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POLITICS

Spain’s Podemos party names new head after Pablo Iglesias departure

Hard left-wing party Unidas Podemos, junior partner in Spain's ruling coalition, is expected to name Ione Belarra as its leader Sunday after the departure of Pablo Iglesias, who founded the faction in 2014.

Spain's Podemos party names new head after Pablo Iglesias departure
Ione Belarra speaks to the press during a demonstration against mortgage taxes in Madrid in 2018, with former Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias to the left. (Photo by Benjamin CREMEL / AFP)

Currently minister for social affairs, Belarra, 33, is the overwhelming favourite to take the helm of a party which emerged from the anti-austerity “Indignados” protest movement that occupied squares across Spain in 2011.

Since Sunday, party activists have been voting for their new secretary-general after Iglesias stepped down on May 4 following a stinging defeat at the hands of the right in Madrid’s regional elections.

Voting closes on Saturday with the results to be announced at a party assembly on Sunday.

Although there are three candidates, Belarra is running against two unknowns and is certain to win the vote.

One of Iglesias’ inner circle, she took over from him as social rights minister when he stood down to run as a candidate in the Madrid regional elections.

He also stepped down as one of Spain’s deputy prime ministers.

“She’s been chosen by Pablo Iglesias which gets her the support of party members. You could say he’s anointed his successor,” said Paloma Roman, a political science expert at Madrid’s Complutense University.

With her nomination, it will mean two women hold the highest positions in Podemos, the other being Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz, who took over from Iglesias as deputy premier and is expected to head the faction’s list in the next elections.

Spain's Minister for Social Rights and 2030 Agenda Ione Belarra arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid on April 06, 2021. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)Belarra was named Spain’s Minister for Social Rights in April 2021. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

A complex challenge

Once known for his long ponytail which he chopped off after leaving politics, Iglesias has led the party since its inception seven years ago.

With a super-charged approach to leadership, he clashed frequently with other party members, prompting the departure of most of those who helped him found Podemos, including his deputy Inigo Errejon who later set up Mas Pais.

The list of candidates for the party’s executive is made up exclusively of Iglesias’ inner circle, among them Equality Minister Irene Montero, his partner and mother of their three children, and parliamentary spokesman Pablo Echenique.

To silence the sceptics, Belarra has pledged to usher in “a more harmonious era” with a different form of leadership that will take “a collective approach to decision-making”.

But sociologist and historian Emmanuel Rodríguez told AFP it would be “very complicated” for her to oversee any “restructuring” within Podemos given that the party “is completely biased towards the needs of its old guard”.

Not what it was

Podemos is the fourth largest party in parliament, holding 35 of its 350 seats, behind the Socialists, the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox.

But the figure is far lower than the 69 seats it seized in 2015 when it first entered parliament, shattering the traditional Socialist-PP hegemony and promising to do away with austerity policies.

Along the way it has managed to lose some two million votes.

“Very little is left” of the original Podemos, says political scientist Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, who wrote a book about the party.

“First there was a big bang and then a cooling-off period,” he said, indicating it refused to be a party “with diverse ideological profiles” to be one that was “communist at its core” but backed by “allies that gave it a more modern sheen”.

In January 2020, Podemos entered government for the first time as junior partner in the left-wing coalition of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Since then it has been heavily involved in initiatives like last year’s minimum wage hike, or the labour reform recognising delivery drivers working for firms like Deliveroo or UberEats as staff.

Diaz played a central role in crafting such measures, also winning plaudits for negotiating with unions and employers to set up a furlough scheme that has been critical for avoiding mass layoffs during the pandemic.

But she herself has no interest in joining the party’s leadership given she is a member of the Communist Party.

However, after receiving Iglesias’ blessing, the party’s leadership will name her at the head of its list for the next general elections which should take place no later than January 2024.

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SPANISH POLITICS

Far-right Vox leads mass protests against Spain’s government

Tens of thousands of supporters from Spain's far-right Vox party demonstrated nationwide on Sunday to protest Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's leftist government.

Far-right Vox leads mass protests against Spain's government

Police said 25,000 people gathered in central Madrid’s Colon Square, where protesters unfurled flags and called on Sánchez to go, while demonstrations also took place in cities across Spain.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal denounced a “government of treason, insecurity and ruin” after recent changes to the criminal code and the approval of a new law against sexual violence.

READ MORE: Why Spain’s right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law

He lambasted the planned abolition of the crime of sedition, of which nine separatist leaders were convicted over their role in the Catalonia region’s abortive secession bid in 2017. An offence carrying a lower prison sentence will replace it.

“We have a government that governs against the people, lowers prison sentences for crimes, disarms the police,” Abascal told his followers in the Spanish capital.

The right believes the modified criminal code, which should be in place by the end of the year, will encourage further attempts to separate the northeastern Catalonia region from Spain.

“We are being governed by separatists, people who don’t want to be Spanish, that’s why I’m here,” said protester Cesar Peinado, a 65-year-old retired truck driver, accusing the government of “buying votes”.

Abascal said sexual assaults had doubled since Socialist premier Sánchez took power in 2018 and denounced a law he claimed allowed rapists and paedophiles to leave prison earlier.

READ MORE: Why is Spain reducing prison sentences for rapists?

He was referring to a flagship government law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes, setting some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Supporters of far-right party Vox Santiago Abascal (unseen) hold a placard reading “liar, elections now” as they gather during an anti-government protest in Madrid, on November 27th 2022. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

María Dolores López, 58, told AFP she could “no longer put up with what this government is doing”, citing its policy towards the Catalan separatists and its law against sexual violence.

“It isn’t a coincidence that there’s no security either,” Abascal added, denouncing “a crazy minister who makes a law with the approval of the entire government, the political and media left so that rapists and paedophiles end up on the streets”.

The ruling left-wing coalition has long drawn the ire of the right and far right for initiating a dialogue with Catalonia’s pro-independence leaders, with large protests taking place in 2019 and 2021 over the talks.

Lacking a parliamentary majority, Sánchez’s government has been forced since its formation to negotiate with Basque and Catalan separatists to pass bills.

The coalition says sedition is an antiquated offence that should be replaced with one better aligned to European norms.

The nine Catalan separatists initially sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison under the sedition law were pardoned last year, also infuriating the right.

The failed independence bid sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.

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