“A militant has to be where he or she is most useful at all times.” So ran Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s shock message to supporters this week, announcing he would step down from his role as Spain’s deputy prime minister in order to contest snap regional elections in Madrid.
Through the announcement, he has sought to position himself as the only left-wing candidate able to see off the threat of an explicitly far-right government in the Madrid region. Along with the offer of a joint list with two other forces that previously fell under the Podemos grouping, Iglesias’s tactical pivot from cabinet minister to prospective regional parliamentarian has raised eyebrows even outside Spain. After all, this move comes just fourteen months into a historic left-wing coalition government which he helped broker.
Yet overlooked by some commentators is that Iglesias’s move also signals the beginning of what could be a step back from frontline politics — ushering in a different chapter of his career, and of Podemos’s own evolution.
First the background. Madrid regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the conservative Popular Party (PP) decided to opt for early elections late last week, after a no-confidence motion in Murcia threatened to destabilize the party’s hold on power in several regional administrations. On the back of strong polling numbers that pointed to her winning around sixty seats in the 132-seat Madrid parliament, and the continuing disintegration of rival center-right party Ciudadanos, Ayuso had sought to use the ballot as a de facto referendum on her record as president — including her divisive “hands-off” management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing a weakened left, all indicators pointed to her likely victory and a coalition government with the extreme-right Vox.
Iglesias’s surprise run, however, has thrown the cat among the pigeons. Polls in the days immediately following the announcement show a clear uptick in his party’s numbers. Even if his offer of a united front with Íñigo Errejón’s breakaway platform Más Madrid has been rebuffed, he has already managed to reinvigorate the previously-demoralized left space in the Spanish capital while allowing him to put into motion a stable leadership transition for his party. Whatever the risks thrown up by his move, it is in keeping with a seven-year-long political career that has often been defined by similarly audacious challenges.
Iglesias’s gambit has to be understood, in one sense, as an electoral stand designed to mobilize left-wing voters by polarizing the political field through a more direct confrontational challenge to a radicalized Spanish right in its Madrid stronghold.
For the Right, winning Madrid has traditionally held more importance than that of simply governing Spain’s third-most populous region, a three thousand square mile territory covering the capital city and its surrounding areas. The Madrid region has at the same time been a key ideological laboratory and a motor for the Right’s most successful and enduring political projects since the return to democracy in the late 1970s, each realized under the banner of the big-tent PP.
Long home to the party’s most radical wing, the region — also the biggest in Spain economically — has been a testing ground for the neoliberal project developed by the PP over the last two decades. Past Madrid premiers like Esperanza Aguirre have played a key role in shaping the PP’s national direction, and indeed continues to do so. With PP leader Pablo Casado having struggled to contain the threat of Vox since its electoral breakthrough, last week’s call for snap elections in Madrid is a move designed not only to reassert the PP’s influence in governing coalitions across Spain — but also to realign the party nationally.
It is against such a radicalized right — locked in an ongoing dispute for hegemony that has galvanized Vox and forced its competitors into ever more reactionary positions — that Iglesias is pitching his campaign. Casado and the PP’s much-reduced liberal-rightist rival Ciudadanos have each made unconvincing moves back to the center — each voted against Vox’s failed no-confidence motion in the Spanish Congress last fall. But a reaction against this move has sought to reanchor the PP through the figure of Ayuso, who has governed the Madrid region since mid-2019 with Vox support. This model — one of a number of far-right alliances currently governing Spain’s regional administrations — is crucial for the radical left to break.
Ayuso’s reframing of the upcoming election, in response to Iglesias’s entry into the arena this week — deeming it a vote between “socialism or freedom” — changes the dynamic of the upcoming campaign. Although Iglesias as a candidate may help the Right get out the vote from its highly motivated base, his presence has already succeeded in displacing Ayuso as the central figure around which the election’s preliminary debate is framed.
Unidas Podemos’s bet is that Iglesias can harness a pre-existing polarization around left/right identity in order to sufficiently energize Madrid’s left-voting bloc to effectively counter Ayuso and to stop her, along with Vox, from dominating the proceedings.
Yet this remains a big ask. The Left has only won more votes than the Right in Madrid regional contests three times over the past two decades and has only governed once since the 1980s — with working-class neighborhoods and commuter towns in southern Madrid chronically posting turnout levels below the much more affluent right-wing strongholds in the north. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez‘s center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) will likely remain the largest progressive force — even with its underwhelming candidate Ángel Gabilondo — but the key to at least denying the PP and Vox an absolute majority will be to mobilize the full spectrum of the Left’s vote.
Leadership of the Left
There are also clearly other calculations at play in Iglesias’s move. Indeed, in positioning himself as the Left’s anti-fascist figurehead in Madrid, Iglesias is also seeking political party advantage for Unidas Podemos — with his surprise candidacy designed not only to neutralize the threat posed by the rival left-wing platform Más Madrid (nationally, Más País) but also to shake up his formation’s relationship with its coalition partner at a national level, PSOE.
By entering government for the first time in January 2020 (as a junior partner), Unidas Podemos sought to consolidate its position as the leading force on the radical left after having suffered various internal crises and a steady erosion of support since its electoral highpoint in 2016. But its organizational weakness and the breakdown of its regional alliances in places such Andalusia, Galicia, and Valencia, have left the party with little territorial reach and heavily dependent on its core leadership.
If the party’s national machine, centered ever more on Iglesias’s communicative brilliance, fought two effective general election campaigns under difficult conditions in 2019, its hollowed-out structures across much of the Spanish state leave it vulnerable to the risk of an alternative left space emerging out of the various factions and allies shed along the way.
In particular the Madrid region has become a weak link for Iglesias’s formation. Former deputy party leader Íñigo Errejón broke away to launch Más Madrid in 2019 and took much of Podemos’s regional leadership with him. He and Iglesias had been the creative tandem at the core of Podemos’s initial left populist surge in 2014–16, but Errejón and his supporters were sidelined after a tense standoff at the 2017 Vistalegre II party conference.
At times Errejón has positioned his new platform on the soft left, within the tradition of the European Greens, while in other moments he has pushed the idea of his platform as a radical eco-socialist alternative to Unidas Podemos’s more traditional leftism. But in reality, there are few programmatic or strategic differences between the two parties, and it is personal and factional rivalries that have primarily driven the conflict.
Running on a joint ticket with the popular mayor of Madrid city Manuela Carmena, Errejón inflicted a heavy defeat on his former party in the 2019 regional elections, winning an impressive twenty seats and 14.7 percent of the vote as against Unidas Podemos’s seven MPs and meager 5.6 percent share. Iglesias regained the advantage in the general election later that year — easily seeing off Errejón’s attempt at making the leap to the national level (winning thirty-five seats to Más Pais’s three) — but further losses in regional contests in Galicia and the Basque Country last summer once again underscored Unidas Podemos’s precarious position.
Ayuso’s snap elections in Madrid risked a further debilitating blow to Podemos’s standing — with initial polls showing it would struggle to even reach the minimum 5 percent threshold to take up seats in parliament. A devastating electoral wipeout was a real possibility. Yet with Más Madrid’s candidate Mónica García lacking the name recognition of the Carmena/Errejón ticket in 2019, already last week rumors circulated that Unidas Podemos would run a high-profile candidate in an attempt to even the playing field. Iglesias’s decision to stand himself while calling on García to accept a joint left unity electoral list sought to go beyond that — looking to fundamentally reverse the balance of power between the two rivals, at a stroke.
Initial polling suggests there has already been a 5 percent swing toward Unidas Podemos – with the formation now running neck-and-neck with Más Madrid, who were quick to reject Iglesias’s calls for unity. Errejón and his allies now face an uphill battle not to be marginalized in a debate likely to be dominated by the Ayuso/Iglesias dual, and a defeat to Unidas Podemos would call into question its future as a viable independent force.
At the same time, a strong result from Iglesias’s candidacy would go a long way to ensuring Unidas Podemos’s continued leadership of the Spanish left while undermining the viability of an alternative “federalized alliance” between Errejón and other regional progressive forces, such as Teresa Rodriguez’s Adelante Andalusia party.
The potential benefits of his electoral gamble — avoiding an absolute majority for a hard-right bloc and securing his party’s future in the Spanish capital — only outweigh the risks for Iglesias as a national governmental leader because he already had one eye on the exit. A central figure in Spanish politics since Podemos’s foundation in 2014 and its candidate in four general elections during that time, he had already decided he would not stand in the next national poll.
As with left insurgent candidacies elsewhere in recent years, Podemos’s initial momentum was hard to sustain as it sought to adjust to operating as an institutional force in a very difficult correlation of forces. The years of constant media attacks, numerous politically motivated police investigations, as well as the factional infighting, had all taken its toll on both the party and Iglesias’ own popularity. Having secured his formation’s participation in Spain’s first left-wing coalition in eighty years last January, Iglesias began to put in place a plan for a stable transition of leadership over the course of the legislature – with his close ally and labor minister Yolanda Díaz seen as the ideal candidate.
In polling, Díaz is repeatedly one of the most popular governmental ministers with left-leaning voters, even amongst supporters of the PSOE — having spearheaded the country’s COVID-19 furlough scheme and secured a number of pacts between unions and employers during the pandemic to minimize layoffs. In effect, the Madrid snap elections simply bring forward her ascendency to leadership by about a year and will see her take over Iglesias’s deputy prime minister role.
This comes at an important juncture for the coalition as the PSOE, under pressure from the country’s oligarchy, seeks to renege on the more progressive commitments in the program for government. In particular, the defining battle over the next twelve months will be over the repeal of PP-era labor reforms — which will see Díaz square off against PSOE’s economic heavyweight Nadia Calviño. Her ascendency should reinforce her position for what will be grueling negotiations. Beyond these short-term battles, it will also fall to Díaz to initiate a broader process of renewal for the Spanish left – seeking to reconstruct its alliances and organizational capacity.
Iglesias’s own role going forward remains unclear and will depend on the final results in Madrid. A strong, or even respectable showing, could see him redeployed as an oppositional figurehead outside of cabinet, attacking PSOE’s establishment instincts as his colleagues seek to advance negotiations within. But before that, one of Europe’s most formidable political communicators will seek to block the extreme right’s march through Spain’s institutions, in what is likely the last electoral campaign he will front.