Spain’s Podemos struggles with bitter internal divisions

Spain's Podemos was born in 2014 out of rage over austerity politics and buoyed by its promises of change, but the mood has darkened as infighting ravages the far-left party.

Spain's Podemos struggles with bitter internal divisions
Podemos chief Pablo Iglesias (right) and his deputy Inigo Errejon (left) have very different strategies for the party. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP
As it prepares to celebrate its third birthday and inches closer to a crux congress in February, supporters are watching in dismay — and opponents with glee — as Podemos chief Pablo Iglesias spars with his deputy Inigo Errejon over what strategy to take.
The dispute between the once-inseparable pair has forced party members into one faction or another, played out on social media and in the press, gaining such traction that an apologetic Iglesias warned it could “destroy” Podemos.
“It's one thing to have differences, another thing is this hugely exaggerated internal battle,” says Gabriel Colome, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
“They are reproducing age-old behaviour patterns typical of other parties.” He warned “they do this right, or this project is going to explode.”
After its emergence in January 2014, Podemos rose at meteoric speed to score big in elections just under two years later. In those December 2015 polls, it became Spain's third political force, putting an end to the two-party system but also leaving no grouping with any absolute majority.
As coalition negotiations dragged on, rumours of a rift between the charismatic, pony-tailed Iglesias and his baby-faced number two started to emerge.  But it was only after repeat June elections saw a Podemos-led coalition
lose votes that the rift between the combative Iglesias and more moderate Errejon leapt to the fore.
While the aim had always been to overtake the Socialists and become Spain's main left-wing force, exactly how to achieve this was a subject of much debate. Should the party continue its struggle for change — but from within institutions it now occupied such as parliament, and in a moderate way that would attract Socialist voters too, as Errejon advocated?
Or should it also go back to the streets, keep resisting and shaking things up as a protest party, as Iglesias wanted?
These divergences broke out into the open in September in a war of tweets.
“We are already scaring the powerful, that's not the challenge. The challenge is to attract those people who suffer but still don't trust us,” Errejon wrote.
“Yes comrade @ierrejon but we stopped attracting one million people in June. We seduce more by speaking clearly and being different,” Iglesias retorted.
From then on, divisions played out publicly, continuing even as the Socialists (PSOE) imploded and the conservative Popular Party came back to power at the head of a minority government with little support — all of which could have profited Podemos.
The situation left supporters in a state of distress. Once an enthusiastic Podemos militant, Tristan Duanel has now stopped all activities for the party, as have others he knows.
“We have ended up really bitter,” he says.
Such has been the dismay that Iglesias felt compelled to apologise last month.
“If the press and social media continue to be a stage for us to try and air our dirty laundry, we will destroy Podemos,” he recognised.
The issue will likely be set to rest at the party congress in February, when Podemos members will vote for a new leadership council, a process that may or may not unseat Iglesias, and for what direction to take.
With this in sight, Errejon's clan published a policy document on Friday acknowledging there were “two strategies” vying for power.
On the same day, Iglesias and his team published their own document, in which they warned that “only a united and strong Podemos will be able to rule.”    
To further complicate matters, a third movement which is neither behind Iglesias or Errejon has emerged as kingmaker.
The more radical anti-capitalists, as they call themselves, want to take to the streets again like Iglesias.
But they also feel that the party's power is currently in the hands of too few people, calling for decentralisation… like Errejon.
“They will be pivotal,” says political analyst Pablo Simon. He also struck a positive note, saying all was not lost for Podemos and now was the time to resolve their differences.
“The PSOE hasn't recovered and cannot challenge them much, and we're far from new elections,” he said.

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Spain’s basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end

Three months after Spain rushed to launch a minimum basic income scheme to fight a spike in poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the programme is at a dead-end because of an avalanche of applications.

Spain's basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end
Red Cross volunteers bring food packages to elderly and low income people. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP
The measure was a pledge made by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftwing coalition government, which took office in January, bringing together his Socialist party with far-left Podemos as the junior partner.
The scheme — approved in late May — aims to guarantee an income of 462 euros ($546) per month for an adult living alone, while for families, there would be an additional 139 euros per person, whether adult or child, up to a monthly maximum of 1,015 euros per home. It is expected to cost state coffers three billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year.
The government decided to bring forward the launch of the programme because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Spain hard and devastated its economy, causing queues at food banks to swell.
Of the 750,000 applications which were filed since June 15 when the government started accepting requests, 143,000 — or 19 percent — have been analysed and 80,000 were approved, according to a social security statement issued on August 20.
'Months of waiting'
But Spain main civil servant's union, CSIF, paints a darker picture. “Nearly 99 percent of requests have not been processed,” a union spokesman, Jose Manuel Molina, told AFP.
The social security ministry has only really analysed 6,000 applications while 74,000 households that already receive financial aid were awarded the basic income automatically, he added.
For hundreds of thousands of other households, the wait is stressful. Marta Sanchez, a 42-year-old mother of two from the southern city of Seville, said she applied for the scheme on June 26 but has heard nothing since.
“That is two months of waiting already, when in theory this was a measure that was taken so no one ends up in the streets,” she added.
Sanchez lost her call centre job during Spain's virus lockdown while her husband lost his job as a driver. The couple has had to turn to the Red Cross for the first time for food.
“Thank God my mother and sister pay our water and electricity bills,” she said, adding their landlord, a relative, has turned a blind eye to the unpaid rent.
'Rushed everything'
A spokeswoman for the ministry acknowledged that the rhythm “was perhaps a bit slower than expected” but she said the government was working to “automate many procedures” so processing times should become faster from now on.
“The launch of a benefit is always difficult … and this situation is not an exception,” she added.
But Molina said this was a new situation, that was made worse by years of budget cuts to the public service which has lost 25 percent of its staff over the past decade.
“The problem is that they rushed everything, did it without training and a huge lack of staff,” he added.
The social security branch charged with the basic income scheme has only 1,500 civil servants, who also process most pension applications, Molina said.
These officials are facing an “avalanche” of requests, which already match the number of pension requests received in an entire year, he added.
About 500 temporary workers have been recruited as reinforcements but their assistance is limited because they do not have the status of civil servant, so they cannot officially approve requests for financial aid.
Demand is expected to increase. The government has said the measure was expected to benefit some 850,000 homes, affecting a total of 2.3 million people — 30 percent of whom were minors.
When the scheme was launched the government said all it would take is a simple online form, but this is a problem for many low-income families without computers and internet access, especially since the waiting time for an in-person meeting to apply is about two months, according to the CSIF union