The rise of Podemos

The truth is, democracy is a relatively new phenomenon in Spain. When the country’s most famous moustache, Francisco Franco, died in 1975, his 36-year old, fascist dictatorship slowly wound to a close. Though there was no overnight change, Spain’s transition to democracy – or the transición española, if we’re being fancy – ushered in democratic elections in 1977, the first held since the mid-thirties.

During the next decade or so, the Spanish political landscape was continually moulded by emerging political figures, voting habits and even a brief, attempted coup d’état in 1982.

By the 1990s, however, the main two political parties had already been set: the economically liberal, centre-right Partido Popular, and the left-of-centre PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). With their colours blue and red respectively, it all looks depressingly like Britain’s incessant flip-flopping between the Tories and Labour.

Of course, Spain has its fair share of minor parties, of which the most notable adhere to various independence movements throughout the country, like the Basque National Party and the Republican Left of Catalonia.

But these parties, for obvious reasons, gain very little electoral support beyond their respective provinces.

This political stagnancy was, at least temporarily, shaken in January 2014. A group of intellectuals, headed by a rather convincing Jesus impersonator Pablo Iglesias, formed a new political party: Podemos.

Who are they?

Originally, they were a collection of university lecturers and public figures, closely connected to the mass, anti-austerity protests of the 2011 15-M movement in Spain. Some of their prominent representatives also have ties to far-left organisations and more dubious characters, like the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro.

Their name is Spanish for ‘we can’, which summarises their mentality rather well. Barely four months old, they won a surprising 5 of a possible 54 seats in the 2014 European parliamentary elections.

Since then, Podemos have gone from strength to strength: in terms of members; they are now Spain’s second biggest party.

Their politics is, at best, a left-wing alternative to years of crippling austerity, with some minor elements of environmentalism and soft euro-scepticism thrown in. At worst, they’ve been criticised as populists with no experience of government.

Their apparently hard-line approach to corruption has also been questioned, following enquiries into the incomes of a few central figureheads.

Nevertheless, to many, Podemos appear a very viable alternative to Spain’s traditional parties.

I can’t say I’m surprised; their use of social media is outstanding and lots key members, like Íñigo Errejón or Teresa Rodríguez, seem comparatively younger and less ‘stuffy’ than, for example, the current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Why should I care?

Well, you don’t have to. That’s the lovely thing about life; it’s full of stuff – toast, rollerblades, greyhounds – that doesn’t require your concern. But that’s precisely what makes Podemos so interesting: Spain’s most established political authorities are visibly concerned.

Over the last few months, both Spanish politicians and the national media alike have been paying increasing attention to this upstart party. They very regularly feature in television and print news, and in debates between different political representatives.

Their unassuming central office is about fifteen minutes walking distance from my flat, and new posters for Podemos-based protests, talks and demonstrations are seen plastered across the neighbourhood almost daily. On 31 January of this year, one such rally was held in central Madrid. At least 100,000 people are estimated to have filled the city’s iconic Plaza del Sol, though the party themselves claimed that the demonstration attracted three times as many supporters.

Even if you find yourself uninspired by their political stance, Podemos’ ability to draw a crowd is truly remarkable.

Should this mark a rise in political awareness and participation, then exciting – if not uncertain – times lie ahead for Spain. The upcoming general election in December 2015 makes Podemos’ sudden emergence all the more relevant.

And then there’s Greece. Oh yes. Anti-austerity Syriza’s recent election success has been making Brussels somewhat jittery. Though Podemos may not be as outspokenly anti-austerity or as left-wing, some obvious similarities must – and have – been noted, both from within and outside of the party. Before Syriza’s victory, Pablo Iglesias even travelled to Athens to meet with the Greek leader, Alexis Tsipras.

What will the post-downturn EU do if yet another country significantly changes its economic stance?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Recent election polls suggest that, even though our chums Pablo and Co. may win a very large minority of the popular vote, they’ll still struggle to beat the ruling Partido Popular in December.

Yet the nagging question remains: what happens if a 23-month old political organisation does win the next general election in Spain?


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