Spain’s Podemos party names new head after Pablo Iglesias departure

Hard left-wing party Unidas Podemos, junior partner in Spain's ruling coalition, is expected to name Ione Belarra as its leader Sunday after the departure of Pablo Iglesias, who founded the faction in 2014.

Spain's Podemos party names new head after Pablo Iglesias departure
Ione Belarra speaks to the press during a demonstration against mortgage taxes in Madrid in 2018, with former Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias to the left. (Photo by Benjamin CREMEL / AFP)

Currently minister for social affairs, Belarra, 33, is the overwhelming favourite to take the helm of a party which emerged from the anti-austerity “Indignados” protest movement that occupied squares across Spain in 2011.

Since Sunday, party activists have been voting for their new secretary-general after Iglesias stepped down on May 4 following a stinging defeat at the hands of the right in Madrid’s regional elections.

Voting closes on Saturday with the results to be announced at a party assembly on Sunday.

Although there are three candidates, Belarra is running against two unknowns and is certain to win the vote.

One of Iglesias’ inner circle, she took over from him as social rights minister when he stood down to run as a candidate in the Madrid regional elections.

He also stepped down as one of Spain’s deputy prime ministers.

“She’s been chosen by Pablo Iglesias which gets her the support of party members. You could say he’s anointed his successor,” said Paloma Roman, a political science expert at Madrid’s Complutense University.

With her nomination, it will mean two women hold the highest positions in Podemos, the other being Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz, who took over from Iglesias as deputy premier and is expected to head the faction’s list in the next elections.

Spain's Minister for Social Rights and 2030 Agenda Ione Belarra arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid on April 06, 2021. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)Belarra was named Spain’s Minister for Social Rights in April 2021. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

A complex challenge

Once known for his long ponytail which he chopped off after leaving politics, Iglesias has led the party since its inception seven years ago.

With a super-charged approach to leadership, he clashed frequently with other party members, prompting the departure of most of those who helped him found Podemos, including his deputy Inigo Errejon who later set up Mas Pais.

The list of candidates for the party’s executive is made up exclusively of Iglesias’ inner circle, among them Equality Minister Irene Montero, his partner and mother of their three children, and parliamentary spokesman Pablo Echenique.

To silence the sceptics, Belarra has pledged to usher in “a more harmonious era” with a different form of leadership that will take “a collective approach to decision-making”.

But sociologist and historian Emmanuel Rodríguez told AFP it would be “very complicated” for her to oversee any “restructuring” within Podemos given that the party “is completely biased towards the needs of its old guard”.

Not what it was

Podemos is the fourth largest party in parliament, holding 35 of its 350 seats, behind the Socialists, the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox.

But the figure is far lower than the 69 seats it seized in 2015 when it first entered parliament, shattering the traditional Socialist-PP hegemony and promising to do away with austerity policies.

Along the way it has managed to lose some two million votes.

“Very little is left” of the original Podemos, says political scientist Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, who wrote a book about the party.

“First there was a big bang and then a cooling-off period,” he said, indicating it refused to be a party “with diverse ideological profiles” to be one that was “communist at its core” but backed by “allies that gave it a more modern sheen”.

In January 2020, Podemos entered government for the first time as junior partner in the left-wing coalition of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Since then it has been heavily involved in initiatives like last year’s minimum wage hike, or the labour reform recognising delivery drivers working for firms like Deliveroo or UberEats as staff.

Diaz played a central role in crafting such measures, also winning plaudits for negotiating with unions and employers to set up a furlough scheme that has been critical for avoiding mass layoffs during the pandemic.

But she herself has no interest in joining the party’s leadership given she is a member of the Communist Party.

However, after receiving Iglesias’ blessing, the party’s leadership will name her at the head of its list for the next general elections which should take place no later than January 2024.

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Spanish government to alter sexual consent law to fix loopholes

Spain's leftwing government said Monday it was looking to modify a landmark law to fight sexual violence to close a loophole that has let some convicted offenders reduce their sentences.

Spanish government to alter sexual consent law to fix loopholes

Since the law came into force in October, around 20 offenders have reportedly been released and 300 others have seen their sentences reduced.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party has announced plans to reform the law.

“In the coming days, we will present a draft bill, a meticulous text that will provide a response and a solution to these undesired effects which we obviously don’t want to see repeated in the future,” said Education Minister Pilar Alegria, who is also party spokeswoman.

“Logically, the best way to specifically address these undesired effects would be to increase the penalties for sexual offenders,” she told reporters.

READ ALSO – ‘Only yes means yes’: Spain tightens sexual consent law

The controversy erupted barely six weeks after the entry into force of the “Only yes means yes” law, which reformed the criminal code in a bid to define all non-consensual sex as rape.

The overall aim of the law was to shift the focus in cases of sexual violence from the victims’ resistance to a women’s free and clearly expressed consent.

To this end, the charge of sexual abuse was dropped and everything was grouped under sexual assault. The range of penalties was widened to include all possibilities under that single term.

READ ALSO: How Spain is trying to fix its new trouble-ridden sexual consent law

The law effectively reduces the minimum and the maximum punishment in certain specific cases and hundreds have applied to have their sentences revised.

‘Consent must remain at the centre’

Over the weekend, reports that the government was mulling changes to the law prompted tensions between the ruling Socialists and their hard-left junior coalition partner Podemos, which has championed the legislation.

The right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) had quickly moved to offer parliamentary support if the Socialists wanted to push through the changes without Podemos.

But Podemos reacted angrily. Equality Minister Irene Montero warned that such a move would mean the law reverting to its original format and she vowed to do “whatever necessary” to ensure consent was kept at the centre.

Her stance was hammered home by party leader Ione Belarra on Monday morning. “Consent has to remain at the heart of the criminal code. We can’t go back to the evidentiary ordeal of proving we resisted enough or that we hadn’t been drinking,” tweeted Belarra, the social rights minister.

Socialist ministers insisted the planned changes would merely address the loopholes and would not touch the issue of consent.

“The correction and modification of the law is designed to avoid any undesired outcomes in the future and the issue of consent will remain at the centre of the law against sexual assault so that women avoid enduring the ordeal of proof in court,” cabinet minister Felix Bolanos, a close Sánchez aide, told reporters.

Until now, rape victims had needed to prove they were subjected to violence or intimidation. Without that, the offence was considered “sexual abuse” and carried lighter penalties than rape.

With “sexual abuse” dropped from the reformed criminal code and a much wider range of offences grouped under “sexual assault”, a broader range of penalties was required to ensure proportionality.

At the weekend, Montero said it was only a “minority” of judges who had applied the law incorrectly.

She said there were similar teething problems with Spain’s landmark 2004 domestic violence legislation, the first in Europe, which faced “almost 200 questions” about its legality in the first years after it was passed.