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Leaders of Spain's Podemos try to overcome infighting at party congress

Simmering divisions over the future of Spain's left-wing Podemos will come to a head at this weekend's party congress. The split pits hard-line leftists against pragmatists.

Shouting "Yes we can" and "Unity," thousands of Podemos supporters kicked off a crucial two-day congress in the capital, Madrid. 

The convention will set the direction of the upstart far-left party, increasingly split by factionalism and a leadership struggle between its two top figures. Leader Pablo Iglesias and the party's No. 2 man, Inigo Errejon, have been locked in an ongoing dispute over the political strategy for Spain's third-largest party.

"We have committed many mistakes," a pony-tailed Iglesias told the crowd as he stood on stage behind huge white letters spelling out Podemos. To wild applause, the 38-year-old added the weekend's congress should be "an example of fraternity, unity and intelligence."

The infighting has led to mutual recriminations and resignations within the party that was born out of the Indignados anti-austerity movement in January 2014.

By the end of the congress on Sunday, supporters and party members will elect a new leadership council and secretary-general. Critically, they will also sign off on a political strategy to guide the party.

But the vote may not heal simmering disputes over the future of the party that, according to some observers, threaten to tear the movement apart.

Hard-line or moderate?

The core internal party dispute is whether to stick to a hard-line leftist position, as advocated by Iglesias, or take a more moderate stance and move the party in the direction of the leftist political mainstream, a policy pushed by Errejon. 

Spanien Podemos Parteitagung (Getty Images/AFP/P. P. Marcou)

Errejon addresses the PODEMOS congress in Madrid

Iglesias wants to maintain Podemos' anti-establishment roots and take to the streets again to challenge traditional parties.

Errejon seeks to find a middle ground with the Socialists (PSOE), the second-largest party, in order to influence policy from within the system and broaden Podemos' appeal to moderate leftist voters.

A three-way coalition of Podemos, PSOE and the liberal Ciudadanos that could have challenged Mariano Rajoy's ruling conservative People's Party failed to materialize last year after two inconclusive elections. 

Rajoy became prime minister at the head of a minority government in October after months of political jockeying, leading the PSOE to abstain in a parliamentary confidence vote, which allowed the conservative leader to win enough support to form a government. The PSOE, meanwhile, has imploded and remained fractured ahead of a planned May leadership vote.

Choosing partners

Another sticking point is Podemos' relationship with the communist United Left, with which it entered an alliance in last year's election that failed to deliver the key goal of overtaking PSOE as Spain's second-largest party. Instead, the party lost about a million votes.

Iglesias wants to maintain the alliance with United Left, while Errejon advocates for stronger relations with the PSOE.

Errejon is not directly challenging Iglesias to become secretary-general of Podemos, but each faction has put forward different proposals and lists of candidates for the leadership council.

Iglesias has said that if his proposals and candidates are not approved, he will step down.

That, in turn, could trigger a power struggle to replace him.

cw/tj (AFP, EFE)

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