Spain’s far-left Unidos Podemos party made a simple yet enticing pledge in the campaign leading up to Sunday’s general election. It promised to make the country “smile” again.
The theme was repeated in videos, tweets and on posters. No speech was complete without an upbeat reference to the official party slogan, “the smile of a country”. But when the voting was done and the result became clear, there was not a happy face in sight.
Unidos Podemos was the big loser of Spain’s general election, shedding more than 1m votes since the last ballot in December. Worse still, the alliance failed to achieve its overarching strategic objective — to replace the centre-left Socialists as the dominant political force on the Spanish left.
Party leader Pablo Iglesias — one of the leading voices of Europe’s new anti-establishment left — made no secret of his disappointment. But in an interview on Spanish television yesterday, he was at pains to remind viewers of the group’s achievements. Mr Iglesias pointed out that Unidos Podemos won more than 20 per cent of the vote, that its allies were still in control of city halls in Madrid and Barcelona, and that the party won the lion’s share of the youth vote. “We represent the future. Sooner or later, Unidos Podemos will govern this country,” he said.
Others are not so sure. Sceptics argue that the June 26 election was probably the party’s best chance to win hegemony on the left and lead a broad leftwing coalition into government. That, indeed, was the whole point of last month’s decision to bring together Mr Iglesias’s anti-austerity Podemos party with the smaller Izquierda Unida, or United Left. Poll after poll showed that the joint electoral list was on course to eclipse the Socialists. On election night, triumph seemed imminent, with exit polls showing that Unidos Podemos could win up to 95 seats in the 350-seat parliament — and an overall majority for a coalition government with the Socialists.
In the end, Unidos Podemos won just 71 seats, significantly fewer than the Socialists. “The party has to face the reality that with its current discourse it has reached a ceiling,” said José Fernández-Albertos, a political scientist at Spain’s CSIC research centre and the author of a recent book about Podemos.
“One of the reasons for the recent success of Podemos was that the party managed to mobilise non-voters who were otherwise little engaged in politics. But that support seems to have been lost, and it will be very hard to regain. An important part of its support turned out to be ephemeral,” he added.
Unidos Podemos leaders say they are not sure what prompted the drop-off in support, and why the polling firms failed to detect it. Some blamed the “campaign of fear” that was allegedly waged by Spain’s mainstream parties against the new left. Others pointed to Britain’s shock decision to leave the EU just two days before the election. With stock markets plunging and economic fears sharply on the rise, some leftwing voters may have decided at the last minute to back more conservative options, or to stay at home.
“The result is not good for us and it is not good for the country,” said Clara Alonso, the Izquierda Unida campaign chief. “It seems that the campaign of fear that was launched by the right — and that was supported by the Socialists — worked against us. That mobilised their vote while on our side there seems to have been a certain voter fatigue.”
The shock Brexit vote, she added, played “right into the electoral strategy of the right” but was unlikely to have been a “determining” factor on Sunday.
Looking ahead, the biggest challenge for Unidos Podemos (United We Can) might well lie in preserving the first half of the party name. The alliance campaigned effectively, but party unity is far from assured. Even before the merger, Podemos was made up of distinct — and occasionally disparate — ideological and geographic streams. The addition of Izquierda Unida, which incorporates Spain’s Communist party, has added another layer of complexity and a fresh source of potential strife.
Perhaps the most important schism concerns the overall direction of Unidos Podemos — whether it should strive to win voters across the political spectrum or focus more on mobilising its ideological base. It is a question that has been bubbling away since Podemos was founded just over two years ago, but that has grown more heated since Sunday.
“Should it fortify its position on the left and hope for the revolution to come or should it move to the centre and moderate its message?” asked Mr Fernández-Albertos. “That decision is likely to create a big divide in the months and years ahead.”