first impressions count, then the political force that wants to transform Spain
in 2015 consists mainly of student types and self-conscious outsiders. That, at
any rate, is the scene when you enter Podemos's crammed, disorderly office in
Madrid's popular Lavapiés district. Posters are being prepared for the
movement's first big street demonstration, planned for 31 January. A young
woman sitting in front of a computer says she has no job and decided to become
a Podemos volunteer because "if we don't start taking things into our hands, la
casta will just continue as before".
is the closest thing Spain has to Syriza, the radical leftwing party that just
came to power in Greece. Only a year after its launch last January, Podemos
("We can") is riding high in opinion polls. General elections are due at the
end of the year. Just like Syriza, Podemos has a charismatic leader, the
pony-tailed 36-year-old professor of political science, Pablo Iglesias. Like
Syriza, Podemos calls for an end to traditional politics and rolling back
austerity. Its key target is la casta ("the caste"), the dominant two-party
system that has ruled Spain since democracy was restored in the late 1970s,
after Franco's death.
the Podemos office, there's a book shop run by some of its activists. Browsing
through it feels like you've stepped into a time-machine: there are collections
of Lenin's works, and books on the Italian communist thinker Antonio Gramsci
and the French 19th-century revolutionary Louise Michel.
more likely clue to Podemos's rise can be found on the television news: an
endless stream of revelations about corruption cases. Spain's macroeconomic
situation may have improved, but that hasn't translated yet into improved
living standards: youth unemployment still stands at a staggering 50%. Podemos
taps into the despair over these numbers just as Syriza has done in Greece. It
offers new young faces and resorts to social media in its bid to modernise
Spanish politics, calling for more social justice and democratic accountability
of the elites. But beyond that, its programme remains vague.
certainly fascinates. Unlike Syriza, it didn't even exist a few years ago. It
stormed Spanish politics last May by gaining an unexpected 8% of votes in the
European parliamentary elections. This came as a surprise to many. In fact it
was the result of a clever strategy put together by a small group of Madrid
is how it happened: when the 2011 Indignados youth protests died down in Spain,
a group of political scientists from the capital's Complutense university,
including Iglesias, saw an opportunity. They built on the online networks for
the Indignados and put into practice some of the political techniques they had
learned while studying Gramsci and the Argentinian post-Marxist political
theorist Ernesto Laclau, an influential advocate of political populism. Out of
this was borne Podemos's central narrative: "The people versus la casta." "They
understood the key was not to dwell on class consciousness," says political
analyst Fernando Vallespín, "but to frame the very perception of politics." It
worked. Many Spaniards watching the eloquent Iglesias on TV or online started
to identify the "casta", the ruling class, as the source of their woes. One
only needs to remember past headlines about Spain's spectacular economic
success story in the early 2000s, when easy credit fed a construction bubble,
to realise how much of a boom-to-bust phenomenon has weighed on the national
psyche. One middle-aged Spaniard put if to me this way: "We discovered we
weren't as good as we thought. We thought Spain had qualified to be at the
heart of Europe, and all of a sudden, we were rejected to its lame periphery ..."
is an admirable romanticism to Podemos shaking up a sclerotic political scene.
But behind its utopian energy there is more cold-blooded realpolitik than meets
the eye. Podemos portrays itself as giving a voice to the ordinary citizens
consulted on the internet or through hundreds of spontaneous assemblies called
"circles". Yet once the online voting has happened, the overall message is
decided by a 10-member coordination council, nominated by Iglesias. At its
worst, Podemos could resemble something like
his communication strategy, Iglesias once pointed out how in 1917 Lenin "didn't
talk to the Russians about 'dialectical materialism', he talked to them about
'bread and peace'". The Podemos leader also believes that "Heaven is not taken
by consensus, it is taken by assault." Such statements have made it easy for
critics to accuse Iglesias of authoritarian tendencies, influenced by outdated
and his close circle of friends in the Podemos leadership have spent time in
Venezuela and Bolivia in the last decade, some of them acting as advisers to
regimes whose democratic credentials aren't exactly solid. Questions have been
raised in the Spanish media about financial dealings from the regime of the
late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, whom Iglesias has expressed admiration for.
Podemos has since toned down its rhetoric about Bolivarian revolutions; it now
claims to want to mimic northern European social democrats instead.
the impression of ideological muddle endures. During the Maidan protests in
Ukraine, Iglesias largely came down on the side of Putin's propaganda. And when
Syriza formed a coalition with the antisemitic, far-right Independent Greek
party, Iglesias defended it as "a programmatic choice".
has successfully captured a mood of popular protest in Spain, but it is now aiming
to structure itself as a credible and reassuring political party. It claims to
renew democracy, yet it knows complex issues cannot always be addressed via
online petitions. It has the ambition of a mass movement but is run by a tight
circle of professors. It talks about hope but its casta narrative is very
say the pragmatic transformation is already under way. They compare Pablo
Iglesias to the young Felipe González, the former socialist prime minister who
understood that his party needed to shed itself of radicalism in order to be
elected in 1982. Spain, like Greece, is undergoing a generational shift. Diego
Pacheco, a Podemos activist born in 1986 - the year Spain joined the European
Community - speaks passionately about a quest for "empowerment". "Podemos is
not about being anti-EU, but about finding a way to move beyond the system that
emerged from the post-Franco transition that our parents were part of," he
economic recovery will make it harder for Podemos than Syriza to win elections.
Its main competitor, the Spanish Socialist party, still has more strength than
Pasok. The digital meeting place Podemos has built might also show its limits.
After Greece, Spain is likely to be the next country entering uncharted political
waters in 2015, but it would be naive to think the electoral outcome will be as