Lasse Thomassen

When Podemos activists and leaders meet in the multipurpose arena Vistalegre in Madrid on 11-12 February, they will be battling for the soul of the party. A lot of the internal struggles over the future of the party can be summed up as a struggle between two people: the party leader, Pablo Iglesias, and the party’s number two, Íñigo Errejón. It is more than a struggle between two of the founders of Podemos though, and much hinges on the nature of Podemos as a movement-party.

The congress has been dubbed ‘Vistalegre II’ because the first and founding congress was held in the same place in October 2014. Back then, Iglesias and Errejón were on the same side, arguing for more vertical structures within the party, above all more power to, and independence for, the leadership. In Vistalegre II, they are on opposite sides. The congress promises to be a re-run of the many disputes over the last year between the two sides of the party represented by Iglesias and Errejón respectively.

The disputes all have one thing in common: they concern the kind of party that Podemos will be in the future. From the beginning, Podemos wanted to be a different kind of party – and it is. Its local circles are – or were – supposed to tap into the horizontalism of the 2011 indignados movement; there has been a significant input from rank and file members when drawing up policies; the party is an open one, very unlike other Spanish parties; and Podemos introduced a whole new style into Spanish politics: the use of new media, language and clothes that made them look like ordinary Spaniards. The result is a party that is less centralist and more horizontalist and open. Or at least it used to be, because it has gradually become more and more like traditional parties.

The debate between horizontality and verticality takes different forms. In one form, it is a matter of the relationship between the party and social movements. In another form, it is a question of the autonomy of local and regional sections, but here it is not simply a matter of the centre versus the regions. Recently Podemos in Andalusia has said they want to be an autonomous party, independent of the decisions of the leadership in Madrid. Errejón is on the side of those who want to federalise the party. That may mean more decentralisation and horizontality, but it may also mean the opposite: Spanish parties has a tradition of strong regional leaders – ‘barons’ – who run their local parties like feudal fiefdoms.

Another aspect of the debate between horizontality and verticality is, of course, decision making within the party. Here Iglesias and Errejón are both on the side of verticality, and they both see Podemos as first and foremost an electoral machine. But they are for slightly different kinds of verticality. Iglesias wants to remain the leader whose face represents the party, and for him it is my way or the highway. Errejón has proposed a more pluralist party, although he has done so from a minority position. Meanwhile, for Errejón, it is necessary to organise the party hierarchically because Podemos should work within hierarchical institutions.

This takes us to another key issue: institutions versus the streets. Like many others in Podemos, Iglesias and Errejón were both political activists prior to forming Podemos. Iglesias now argues that Podemos needs to go back to the streets and reassert the populist antagonism between the people and the elites. This was central to Podemos’s rise, but has been downplayed during the last two years. Iglesias’s position is that Podemos needs to politicise society, and this appeals to many of Podemos’s original members and supporters. Errejón on the other hand has argued that Podemos needs to work for concrete results within the political institutions. The thinking is that people will not trust Podemos with power if the party does not meet their concrete demands. Behind this lies a wish to appeal to a wider, less radical and more centrist audience, especially disillusioned PSOE voters who are not looking for a protest vote, but are looking for a political party who will defend their interests.

The debate over institutions versus the street is usually articulated as a matter of either/or. For Iglesias it is a matter of both/and: using the political system as a platform, while also politicising society through protest. For Errejón, it seems to be more of an either/or: at this moment, Podemos is either a political party that works through the institutions, or it becomes irrelevant for the majority of the population.

The debate over institutions versus streets is linked to another debate: agonism versus antagonism. It is well-known that Podemos have been heavily influenced by the works of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. In Laclau’s theory of populism, populism has three elements: (1) the creation of a chain of equivalence between different demands (say, cheaper electricity, animal rights, and a more proportional electoral system); (2) an empty signifier (for instance, ‘the people’ or the image of Pablo Iglesias); and (3) an antagonistic frontier between the people and the establishment.

This is precisely how Podemos rose from nothing to become the third largest party. But the antagonistic attitude towards the economic and political elites has gradually worn away. While Iglesias insists on reasserting the antagonism, Errejón takes a more agonistic approach inspired by Mouffe’s theory of agonistic democracy. In agonism, you treat others not as enemies but as adversaries. That is, you struggle with them, but you share with them a respect for the norms of the political system. This is particularly important in relation to PSOE: Podemos wants to overtake PSOE as the second largest party, but, in order to do so, they need to take over some of PSOE’s voters. This is where the difference between Iglesias’s more antagonistic approach and Errejón’s more agonistic approach is most clear. It comes down to a question of how Podemos relates to PSOE: as part of the establishment and a party to be PASOKified, as were the Greek socialists, or as someone you can disagree with one day and enter into a coalition with the next day.

What, then, is the solution to the debates and tensions in Podemos? The first thing to note is that perhaps there is no way to resolve these tensions once and for all. They are tensions that will characterise – and continue to characterise – any movement-party such as Podemos. One need only think of the Workers’ Party in Brazil, Syriza in Greecethe United Left in Slovenia, the Five Star movement in Italy, the Sanders movement in the US and The Alternative in Denmark. These movement-parties all grapple with the tensions between horizontality and verticality, institutions and streets, and agonism and antagonism. In short, they all grapple with the tension between movement and party. But that is how it should be, and the task is to negotiate these tensions in the concrete circumstances in which political activists find themselves.

Podemos needs to combine horizontal and vertical structures, and has to play both within the political institutions and on the streets. It is not a question of either/or, but of both/and. Organisationally, it may be necessary to distinguish the party from the social movements, but Podemos needs to work very closely with the latter and use them as sources of energy and talent. Otherwise, Podemos becomes walled off from society – exactly the problem of the old political elites.

And then Podemos needs to combine antagonism with a positive discourse of hope. There is a need for a common sense, no-bullshit discourse, and the party needs to find a new balance between indignation and ‘yes we can’. And what about Iglesias and Errejón? Iglesias is too unpopular, even within Podemos, and Errejón is more strategist than leadership potential, so the party also needs to find ways to develop new leaders.


Lasse Thomassen is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest book is British Multiculturalism and the Politics of Representation (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). He tweets @LAT153B. 

Image: Secretaría de Cultura de la Nación CC BY-SA 2.0