Battle Machine

In June last year, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez scraped together just enough votes to save his PSOE-led government, aided by Basque and Catalan independence parties as well as the progressive coalition Sumar. The latter, led by the Vice President and Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, has since tried to assert its hegemony over the country’s left. Its political approach – technocratic and top-down, conciliatory towards the PSOE and the media – represents a break with both the mass mobilizations of the Indignados and the left-populism of Podemos, which suffered a virtual wipeout in the 2023 municipal elections and has been reduced to only four seats in parliament. Although Podemos reluctantly joined Díaz’s alliance in the last election, she has now marginalized it even further: preventing it from nominating parliamentary spokespeople and locking it out of government ministries. Podemos, in turn, has split from Sumar and is running a separate list of candidates for the European Parliament. Gone are the days when Pablo Iglesias promised to ‘take heaven by storm’ and ‘overthrow the regime of 78’. What went wrong? And what lessons can be drawn from this defeat?

Three recent books by key players in Podemos attempt to answer these questions by retracing the party’s trajectory during the 2010s. Iglesias’s Verdades a La Cara examines the Spanish establishment’s all-out war on his political project; Iñigo Errejón’s Con Todo makes the case for a populism reaching across the left/right divide as the only electoral strategy that could have saved the party; and Sergio Pascual’s El Cadaver en el Congreso reconstructs the organization’s factional disputes. Predictably, these accounts are highly subjective and sometimes reflect the authors’ desire to exonerate themselves or justify their political positions. Yet, considered side by side, they shed light on the Spanish left’s decline and whether it could have been avoided. 

The founders of Podemos, a nucleus of radical academics at Madrid’s Complutense University, set out to harness the energy of the Indignados, which signalled mass frustration with the austerity regime of the 2010s yet failed to leave an institutional legacy. With the post-Communist Izquierda Unida proving resistant to change, there appeared to be a need for a new party that could draw on the experiences of the Pink Tide and the ‘populist reason’ of Laclau and Mouffe, as well as Iglesias’s growing profile as a media commentator. Four months after it was established, Podemos unexpectedly won 1.3 million votes and five seats in the 2014 European elections – a breakthrough that led to soaring popularity and an expanding membership. The following year, it surged to 5.2 million votes and 69 seats in the general elections, trailing the PSOE by only 200,000 and fundamentally altering the national political landscape. 

The Spanish elite hit back with sustained lawfare and media attacks that battered the party’s reputation, deepening an internal dispute between the Errejonistas, who advocated a moderate populism and conciliatory approach towards the PSOE, and the Pablistas, who advocated a more unambiguous leftism and an alliance with Izquierda Unida. As this division became more pronounced, the party began to lose electoral support and organizational cohesion. In late 2019, having been reduced to 35 seats, Podemos struck a deal with the PSOE and agreed to enter a coalition as its junior partner. In office it extracted a number of policy concessions: a ‘Minimum Vital Income’, additional welfare support during the pandemic, a cap on the price of gas, and various articles of pro-LGBT and feminist legislation. But the party’s popularity continued to decline. As the far right made gains at local and regional level, Iglesias resigned, and Yolanda Díaz assumed the de facto leadership of the Spanish left, presenting her moderate tripartist politics – brokering compromise between labour, capital and the state – as the only way forward.  


Reflecting on these turbulent years, Iglesias’s Verdades a La Cara focuses on the relentless attacks against Podemos – coordinated by right-wing elements in the judiciary, the police and the media – which intensified after the 2015 elections. This included over twenty criminal cases alleging corruption, illegal financing, receiving material support from Venezuela and Iran, and so on. These baseless accusations have not resulted in a single conviction to date. Yet they created a sense of constant scandal which sapped the party’s insurgent energy. In 2015, police confiscated the mobile phone of one of Iglesias’s advisers, hoping to unearth evidence to use in a criminal case against Podemos. Finding none, they proceeded to drip-feed negative stories to the media based on anything they could comb from the device’s memory. In 2016, one of the country’s most prominent newscasters, La Sexta’s Antonio Ferreras, colluded with the police and tabloid press to spread stories about Podemos that he knew to be false. Hostile journalists also allegedly offered to strike deals with Podemos’s ‘softer’ figures, such as Errejón, in which they would be given positive coverage in return for attacking Iglesias.

In Memorias de un Piloto de Combate, the former deputy Pablo Echenique describes an ‘iron law’ of the Podemos years: anyone willing to undermine Iglesias was guaranteed favourable treatment, while anyone allied with him was savaged in the public eye. Echenique recalls how, as a disabled activist, he received positive media coverage – which framed his political ascent as a heroic struggle against adversity – so long as he was willing to assail the Podemos leadership for its supposedly antidemocratic impulses. Once he switched sides and joined the Pablistas, he was instantly maligned as a corrupt and dangerous figure.

Faced with this onslaught, Iglesias and his family were forced to endure almost a year of daily protests and intimidation by far-right groups outside their house. The leader responded by doubling down on his combative approach and calling out influential media figures for their mendacity. He rejects the notion that greater compromise or appeasement would have helped to manage the firestorm. The only option was to use the smear campaign to sharpen the antagonism between masses and elites. Rather than discussing the split between him and Errejón in detail, he focuses on the qualities that activists and politicians need to operate in such conditions: bravery, loyalty, audacity, a willingness to tell hard truths and stand up to bad-faith actors.

These attributes, he suggests, made Podemos resilient enough to enter government despite losing significant popular support. Overcoming massive resistance from PSOE elites, and scepticism from left-wing allies including Izquierda Unida, the leadership hammered out a coalition agreement in late 2019, making Iglesias Vice President and securing some key ministries. Iglesias is positive about Podemos’s governing record. He views the legislation passed by the Equality Minister Irene Montero – supporting trans rights and offering women paid menstrual leave – as a significant long-term gain. During the pandemic, Iglesias’s ministers pressured Sánchez to move away from ad-hoc mitigation towards progressive social welfare policies, such as the Minimum Income, which would outlast the virus itself. Yet they lacked full ministerial authority over the design and implementation of the policy, leading to its eventual dilution. Podemos was also forced to turn down an offer to take charge of the Ministry of Health because, thanks in part to its rapid rise, it did not have anyone with sufficient expertise.

In 2021, Iglesias left the government to lead Podemos’s Madrilenian regional election campaign, hoping to stave off a resurgent right led by Isabel Ayuso and prevent the party from being eliminated in the capital. While Podemos retained some seats, the campaign failed to achieve its main objectives – owing, in Iglesias’s view, to the effects of the seven-years-long campaign to discredit it. Accepting that his presence was a hindrance to further progress, Iglesias retired and effectively anointed Díaz as his successor. At the time she was an ally of Iglesias and had won widespread support for her pro-worker policies, especially during Covid-19. Iglesias believed that she could renovate the Spanish left while pursuing broadly the same political agenda – an assessment that turned out to be misjudged.

Verdades a La Cara is a set of personal reflections from someone bruised by his battles with a corrupt and unaccountable elite. It is adept at analysing the machinations of the Spanish establishment and the extraordinary lengths to which it was willing to go in order to destroy Podemos. Yet its examination of the party’s internal dynamics is limited. Iglesias does not explain why the factions became so polarized or whether this could have been otherwise; his main emphasis is on whether specific actors were ‘loyal’. The media is identified as the main obstacle to social transformation, yet the book offers no argument for how to surmount it.


In Con Todo, Iñigo Errejón sets out his alternative vision for Podemos. The book is more programmatic than Verdades a La Cara and addresses the rift with Iglesias more directly. It begins with Errejón’s account of his political formation. Though he was initially drawn to anarchism, his encounter with the Latin American left convinced him of the transformative power of the state. He completed a doctorate on the MAS in Bolivia before working with left-wing research institutes in Argentina and Venezuela. He later used the work of Laclau and Mouffe to develop a theory of ‘transversalism’ – dividing politics between ‘below’ and ‘above’ as opposed to ‘left’ and ‘right’ – that could be applied to Spain. This involved a populist conception of patriotism, whereby the left would construct an image of the nation as representative of the majority in contrast to a predatory elite. 

Errejón served as Podemos’s campaign manager in the 2014 European elections and 2015 regional elections before becoming a parliamentary deputy later that year. While the party was still in its infancy he brought together a team of committed organizers and administrators who established a verticalist ‘electoral battle machine’ – giving him significant power over its internal bureaucracy. From early 2016, he used this position to challenge Iglesias on a range of issues: electoral strategy, policy direction, media appearances. Errejón firmly opposed Iglesias’s plan to ally with Izquierda Unida, which he saw as relapsing to a traditional ‘left unity’ platform. He also called for a more conciliatory approach to the PSOE, urging Podemos to abstain in parliament and let it form a coalition with Ciudadanos.

Errejón lost on both counts. Iglesias refused to prop up a PSOE-Ciudadanos administration, and the alliance with IU was ratified by a large majority in an internal referendum, leading Podemos to rebrand as Unidas Podemos. Yet UP’s failure to overtake PSOE in 2016, losing a million votes compared to the previous year, appeared prima facie to vindicate Errejón. He decided to go on the offensive, staging an infamous showdown at the 2017 party congress. Errejón campaigned to return to the transversal formula and soften the party’s rhetoric, attempting to install his own leadership team around Iglesias instead of his rival’s preferred candidates. Yet in a party as personalist as Podemos, Errejón’s alliances within the administrative machine were no match for Iglesias’s charismatic persona. He was defeated by a two-to-one majority and effectively became a lame duck. Though he was offered the opportunity to run as the Podemos candidate in the 2019 Madrilenian elections, he claimed that his freedom of action was curtailed and his position systematically undermined by the Pablistas.  

Errejón therefore led a split, forming Más Madrid to contest the municipal elections in May 2019 before launching Más Pais ahead of the general elections later that year. For the Pablistas, this confirmed what they had long suspected: that Errejón was willing to undermine Podemos, and ally with some of its worst enemies, in order to advance his personal ambitions and lukewarm brand of populism. In Con Todo, however, he insists that Podemos had lost votes from 2016 onwards because of its rebranding as a conventional left party. The shift, as he puts it, was from ‘using moderate rhetoric to advocate for radical measures to using radical rhetoric to promote modest measures’. He stresses the necessity of a broad-based appeal to the electorate, and laments that the vertical structures he set up were subsequently used by Iglesias’s faction to crush all internal dissent.

Con Todo captures Errejón’s gifts as a campaign organizer and political operator, with a talent for translating theory into practice. It also reflects some of the traits that undermined his project: an intransigent, often sectarian disposition, and a lack of patience for building robust political institutions. The author’s strategic outlook ultimately fails to convince. Unlike Iglesias, he has virtually nothing to say about the array of forces stacked against Podemos. Politics, for him, is not about the balance of power between clashing institutions. It is merely a set of discursive strategies with a horizon that rarely extends beyond the next election. His claim that transversalism is the most effective means of rallying voters against neoliberalism is belied by the performance of Más Pais, which failed to make serious electoral gains, and has since been dissolved into Sumar. Nor is it clear how, even if a ‘below-versus-above’ strategy managed to improve Podemos’s poll ratings, it could have succeeded in forging a radical government or popular movement capable of confronting vested interests. In many cases, Errejón’s prescriptions merely involve appealing to the political centre – a tactic that has hastened the collapse of left parties elsewhere in Europe.


Sergio Pascual was appointed Podemos’s Secretary of Organization in 2014 and sacked by Iglesias two years later for playing a leading role in a factional Telegram group led by Errejón. After his defenestration, he distanced himself from both factions and served out the rest of his parliamentary term before leaving frontline politics in 2019. Un cadáver en el Congreso is his attempt to make sense of his experience, providing a more comprehensive account of Podemos’s internal struggle than can be found in Iglesias or Errejón. Pascual begins by recalling his political work in Latin America, where he held a mid-level advisory role in the Maduro government. While working in Caracas in 2014, he received a call from his close friend and comrade Errejón, who asked him to return to Spain and join Podemos. He soon became the main interface between the national leadership and Podemos’s unruly local branches, as well as the unofficial lieutenant of the Errejonista faction. 

Un cadáver en el Congreso describes an informal gathering of the key Podemos members in the town of Ávila‎ in August of 2014, where they discussed the party’s internal composition, its distribution of power, whether to ally with IU, and whether to run candidates in the upcoming municipal and provincial elections. The so-called ‘Ávila trauma’ was the first indication of major political differences among the leadership. Errejón stressed the need to ‘arrive light’ at the next general elections, with a limited policy platform and without the ‘baggage’ of IU. He rejected the idea of deploying the Podemos brand for local elections, arguing that they should conserve their energy for the national one and assemble an electoral base by winning over unaffiliated voters. Iglesias, for his part, was more concerned with building a loyal organization, rooted in Spain’s radical left tradition, that could withstand inevitable attempts at elite sabotage. Pascual recalls that the leader gave

a realistic political reading of actual power in our country. He reminded us that we would not be allowed to govern, and that full democracy does not exist in Spain . . . He outlined the difficulties we would face, the use of (now proven) state conspiracies against us, and he anticipated the ad hominem attacks we would receive and that would soon become a reality. He said that we should make gains in provincial government and use them to counterbalance the onslaught, and he made it clear that this would not be possible without allying with Izquierda Unida.

Iglesias developed this thesis in a subsequent email discussion, where he predicted that Podemos would soon establish itself as a national political formation yet remain subordinate to the PSOE and PP, and that a longer-term struggle to overtake them would mean gaining a presence in provincial administrations. Iglesias was willing to use Errejón’s populist methods and tactical innovations to break open the two-party system. But he saw that the left/right binary would eventually reimpose itself on Spanish politics, and that maintaining a transversal identity would be impossible. Pascual agrees with this diagnosis; ‘we were on the left and everyone knew it’. Rather than hiding this basic fact, it was necessary, he writes, to strengthen Podemos’s forces by forming an alliance with other experienced and battle-hardened parties: IU chief among them. Yet Iglesias nonetheless accepted Errejón’s argument that Podemos should not field municipal candidates to avoid contaminating its national brand: a decision which meant that Podemos failed to carve out local power bases at the height of its popularity, leaving it in a vulnerable position.  

Errejón won the Ávila debate thanks to the superior organization of his cadres, preventing Podemos from allying with IU for the time being. Iglesias was clearly rattled by the experience. ‘I realized that I was leader of a party machine that would not necessarily be loyal to me’, he later wrote. He began to seek out allies who could challenge Errejón’s growing influence. The two emerging factions managed to maintain enough unity to defeat the Anticapitalistas, a Trotskyist group that argued for the creation of decentralized democratic channels as opposed to a nimble and vertical electoral machine. Yet the tensions between them would become impossible to contain following the December 2015 election.

After the party secured its spectacular result, both Errejón and Iglesias were sceptical that the PSOE would agree to a coalition, and both were exhilarated by the idea of a possible sorpasso of the centre left. But their strategies diverged. Iglesias wanted to accelerate attacks on the PSOE in an attempt to win over their core voters, while Errejón argued for a moderate line to attract their wavering supporters. When the PSOE establishment ruled out any deal with Podemos, the Pablistas advocated a rerun of the election, hoping to form an alliance with IU, which they believed could add a million votes to their tally. The Errejonistas believed that standing back and allowing the PSOE to form a government with Ciudadanos was necessary to shield Podemos from the responsibility for forcing another election. These disagreements erupted with a series of leaked Telegram messages, coordinated resignations, briefings, counter-briefings, and Iglesias’s eventual sacking of Pascual. Un cadáver en el Congreso describes how this series of events eradicated any ‘common language’ between the party militants and created a vicious cycle of factionalism.

Despite his previous identification with the Errejonistas, Pascual has produced one of the most measured and self-critical accounts of the period. Not only does he chart the evolution of the factions in compelling detail; he also evokes the emotional intensity and chaotic atmosphere of party life. Podemos, he writes, was a ‘totalizing institution’ that consumed its key players 24 hours a day. Being invited to an exclusive Telegram group was a ‘sign of social ascent’; being expelled or excluded from one ‘was the worst form of exile’. The book shows how loyalties and patronage networks played a key role in determining political allegiances – which, in an organization that lacked developed internal structures or procedures for mediating disputes, created the perfect conditions for a fratricidal war.


It was always going to be difficult for a party like Podemos to maintain its momentum thanks to coordinated political attacks and unresolved internal differences. But could it have achieved a softer landing, establishing itself as a permanent actor on the political stage and laying the groundwork for future gains? If factionalism played a significant role in unravelling the project – not only damaging its public perception, but exhausting many of its activists – could this antagonism have been managed more effectively? It is tempting to think that the Errejonistas could have formed a loyal opposition, agitating for a softer populism without undermining Iglesias, or that the factions could have become more porous over time, with political differences hashed out through internal democratic channels. Yet the fast-paced, high-stakes context in which they were operating, as they tried to exploit a vanishing window of political opportunity, militated against patience and compromise. Errejón, convinced that the ‘populist moment’ had come, was never going to accept a subordinate status, keeping his head down until he could contest a future leadership election. And Iglesias was clear that he would not lead Podemos if it meant having to implement a strategy he did not agree with. It is facile to think that ‘compromise’ would have saved Podemos, since the disagreements between the Pablistas and Errejónistas were often zero-sum: whether to ally with IU, whether to enable a PSOE/Ciudadanos government. Even if the party’s internal structures had been less majoritarian, halfway solutions were not always available, let alone desirable.

Still, there were some things that Podemos might have done differently. As Pascual demonstrates, its factional disputes were exacerbated by a lack of clear regulations and procedures, which the leadership had little interest in developing. And its refusal to run municipal candidates in 2015 was a grave error. Doing so would have had its costs in terms of party unity and resources, yet it would have helped to develop local cadres and build organizing infrastructure across the country. Without such ballasts, Podemos consistently underperformed at municipal level over the coming years, before suffering a near total collapse in 2023.

Today, neither Podemos nor Sumar is capable of overtaking the PSOE, which means that the divergence between them centres mostly on their clashing approaches to the coalition. While Podemos were ‘noisy’ and confrontational in government, Díaz has tried to establish a long-term consensus between the two parties. Yet Sumar’s moderation, which is largely consistent with Errejón’s, has so far failed to solve the left’s electoral problems; it lost over 600,000 votes in 2023 compared to UP in 2019. Nor has it yielded any dividends in terms of democratic participation; fewer than 7,000 people voted in Sumar’s recent Assembly. It appears that most of Podemos’s problems – weak social bases, a limited presence in local government, overreliance on centralized communications – have simply been reproduced by its successor.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the organic crisis that precipitated the Pink Tide was not replicated in the Global North following the 2008 financial crash. There, elites could fall back on the media, the state and financial institutions. They could also mobilize nationalist and patriotic sentiments, unlike countries outside the imperial core – Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina – where the left developed alternative ‘national-popular’ discourses. Thus, while radical social democrats made significant gains during the 2010s, they struggled to withstand concerted counterattacks. ‘We can win the cup’, observed Iglesias, ‘but winning the league is extremely difficult’. This doesn’t mean that it was wrong to try to ‘take heaven by assault’, or that left-populism should be written off altogether. This was a serious attempt to win power in an atomized and mediatized political environment. Yet the dynamism and creativity of the early Podemos needed to be channelled into more durable and resilient structures. In the 2020s, the priority for the Spanish left is to maximize policy concessions from the PSOE without adopting a dependent position that forecloses long-term structural transformation. Its task is to build a pluralist coalition which could capitalize on the next elite crisis. It remains to be seen whether Sumar can rise to this challenge.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘After Populism?’, NLR 144.