Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP

Dr. Arthur Borriello of the Université Libre de Bruxelles writes for the Populism in Action Project:

On January 7, 2020, the leader of the left-wing populist political party Podemos, the political scientist Pablo Iglesias (pictured), burst into tears on the floor of the Spanish Parliament. He was witnessing the investiture of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, President of the Socialist Party (PSOE), and Podemos’ inclusion — just over years after its creation — in a coalition government.

But 16 months later, Iglesias retired from politics in a solemn speech: “When your role within your organization and your task to improve democracy in this country becomes greatly limited and mobilizes the worst elements of those who hate it, certain decisions have to be taken without hesitation”.

Iglesias made the surprise announcement, stepping down as Deputy Prime Minister, after a disappointing regional election in Madrid in which Podemos only secured 7.21% of the vote and 10 seats out of 136. The campaign was marked by threats of violence, including towards Iglesias.

The End of a Political Cycle

The outcome of the Madrilenian contest was not that surprising. In May 2019, Podemos fared even worse, losing 20 of their 27 seats in the regional assembly. Its coalition partner PSOE endured a severe defeat this year, with its worst-ever result in the region amid the popularity of Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the charismatic candidate of the conservative People’s Party.

The politician and political scientist Iñigo Errejón argues 26 years of right-wing government in the Madrilenian region has shaped the political environment in favor of the right. However, this defeat calls for an explanation beyond local factors.

Iglesias’s tears in January 2020 were not of joy, but were the product of mixed feelings. Nostalgia, as the long march to national government came at high cost. On the way, Podemos lost two million voters, experienced harsh internal tensions leading to painful splits, and abandoned many of its initial aspirations.

There was also relief. The alliance of socialists and populists was the result of long and arduous negotiations, initiated nine months earlier, which succeeded only after a risky second election weakened both parties and reinforced the far right.

Finally, bitterness. Podemos’ weakness was the very reason why it had finally set foot in government, as it no longer endangered the hegemony of PSOE.

Podemos’ recent defeat confirms the exhaustion of the political cycle opened by the anti-austerity protests of 2011. The “old” vs “new” opposition that arose from the discrediting of center-left and centrer-right elites in the context of the Euro crisis has given way to a return to a more classic left-right structure of political competition, coupled with an exacerbation of the center-periphery cleavage.

This trend has led to the decline of


, the other political party that erupted in the aftermath of the recession and positioned itself as a “new” pole of the emerging opposition. A new party on the far-right, Vox, has arisen to put an end to the “Spanish exception”.

In this configuration, the opposition between the antagonist blocs of left vs. right has obscured the new axis of competition between insiders and outsiders, marginalizing the latter. At the end of this process, Podemos has been relegated to PSOE’s left, as a credible junior partner for coalitions, but but without any further capacity to influence the frame of the political debate. Its initial ambition has practically disappeared: in many respects, Podemos is not to be considered “populist” anymore, but simply a renewed version of the old Spanish radical left.

The Paradoxes of Left Populism

The paradox is interesting. The old channels and structures of political representation – arguably the main long-term factor behind the populist upsurge – do not disappear all of a sudden. Rather, they are crumbling and resisting at the same time.

The cleavages, organizations, and actors of party democracy retain a foothold in certain sectors of society making it difficult for new contenders to extensively remold political identities along new lines of competition. Any left populist contender finds itself progressively torn between two temptations: going populist or going leftist.

In the first scenario, the populist party abandon the radical left’s classic ideological coordinates and modes of organization and opt for the lightest and most open structure to attract voters and members. In doing so, however, they might be unable to win the loyalty of specific social groups in the long run. So they end up becoming the victims of the volatility that enabled them to erupt onto the political scene in the first place.

In the second scenario, they decide to opt for more robust structures and more recognizable ideological positionings, entrenching the party in specific sectors of society. The pitfall of such strategy is before our eyes: while the voter base of Podemos is now certainly more loyal than ever, it has considerably shrunk, leaving the party’s electoral strength far from its initial ambitions to transform Spanish society.

In a paradoxical situation in which volatility and atomization coexist with resilience and inertia, left populism has seemed forced to choose between evaporation and marginalization.

What Next?

Pablo Iglesias’ resignation was a shock for most observers of Spanish politics. Yet it is not a turning point in the fullest sense, since it simply accelerates a trend already in play. Podemos is increasingly turning into a “normal” party, more structured and less dependent on the figure of its charismatic leader for the consolidation of a wide range of demands.

The twilight of Spanish left populism does not leave us without lessons, however. As the structures of political mediation and representation are eroding across Western democracies, other populist contenders are yet to arise. Movements must be careful not to underestimate the inertia of the party system against which they are rising. They must find a balance between anchoring themselves to specific segments of society and the ideological and organizational agility that helps them navigate through the partial void of representation. These are the minimum conditions if left populist parties wanted to become a credible majoritarian force capable of social transformation.