“We have failed, we have been very far from putting together a sufficient majority,” he said in a speech shortly after the result showed a solid victory for the right-wing Popular Party, handing a stinging defeat to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialists and Podemos.
When he burst onto the political scene as Spain wrestled with the fallout of the global economic crisis, pony-tailed former professor Pablo Iglesias rallied widespread support with his defiant cry of “Yes, we can.”
But seven years on, Iglesias has abruptly announced his departure from politics after his hard-left Podemos party and the Socialists, who serve together in government, suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the right in Madrid’s regional elections.
“We have failed, we have been very far from putting together a sufficient majority,” he said after a bitterly-fought campaign for the leadership of Spain’s richest region.
It has been just seven weeks since Iglesias announced his resignation as deputy prime minister to run as his party’s candidate in Madrid in a surprising and risky gamble that he ultimately lost.
“When you are no longer useful, you need to know when to withdraw,” he admitted.
It has been a rollercoaster year-and-a-half for Iglesias since the general election, which ultimately brought his party to power as the junior partner in a Socialist-led coalition in which he was named to a top position.
It was a huge step for a party which had its beginnings in the anti-austerity “Indignados” protest movement that occupied public squares across Spain in 2011.
Founded in January 2014, the party was the brainchild of Iglesias and colleagues from Madrid’s Complutense University who managed to channel the widespread anger over austerity and inequality into a potent political force.
In its first legislative elections in December 2015, the party came third, and did the same again in June 2016, upending the traditional hegemony of the right-wing Popular Party and the Socialists.
In January 2020, Podemos joined the Socialists in forming Spain’s first coalition government since the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975.
And the long-haired Iglesias, who favours open-necked shirts at official events and often wears his mane in a bun, was sworn in as a deputy prime minister.
But the marriage of convenience — coming just before the pandemic — has not been an easy one, with the coalition blighted by very public disagreements on everything from migrants to ending the monarchy.
From protester to politician
Bearded and with a solemn gaze that is regularly broken by a winning smile, Iglesias was raised in the working-class Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas.
His mother was a labour lawyer and his father a work inspector who was jailed during Franco’s dictatorship.
Immersed in politics from an early age, Iglesias was active in the Communist youth and anti-globalisation movements before the Indignados protest movement erupted in Spain in 2011 at the height of the economic crisis.
A brilliant orator and strategist, he has often railed on Twitter and in numerous television interviews against Spain’s elite “caste” of mainstream politicians and bankers.
But his dominance over Podemos has not always sat well with other founders of the party, especially in terms of strategy, prompting high-level resignations that have weakened the formation.
In 2018, Iglesias — who in the past has boasted about buying his clothes at a low-cost supermarket — put his leadership of Podemos to a grassroots vote following an outcry over his purchase of a luxury home with a swimming pool and guest house in the mountains near Madrid.
Iglesias once served as an advisor to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and has been accused of using money from Caracas to fund his political ventures in Spain.
His vehement speeches have divided opinion, with some business leaders and the rightwing press seeing him as a dangerous populist.
But he also comes across as both funny and accessible, playing his guitar live on television, giving a presenter a ride on his red scooter or quoting from “The Simpsons”.
A huge fan of “Game of Thrones”, Iglesias defied protocol when he met Spain’s King Felipe VI for the first time, handing the monarch a box set of the Emmy award-winning series.
With his partner, Equality Minister Irene Montero, he has three young children.
In his final speech, Iglesias said he was stepping down so as not to stand in the way of his party’s progress, saying his Podemos colleague and Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz, who replaced him as deputy prime minister, could one day be premier.
“I will continue to be committed to my country, but I am not going to block the change in leadership that has to take place within our political movement,” he said.