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Four years on, Spain’s populist party Podemos loses appeal

Leaders say they will encourage a return to their anti-austerity roots to boost dwindling voter support

Pablo Iglesias between Pablo Echenique and Irene Montero. Ampliar foto
Pablo Iglesias between Pablo Echenique and Irene Montero.

Spain’s Podemos party celebrates its four-year anniversary today. But after bursting onto Spain’s political scene in 2014 with an anti-austerity message that attracted huge support, the party has little to celebrate. Gone is the spirit of the early days when Podemos presented its candidates for the European elections inside a theater in Madrid’s Lavapiés neighborhood – most of whom were largely unknown social activists and intellectuals – and went on to secure five seats in the European Parliament.

The volatile and unclear position on Catalonia has had a very clear impact

Jorge Galindo, Politikon

“We have to be self-critical but we can’t lose sight of what we have achieved in these four years. It’s unimaginable,” said Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias at a recent party meeting where he tried to revive the spirit of the Indignados movement that gave Podemos its launch pad into politics.

When Podemos was founded on January 17, 2014, the party, in the words of deputy Íñigo Errejón, was committed to “changing the game and the rules of the game,” but its failure to take a cohesive position on the independence movement in Catalonia has damaged its credibility.

While members of its regional branch in Catalonia spoke out in favor of independence, national leaders tried to sit on the fence. They defended Catalonia’s right to a legal referendum on independence but said they wanted to maintain a unified Spain. Even so, the party has used the same language as the separatists on a number of key issues, describing the ousted Catalan deputies in pre-trial detention for sedition as “political prisoners,” and the parties which supported the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution – a move which suspended Catalonia’s autonomous powers – as the “monarchist bloc.”

We have to be self-critical but we can’t lose sight of what we have achieved in these four years

Pablo Iglesias

This strategy has stripped the party of supporters. In less than a year, it has gone from being an alternative to the incumbent Popular Party (PP) to the fourth-ranked political force, behind Ciudadanos and ever further from its goal of surpassing the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE). Worse still, Iglesias is the lowest-ranked political leader among them, according to a recent poll by the Center of Sociological Research (CIS). The Podemos secretary general does not even have the full support of half of the party’s voters.

The poor performance of Podemos goes hand in hand with Iglesias’ plummeting approval ratings – despite the party’s insistence that it is a “collective” project and “an ensemble cast” whose speakers may vary.

Reinvention

“The volatile and unclear position on Catalonia has had a very clear impact and it is also affecting the public’s assessment of Iglesias, who already had an extremely high level of public exposure,” says Jorge Galindo, a sociologist and editor of political magazine Politikon.

Podemos co-founder Miguel Urbán maintains that the party has been “the main force of change and transformation in an unjust system” over the past four years, but says it must “reinvent itself to avoid becoming just another party”.

According to Iglesias, the way to solve the party’s problems is to “go beyond its own institutionalism.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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