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Alliances in Catalonia threaten the future of Spain’s Podemos party

Unease with strategy followed during territorial crisis is being felt among party heavyweights

Xavier Domènech and Elisenda Alamany of the Catalunya en Comú-Podem coalition.
Xavier Domènech and Elisenda Alamany of the Catalunya en Comú-Podem coalition.

When political newcomer Podemos stunned Spain to pick up five seats in the European elections of 2014, the result was widely touted as an end to the two-party system which had been the order of the day in the country since the return of democracy in the country after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

Podemos is still trying to staunch the wound created by a very public row between the central party and its regional branch in Catalonia

The party, which was forged in the anti-austerity protests of May 15, 2011 (or the 15-M protests as they are usually referred to in Spain), went on to build up a head of steam that would see it – in combination with its regional brands – come a strong third in the Spanish general elections of December 2015 behind the traditional powerhouses of the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE).

But the leap from the streets to the institutions of government has not been an easy one for the party led by Pablo Iglesias. The failure of Podemos to enter into any sort of power sharing deal with the PSOE after the 2015 general election saw it effectively sidelined at the national level, while factional infighting, a leadership battle and a series of scandals have seen the party in danger of losing relevance.

Now the Catalan independence crisis is further threatening to derail the Podemos project with key figures in the party concerned over the strategy being followed by the regional Podem branch in the lead-up to a regional snap election on December 21 – a poll called by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy using emergency powers in reaction to a decision by the Catalan parliament to unilaterally declare independence in October.

Members of Podem have voted to run in the election with Catalunya en Comú (Catalonia in Common), the left-wing party of Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau. Catalunya en Comú has officially maintained a stance against both the Catalan parliament’s independence declaration and the application of emergency powers in the region by Madrid. However, the party’s talk of a possible post-electoral alliance with the left-wing, pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and its refusal to counter any kind of working relationship with the anti-independence Popular Party and Ciudadanos is making things difficult for Pablo Iglesias.

There is concern that the party's position during the Catalan crisis will take a toll in regional and municipal elections across Spain in 2019

The Catalunya en Comú-Podem coalition is banking on the electoral campaign revealing divisions between the two opposing blocs running in the poll: the pro-independence forces made up of the ERC, Junts per Catalunya – the new project of ousted Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont – and the radical CUP party, on the one hand, and the pro-union forces of the Socialists and the Popular Party, on the other hand.

But the hope that both blocs will dissolve and pave the way for a left–right debate is risking in a campaign many feel will be divisive.

At the same time, Podemos is still trying to staunch the wound created by a very public row between the central party and its regional branch in Catalonia. That spat saw Podem’s general secretary, Albano-Dante Fachin, and other top officials resign after they were taken to task for participating in the vote to illegally declare independence from Spain inside the Catalan assembly – a move that took Madrid by surprise.

The regional branch of Podemos has now staked its future on an alliance with Colau’s party, a group it has shares more common ground with than it does with the party’s formal leadership.

The polls don’t paint a happy picture, although Podemos organizational secretary Pablo Echenique argues the party will do better this time around than it did as part of the Catalunya sí que es Pot ticket of 2015 which picked up 11 seats and just 8.94% of the vote.

Podemos officials in Madrid oppose any unilateral declaration of independence and instead support holding a valid referendum with legal guarantees, and this is one of the few points that factions across the party agree on. But the aftershocks of the implicit recognition by Podem of the “new Catalan Republic” continue to be felt, with party heavyweights compelled to place the stance of its “anti-capitalist” wing outside the mainstream of party thinking.

The leap from the streets to the institutions of government has not been an easy one for the party led by Pablo Iglesias

The decision of Fachin and other officials to resign may have gone some way to clearing the air but the decisions of Podemos in the coming weeks and months could throw the party into a new crisis.

After several weeks spent criticizing the prime minister’s handling of the Catalan crisis, as well as taking the Socialists and Ciudadanos to task for supporting the application of emergency powers in the region, Podemos has changed tack in recent times.

The party has become especially tough on Puigdemont but within the party there is fear the change of tone is too little too late and won’t help win over voters disaffected with the hard line independence strategy of the ERC. There is also concern that its position during the Catalan crisis will take a toll in regional and municipal elections across Spain in 2019.

The uncertainties over the immediate future of Podemos will be shaped by the game of alliances to be played out after the Catalan elections of December 21. The tripartite left-wing government made up of the Catalan Socialists, the ERC and Podemos, which has been touted by Pablo Iglesias – is not possible under the current conditions.

The election of Podemos politician Xavier Domènech to the regional premiership also looks unlikely although he would, in theory, be an acceptable candidate to many.

English version by George Mills.

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