New Day for Podemos?
Iglesias to resign as VP; Yolanda Diaz, a Communist, to replace him

[A Note on the Spanish Left: The Socialist Party or Socialist Party of Spanish Workers, is a traditional European social democratic party. Like other parties of its kind it embraced neoliberal economic policies in the eighties and nineties and is now caught up in a sharp internal debate over whether to shed them. The three parties to its left, the Communists (a euro-communist party committed to democracy), the United Left (founded by the Communists and still dominated by them), and Podemos (the most recently formed and largest of the three), are now united under the single umbrella of Unidas Podemos. The Communists and the United Left maintain a traditional class and economy focus; they were reluctant to enter a governing coalition dominated by the Socialists, Podemos, the dominant member of Unidas Podemos, has taken a more populist approach to politics. Several of its founders, including Pablo Iglesias, worked early in their careers with left populist governments in Latin America.

In January’s polls, Unidas Podemos was the party of choice for less than 12% of voters, while the Socialists came in at just under 31%. Support for the party, which at its height several years ago could touch 25%, continued a decline that not even its membership in the governing coalition has checked. Much of that decline has been ascribed, with some reason, to the controversial decisions of Iglesias, its charismatic and controversial leader ]

Last week, only 14 months after clawing his way into the vice-presidency of Spain’s left-coalition government, Pablo Iglesias, founder and leader of Unidas Podemos, announced that he is resigning from that position and from his seat in the National Congress to run for a seat in the Regional Assembly of the Province of Madrid. (Imagine Kamala Harris resigning as VP to run for a seat in the California State Assembly) His goal in taking this audacious step, Iglesias explained in his announcement, is to prevent Spain’s established conservative party, the Partido Popular, from forming a coalition government with Vox, the proto-fascist party that emerged in 2018 and now is the third most popular party in Spain. At the same time, Iglesias proposed that Unidas Podemos would run in Madrid on a joint ticket with Mas Madrid, the leftist party founded by his long time second in command Inigo Errejon when he broke with Iglesias in 2019. But Mas Madrid refused the offer, which makes it even more likely, the polls indicate, that Iglesias’ efforts to check Vox’s ascent to governance in the nation’s capital region will fail. Should this be the case, Iglesias would at best have passed from the vice-presidency of his country to a seat in a regional assembly governed by the right; at worst he would find himself out of government all together, and thus deprived not only of power but of the legal protections that have shielded him, to a certain degree, from prosecution on two charges involving illegal political machinations.

On the day of his announcement Iglesias also named his successor as vice-president and candidate for President of Spain in the next national elections. (That he could do so after four days of consultations with a handful of party insiders is an indication of the kind of party Unidas Podemos became under his tutelage.) His choice was not, as would have been expected a year ago, Irene Montero, his partner and the Minister of Equality in the current government, but Yolanda Diaz, the Minister of Labor, whom he met during their days in the Young Communist League and collaborated with as Diaz, still retaining her Communist Party membership, joined Izquierda Unida and acquired experience and power in Galician politics.

While Diaz’s efforts to increase the party’s clout in Galicia met with frustration when Unidas Podemos lost all its seats in the Galician Assembly last year, her brief career on the national stage has been much more successful. As Minister of Labor, she has been widely praised for her ability to get work done across factional and party lines. El Pais describes her, in a recent article, as “a card-carrying Communist who has won the confidence both of the unions and of business leaders” and of many Socialists as well. But her selection as a relative outsider to lead the party in the governing coalition and the next national elections is a sharp reminder that Unidas Podemos, far from developing a deep pool of capable leadership has, under Iglesias’ fractious reign, shed virtually all of the cofounders who might have taken over from Iglesias at a moment of crisis.

The Spanish press is full of speculations on Iglesias’s “real” motives for taking this dramatic step. Some argue plausibily that he sees a defeat in Spain’s capital as a death sentence for his party’s already waning dreams; some that he finds his own support within Spain and Unidas Podemos itself eroding (Yolanda Diaz is more popular than he is in both domains) and is taking the opportunity to step aside; some that he is exhausted by the daily pressures of living always under indictment in the courts and with the perpetual presence of right wing demonstrators outside the doors of his suburban villa, to which he and his wife retired, amidst much controversy, to shield the family from the hassles of city life.

Antonio Zarzalejos, an eminent commentator in El Pais, offers an explanation that draws sardonically on Iglesias’ self-polished image as a committed, street wise, radical:

Political events . . . have provided the second vice-president (there are three in the current administration) a window of opportunity to abandon the Council of Ministers, name Yolanda Diaz his successor, and return to the territory of agitation that is his own, after learning first hand that ‘to be in government is not to be in power,’ as he declared in June of 2020 and again this January. . . . He is exchanging the vice-presidency for action in the streets and tirades on tv. He’s learned that he cannot bring down the political establishment from within, and now he’s going to try do it from outside.

Whether there is any truth to this analysis only time will tell, but it is significant that Yolanda Diaz has been an effective champion of the parliamentary, coalition building, path he championed.

What does all this mean for Unidas Podemos? It means the departure of the leader who both built the party and stunted its growth by capturing, as it were, all the attention in the room, dictating all of the decisions, and failing to construct “a big tent” for the left opposition. It means that the party will continue in the government and go into the elections with less weight, visibility, and political experience than ever. It may mean that it will all but disappear after the next national elections.

Then again Yolanda Diaz may turn out to be a brilliant politician, capable not only of getting things done in government but of winning elections and doing the long hard work of rooting Unidas Podemos in the regions, cities, towns, and countryside of Spain, where its hold has been uneven at best. In this case, Iglesias’s most recent coup de main will turn out to have been a brilliant move.