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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What the PP’s landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain’s ruling Socialists

A resounding win by Spain's conservative Popular Party in a weekend regional election in Andalusia appears to have boosted its chances in national elections next year and weakened Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

What the PP's landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain's ruling Socialists

The Popular Party (PP) secured 58 seats in Sunday’s election in Spain’s most populous region — three more than the 55 needed for an absolute majority. That constitutes its best-ever result in the longstanding Socialist stronghold.

The Socialists won 30 seats, their worst-ever result in Andalusia. It governed there without interruption between 1982 and 2018, when it was ousted from power by a coalition between the PP and centre-right Ciudadanos.

This was the Socialists’ third consecutive regional election loss to the PP after votes in Madrid in May 2021 and Castilla y Leon in February.

Sanchez’s government has been struggling to deal with the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation worldwide, especially through increasing energy prices.

Socialist party officials argued the results of a regional election “can’t be extrapolated” nationally.

But in an editorial, centre-left daily El Pais said no one can deny the gulf in the election scores obtained between the two parties in two of Spain’s most populated regions — Andalusia and Madrid.

This was “more than just a stumble”, it argued.

“This may be a symptom of a change in the political cycle” at the national level, it added. The conservative daily ABC took a similar line.

‘Worn down’

Pablo Simon, political science professor at the Carlos III University, said this “new cycle” in which “the right is stronger” began when the PP won a landslide in a regional election in Madrid in May 2021.

It could culminate with the PP coming out on top in the next national election expected at the end of 2023, he added.

But Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza, took a more cautious line.

“The government is worn down after four difficult years due to the pandemic” and the war in Ukraine, which has fuelled inflation, she said.

She refused to “draw a parallel” between Andalusia and Spain, arguing “there is still a lot of time” before the next national election.

Sanchez come to power in June 2018 after former PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy was voted out of office in a no-confidence motion triggered by a long-running corruption scandal.

The PP then suffered its worst-ever results in the next general election in 2019, which the Socialists won.

Sunday’s election was the first since veteran politician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a moderate, took over as leader of the PP from Pablo Casado following a period of internal party turbulence.

Partido Popular (PP) candidate for the Andalusian regional election Juanma Moreno greets supporters during a meeting following the Andalusian regional elections, in Seville on June 19, 2022. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Packing his bags’

“People are fed up with Sanchez,” the PP’s popular regional leader of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, said Monday.

“If national elections had been held yesterday, the result would have been the same and today he would be packing his bags,” she added.

Up until now, the far-right Vox party had supported the PP in Andalusia but from outside government.

This time around however, it had said its support would be conditional on getting a share of the government of the southern region.

But the PP’s commanding victory in Andalusia means that is now moot: it no longer has to rely on far-right party Vox to govern.

At the national level, it could be a different story however, said Pablo Simon.

A PP government nationally that did not rely on Vox would be “impossible” due to the fragmentation of parliament, which has several regional and separatist parties.