Pablo Iglesias is dead, long live Pablo Iglesias!

Why beers won over health in the Madrid elections. And why Pablo Iglesias has retired from politics

Yesterday, Tuesday, May 4th, elections were held in the Autonomous Community of Madrid, a region of almost 7 million inhabitants containing the capital of Spain. Madrid is seen as the capital of Spanish cultural centralism.

In these elections, the right wing triumphed: the conservative Partido Popular (PP) obtained 44.7% (+22.50%) of the votes (1,620,213) and 65 seats, just four short of an absolute parliamentary majority. VOX, the neo-fascist party, obtained 9.13% (+0.25%) of the votes (330,660) and 13 seats. VOX has confirmed its support to the PP candidate for the presidency of the community, Isabel Díaz Ayuso.

Ciudadanos, which aspired to be a center-liberal party, but has been playing too much with Spanish nationalism, received 3.57% (-15.89%) of the votes (129,215) and remains outside the Assembly of Madrid, which has a 5% hurdle for parties entering parliament. The overall results for the left are very bad, although the distribution is unequal.

The social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) got the worst result in history, with 16.85% (-10.46%) of the votes (610,190). It has even been overtaken by Más Madrid, a left-wing regionalist party, which gained 16.97% (+2.28%) of the votes (614,669). Finally, Unidas Podemos received 7.21% of the votes (261,010), a rise of +1.61% since the previous elections.

Analyses came fast on Twitter. There was a historical turnout of 76.25%, compared to 64.27% in 2019. Early predictions were more favourable to the Left – as the traditional “red belt” of the southern periphery of Madrid saw large-scale voting. However, these early hopes were a mirage. The PP achieved an absolute victory in all the municipalities of the community, except in two – one with less than 100 inhabitants and one with little more than 1,000.

The ‘Ayuso effect’ has passed like a steamroller over both the left and the ‘center’. The PP almost obtained an absolute majority following a campaign centered solely and exclusively on the idea of “freedom”. Their idea of “freedom” was framed as being able “to do what I want” (sic), “not having to meet your ex-partner in Madrid” (sic), because “in Madrid life is hard, housing is expensive, your salary is too low, but when you finish work you can go for a beer [how do you pay for this with your low salary? – JMP]. That’s living the Madrid way”.

In an Autonomous Community in which the Government of Isabel Díaz Ayuso left the old people to die in residences, in which it has cut back on healthcare, in which the pandemic has been more prevalent than anywhere else in Spain (mainly because of this freedom to have a beer), the discourse has been led by a society tired of restrictions due to the pandemic.

It is a cultural battle lost: “beers have won over health”, said someone on Twitter and it is probably the simplest and most accurate analysis that can be made after these elections.

Pablo Iglesias leaves politics

After the results were announced, the focus of the news was first on the victory of Isabel Díaz Ayuso and the defeat of a sunken PSOE, with a candidate described as a “bollard” and whose leitmotiv was “serious, dull and formal”. Then, around midnight the news arrived.

Pablo Iglesias announced that he was resigning from all his institutional and organic positions and leaving politics. “I have become the scapegoat and right now I do not add, but block the growth of our political space”. I do not agree with the way he resigned – at the press conference around the election results – and think he should have waited to discuss the strategic implications with Unidas Podemos. Having said this, his decision is perfectly understandable.

Pablo Iglesias has been the object of wrath for years, especially since he was Vice-President of the Government, from the beginning of 2020 to April 2021. No Spanish politician has ever suffered the harassment, fake-news attacks, defamation, slander and hatred as Pablo Iglesias has had to endure.

Perhaps it is only comparable to the attacks received by the historic communist leader Julio Anguita, who died a year ago, and who was ridiculed and branded as crazy for confronting the Maastricht Treaty and standing up to the neo-liberal consensus also assumed by the PSOE. However, those were different times: the development of the mass media was not what it is today, the dissemination of fake news was not the same and, above all, there was a certain respect for people’s private lives.

For months, Pablo Iglesias, his partner and Minister of Equality, Irene Montero and their young children have suffered the harassment of dozens of fascist militants directly in front of the door of their house, while the Police of Grande Marlaska, Minister of the Interior of the PSOE have been passive. Their home, a chalet located several tens of kilometers from Madrid, in Galapagar, has additionally suffered from this harassment, from attacks such as the throwing of tennis balls to espionage. The extreme right-wing newspaper OKDiario published the location of their house, putting the family’s safety at risk.

But in the Madrid election campaign the attacks have been even more violent. The Interior Ministry intercepted a letter with four CETME rifle bullets and death threats to Pablo Iglesias, his parents and Irene Montero. To date, no one has been arrested for this. The neo-fascist VOX party and its candidate Rocío Monasterio branded the letter as a fake and a hoax.

Faced with this denial, in the candidates’ debate the following day on Cadena SER radio, Pablo Iglesias said he would leave the debate if Rocío Monasterio did not retract her accusations of the fabrication of something as serious as death threats. Rocío Monasterio did not do so and the presenter Angels Barceló did not stop the fascism, becoming an accomplice at worst, a useful fool at best.

While Rocío Monasterio shouted “get lost” to Pablo Iglesias and VOX’s social media accounts boasted of “kicking Pablo Iglesias out of the debate and very soon out of politics and out of Spain”, left-wing candidates Ángel Gabilondo (PSOE) and Mónica García (Más Madrid) did not stand up in solidarity and continued debating for an hour. They only withdrew after the debate break, probably when their advisors informed them of the anger unleashed in the social media at their unsupportive and opportunistic attitude.

Because against Pablo Iglesias anything goes. He has won all the complaints that associations of Christian and ultra-right-wing lawyers have brought against him, and he has even won lawsuits against the director of OKDiario, Eduardo Inda, for defamation.

The leader of Podemos and candidate of Unidas Podemos has been public enemy number one for the right, but also for many supposedly left-wing media (such as Cadena SER), which have remained equidistant in the face of “the fights between the extremes”. However, this equidistance has been the collaborationism of claiming that “radical” political ideas were the same as death threats. This is despite the program of Unidas Podemos being traditionally social democrat or socialist at best.

Angels Barceló will go down in history as the journalist who did not stop fascism in Spain in 2021, when a candidate was threatened with death.

What is to be done?

After the withdrawal of Pablo Iglesias, the Left rushed to embrace a leader loved and hated at extreme levels. The federal coordinator of Izquierda Unida (Podemos’ partner in the coalition Unidas Podemos), Alberto Garzón, dedicated the following words to him: “I have many doubts about many things, but I think I also have a few certainties. One of those certainties is that Spain is a better country today thanks to Pablo Iglesias. Friend and comrade, thank you for your work and your firm commitment. Salud y República”. Messages like this have not stopped in the last hours: “you are one of the indispensable ones”, “you have revolutionized politics in the last years”, etc.

And it is true: Podemos, with Pablo Iglesias at the head, has led the left beyond the PSOE to its highest level of popular support and institutional power in history. His figure and the party “Podemos” have crossed borders. Other parties have tried to imitate Podemos, which has been the reference for the left in several countries.

However, the Podemos of 2021 is not the Podemos of 2015, with a significant loss of support bases and with a Pablo Iglesias who, as he himself said, had become the center of the anger and the object of blockage for a possible growth of the Left. This Left has been suffering splits, most of them regionalist, such as those of Íñigo Errejón (Más País), Teresa Rodríguez (Andalucía no se rinde) or Luis Villares (En Marea).

One of the problems of Podemos has been the excessive weight of Pablo Iglesias’ leadership, linked to an organic centralism of the party based in Madrid, where most of the militants are concentrated. This has led Pablo Iglesias to rely on the comrades of Izquierda Unida (IU) and the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) to anchor Unidas Podemos outside Madrid.

Because here is one of the big differences: although IU and the PCE currently lack the popularity and media projection that Podemos has, if you walk through any corner of Spain, you are likely to find a councillor or mayor of IU, whether you’re in the most remote village of an Asturian mountain or the Castilian plateau.

Moreover, one of the fundamental differences is that the strongest federation of Izquierda Unida is not in Madrid, but in Andalucía, with more than 10,000 militants. IU is also present in traditionally conservative regions, such as Castilla y León with 2,700 militants or Murcia with 1,400 militants.

The territorial implantation of the “traditional left” (let us use this term to describe IU and PCE) is its great strength. The Left has the enormous task of being able to combine two models – a traditional model of militancy and party structures, and a new model that was more based on a strong leadership and a known and recognized name. Unidas Podemos’ great problem today is not around programmatic ideas and political positions, but rather the different political cultures of its supporters, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

I do believe in a political organization with strong structures, because I consider that well-managed structures are the guarantee of internal democracy and grassroots democracy, as well as of the durability of political projects in the long term. It is true that these structures have sometimes been used in a reformist and conservative way or to block generational replacements. However, mistakes should not stop us from looking at the big picture.

In any case, we can only look forward to working in spaces of unity and through the democratization of the space which is United Podemos. Pablo Iglesias is no longer here and there may be a temptation to quickly look for a replacement so that we have a leadership to hold on to. However, strong unipersonal leaderships can be useful in an election, but become a burden in the long term, because political projects and leaders merge into one and, when the leader leaves, the hole that he leaves behind is enormous. Similarly, frustrations can be personalized around the leader at the expense of political projects.

It would be a mistake now to trust everything to Yolanda Díaz (of the Galicia Communist Party), who Pablo Iglesias said “would be the next President of the Government”. This marks a line of succession which will have to be forged from the debate. Yolanda Díaz is a lifelong trade unionist and militant, a tough speaker and a friendly face. She is the Vice-President and Minister of Labor, and has some of the highest popularity ratings among the members of the Government’s Cabinet.

But the task of the left goes beyond this, as was pointed out in the documents approved in the XII Federal Assembly of Izquierda Unida, held between Autumn 2020 and Spring 2021. We have enormous work ahead of us to consolidate the space held by Unidas Podemos. This space is not necessarily the organic fusion of Podemos + Izquierda Unida, but a way of working together in coordination to expand the popular bases in all the territories of Spain.

We need to democratize the space regarding the election of candidates for municipal, autonomic and state elections, as well as in the elaboration of political programs. Without the creation of more collegiate leaderships, it is not possible to build projects for the future, especially when we need to take to the streets against the neo-fascists.

Pablo Iglesias has eclipsed any other leadership. In spite of everything, today the media have received a lesson that they will not accept. One of the most common accusations against Pablo Iglesias is that he wanted to live off politics, that he was only interested in positions and money. His political career, however, has lasted seven years, much less than those of most of the political leaders who accused him of the same.

I therefore thank comrade Pablo for his work, because he really revolutionized the outlook of the left in Spain. At the same time, I am grateful that he has been able to step aside, to place himself in another trench. Now we have to continue building, because it is clear that the right has gained ground.

And do not forget. Yesterday, Unidas Podemos added 80,000 new supporters at these elections compared to 2019. This trend is a basis from which we can start the construction of a strong Left in the short, medium and long term.