movement’s “alpha male” syndrome to an end.
Throughout this difficult election Iglesias found himself pushed into a corner and came snarling back. This was probably his only option, but it cost him his career. A bruising campaign was not made easier by the fact that he received an envelope containing two military rifle cartridges and a death threat.
Iglesias, nevertheless, has changed Spanish politics profoundly. Podemos was the first insurgent party to break up the longstanding and corrupt Socialist-PP duopoly. Ever since, both must often seek coalition partners wherever they try to govern.
Iglesias also successfully pushed the Socialists further left, but his conscious legitimising of populism in general probably helped Vox become Spain’s first successful far-right party since the dictatorship of Franco.
In fact, Iglesias’s exit obscures something far more worrying, which he will surely ponder on in semi-retirement. Just as Britain’s supposed “red wall” of Labour-voting northern seats fell to the Tories in 2019, so Madrid’s “red ring” of working-class suburbs voted for the rightwing policies of Ayuso and the PP on Tuesday.
For a leftwing radical who promised Madrid’s workers a greater share of the economic spoils in a buoyant but inequitable region, that is the real tragedy.