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The Podemos Phenomenon: A New Left-Wing Party Has Transformed Spanish Politics in 2014

Podemos was only founded 11 months ago but, with its young, media-savvy leader, promises to have a major say in Spain's upcoming national elections.

by Tomi Di Pietro
Dec 31 2014, 1:57pm

Photo via Podemos Uviéu

If Spain were to go to the polls today, its next prime minister would be Pablo Iglesias, a 36-year-old professor and talk show guest with no previous political experience, according to a recent survey conducted for the upcoming general elections in 2015. That is an astonishing achievement for his political party Podemos, which, since its founding only 11 months ago, has transformed the Spanish political landscape.

The fledgling left-wing party — whose name translates as "We can" — was born out of the 15M movement of los indignados  a grassroots phenomenon which took hold across the country in 2011 in protest at the political and economic elite and the austerity measures in place.

The 15M movement did not originally plan to channel public frustration at the status quo into a political force. But it wasn't long before its members began to feel that its neighborhood assemblies were not enough to bring about real change, and a shift into parliament was a natural progression.

Launching the party in Madrid on January 17, Iglesias said its mission was to "transform the current social indignation into political energy."

And that it has. In the European Parliament elections in May — when Podemos was a mere four months old — it took five seats, far outstripping the predictions in the polls of a single seat. Iglesias was then sworn in as a member of the European Parliament, and was only officially appointed secretary general of Podemos in November.

Spaniards are disillusioned by both the current economic and social crisis in Spain, as well as traditional politics, which have fallen into disrepute as a result of numerous corruption scandals. "Spain's corruption is systemic, thus it will only be halted by measures that reform the system from the inside," Juan Luis Cebrián, chief executive of the media conglomerate Grupo Prisa and publisher of the daily El Pais, told his newspaper"The current functioning of our political system favors this type of behaviors," Cebrián continued. 

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Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, for his part, has sought to play down the corruption issue. In November, even as authorities pursued a raft of corruption charges against dozens of top political figures including members of his ruling Partido Popular (PP), and the day after his health minister resigned over a kickback scandal, he insisted to parliamentarians: "Spain is not corrupt; it just has some corrupt people in it, but most politicians are decent people."

Podemos boasts of being a force made up of ordinary people, and Iglesias has played heavily on the concept of what he calls "the caste," an emotive reference to Spain´s deeply entrenched political and economic elites.

Part of their platform is based on rejecting the austerity policies dictated by the so-called European "troika" — the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. According to a report by Caritas, the current unemployment rate in Spain is around 24.4 percent, and one in four Spaniards are living in a state of social exclusion.

Iglesias has clearly expressed his sympathy for the way in which Latin America's left-wing has stood up to both the financial power and the status quo of traditional politics. "Latin America shows us there are other ways of governing, that the state remains very important; that discipline could be imposed to economic powers and the United States could be geopolitically challenged," said Iglesias. 

His detractors, however, accuse him of wanting to install another Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in Spain. The PP's leader in Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, said in July that "the Chavez government paid Podemos 3.7 million euros ($4.5m), Podemos admires their regime for its political leaders and they want to establish that system in Spain. They also admire Fidel Castro's dictatorship in Cuba." Aguirre also accused the new left wing party of being in cahoots with "Chávismo, Castrismo, and ETA," referring to the banned Basque separatist group. Iglesias is currently suing Aguirre over these statements.

However, her assertions have some basis in reality, prompted as they were by the revelation in El País that Iglesias and Podemos's two other leaders sat from 2000 to 2012 on the board of a foundation which was paid millions by the Chavez government for political advisory work. Meanwhile Herrira, an ETA group which works to support the organization's prisoners, has confirmed an El Mundo report that it had had contact with Iglesias — though stressed that it had similar communications with politicians from other parties. Podemos itself accused the media of using normal contacts with ETA as a weapon to take down their political targets, noting in a statement that the previous left-wing president, Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, had also been accused of complicity with the group. "Podemos considers it worrying that it's become normal currency for certain media to use terrorism as a missile," the party said in a statement

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For his part, Iglesias acknowledges an appreciation for aspects of Communist thinking, but these days largely tries to avoid association with figures such as the late Chavez. He is happier to display a close relationship with the leader of the radical left Greek party Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, who shares the same strategy of fighting austerity measures imposed by the "troika" in Europe's southern member states.

Such questions have done little to hinder Iglesias's swelling popularity, which owes much to his powerful presence in the mainstream media. His ability to debate effectively against conservative politicians has made him a regular feature in numerous televised debate shows. 

Yet he paints himself not as a polished political operator but rather a man of the people on whom the spotlight weighs heavy. 

In March, Iglesias told VICE that his political candidacy had been spontaneous, saying: "There is no specific plan of action in place." But he acknowledged that he was conscious of how the power of the media could be harnessed to elevate his political movement. "Ever since I began appearing regularly on TV, I had the feeling I wouldn't like that to become a part of my life. I am aware that media can provide political value, so I wanted to use media in some way."

Podemos's key proposals include a debt restructuring plan — which has been assessed positively in the the Financial Times — a financial assistance program for people who are socially excluded or at risk of social exclusion, the introduction of a 35-hour working week, an increase in the minimum wage, a salary cap, tax reforms that would extract more revenues from corporations and the wealthy, and a crackdown on financial fraud.

But such policies have been criticized by the conservative PP, the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), and the economic establishment, which claim they are both unrealistic and populist.

Juan Ramón Rallo, economics professor at Juan Carlos University in Madrid, said: "If Podemos gets to implement its political program, which remains to be seen, a big part of foreign investment will leave the country, most debt holders — if not all — will massively sell their debt. Then, interest rates will rise, Spain's economic situation within the euro area will become much more complicated, we won't be able to refinance our debt, and we will end up financing everything with inflation, i.e. robbing people covertly."

PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez used an interview with El País in November to pour scorn on Podemos's proposal of a basic guaranteed income for all citizens: "Podemos's basic universal income proposal is not economically viable; such universality would cost around 160,000 million euros. Where are they going to get this money from? Besides this is not a fair proposal at all."

Indeed, Podemos itself appears to have watered down that particular policy in its program for next year's elections. Instead, the party now talks of "help" for those who are unable to access an income, but does not specify how much it would be nor how it would differ from other welfare provisions. 

Released in November, Podemos's 60-page policy document — designed as a framework for a full manifesto still in the works — was aimed at dispelling criticisms of the party as all idealist sparkle and no substance. 

It has not done so entirely. One commentator from the Financial Times who attended the launch, Tobias Buck, sounded a positive note about the aims of the Podemos project, but added:  "Perhaps the most obvious weakness of the program — though one that is hardly unique to Podemos — was the absence of any serious calculation regarding how the apparently massive government-led stimulus should be financed. Spain, after all, is still running a budget deficit of 5.5 percent this year. At Thursday's press conference, there was talk of improved public sector 'efficiency' as well as higher taxes on the 'super-rich.' Neither idea is likely to silence the Podemos critics."

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But it is perhaps in the party's means, more than its ends, that Podemos really seeks to posit itself as a break from the old political elite. It is distinguished by its internal structure, based on so-called "circles" which have been born out of grassroots social movements across the country. Organized by area, profession or specific interest, the circles are autonomous groups where members debate issues and take collective decisions. 

Meanwhile, the party has used online crowdfunding to help finance its campaign, in order to be independent of any vested interests or powerful friends. Podemos preaches public control and accountability, and publishes its accounts and donations on its website — though some of the contributions are anonymous. Key decisions regarding its program and model have been submitted to online voting open to all supporters. 

The key decisions regarding both its program and model have been submitted to online voting open to all supporters. This system has drawn historic rates of citizen participation, with more than 100,000 voters in the internal elections process.

Despite the ongoing debate over the causes — and possible consequences — of the Podemos phenomenon, there is one conclusion that few would contest: Spain is experiencing a moment of profound political renewal. 

Image via Flickr

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