Madrid, Spain – Beer and snacks are served at a makeshift bar in a small civic centre in Madrid’s Carabanchel district. About 50 people have gathered on a Friday evening, and with the children of some playing noisily downstairs, it might seem at first glance to be a group of friends socialising.
But the banner on the wall of the room, which reads: “No to privatisation of public health“, tells a different story. So do the purple T-shirts, bracelets, and badges for sale, all emblazoned with the word “Podemos“ – “We Can“ in Spanish – the name of a new political force that has taken Spain by storm with its leftist, anti-establishment message.
This is a weekly meeting of one of the party‘s several hundred local chapters. Podemos was founded in January 2014 and just four months later, surprised the country‘s political establishment by winning 1.2 million votes and five seats in Spain‘s European Parliament elections.
At the civic centre, those in attendance are debating the imminent closure of a local health centre, coordination with other Podemos chapters, and broader issues such as a wave of political scandals.
“Every case of corruption which comes to light gives Podemos another half-million votes,” one man declared, to murmurs of assent and scattered applause from those in attendance.
Jose Luis Yuguero, a 58-year-old central heating technician at the meeting, said he joined Podemos because Spain is “in a state of social alarm. It‘s a war between those up there and those of us down here“, he told Al Jazeera.
“Given the situation, with all the corruption and the erosion of the welfare state, the only solution was to come up with a different political alternative.“
There's a demand for change in Spanish society... There's anger at the effects of the economic crisis and its management.
Failure of ‘oligarchic regime’
Podemos staked another claim to be a serious alternative in Spanish politics on November 15, when 107,000 supporters participated in an online election for the Podemos executive, establishing its official party structure.
Thirty-six-year-old Pablo Iglesias, a professor of political science who has been the telegenic face of the movement since its inception, was confirmed as its leader.
“Podemos isn‘t a political experiment,“ the ponytailed Iglesias told the party‘s supporters that evening. “Podemos is the result of the failure of the oligarchic regime.“
A string of recent polls have shown that Iglesias and Podemos could do what no other Spanish party has done in the past three decades: break the dominance of the governing centre-right Popular Party (PP) and the opposition centre-left Socialists.
A survey published by El Mundo newspaper showed Podemos was supported by 28.3 percent of respondents – ahead of both the PP, with 26.3 percent; and the Socialists, with 20.1 percent.
“There‘s a demand for change in Spanish society,“ said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ office in Madrid. “There‘s anger at the effects of the economic crisis and its management, as well as the perception that institutions are failing, particularly with regard to corruption.“
He described Podemos as a logical continuation of the indignados movement, a Spanish precursor of Occupy Wall Street and other Western protest movements, which began in the spring of 2011.
“This new party, very intelligently relying on a very well-designed media strategy thanks to the charismatic leadership of Pablo Iglesias, has managed to channel that demand [for change],” added Torreblanca.
It is this clamour for an alternative to Spain’s traditional parties that has boosted Podemos into such a strong position – rather than explicit support for Podemos’ policy platform, which critics of the party have derided as being vague and impractical.
|‘Podemos is the result of the failure of the oligarchic regime,’ says leader Pablo Iglesias [EPA]
The leftist proposals outlined by Podemos have called for salary caps on high earners, and increased “public control“ of strategic sectors of the economy. The party has also called for the introduction of a 35-hour work week, the increase of state handouts for poorer Spaniards, and an audit of the public debt.
‘Destructive and negative’
But Podemos’ platform does not impress Manuel de la Rocha Vazquez, the Socialists‘ economy secretary.
“It‘s much easier to be destructive and negative than to come up with feasible solutions,“ he told Al Jazeera. “A lot of Podemos’ proposals are very extremist, to say the least. They are populist and are not feasible from a financial point of view.“
But it‘s not just Podemos‘ quick rise to prominence and radical policy proposals that have rattled the mainstream parties. Many Spanish politicians have expressed concern at the party‘s rhetoric – which disparagingly refers to Spain‘s political and economic elites as “the caste“ – and about what they see as Podemos‘ ideological ties to leftist Latin American governments in Bolivia and Venezuela.
One of Podemos‘ founders, Juan Carlos Monedero, is a former adviser to Hugo Chavez. In a tribute to the late Venezuelan president in Caracas, Monedero said, “When we don‘t know what to do, let‘s ask ourselves what President Chavez would have done.“
Vicente Palacio, from the Fundacion Alternativas think-tank in Madrid, said Podemos has definitely taken a page out of the Latin American leftists’ playbook.
“They have a certain political language and certain practices incorporated from those [Latin American] systems,” said Palacio. “It‘s the idea of a popular movement rebelling against the hierarchy. What Podemos call the ‘caste‘ is the ‘oligarchy‘ in Latin America.“
However, while conservative Spanish media outlets have played up Podemos’ similarities with Latin American leftist movements, many analysts doubt the party wants to import a Venezuelan-style model to the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, where services and tourism, rather than oil, dominate.
It's the idea of a popular movement rebelling against the hierarchy.
Instead, they see a more direct inspiration in other anti-establishment, leftist parties in Europe – particularly Greece’s Syriza, whose leader Alexis Tsipras was present at Iglesias’ instatement as Podemos’ executive.
Changing the map
There are electoral considerations, too. Even if Podemos performs well in general elections late next year and enters government, it would likely be as a partner in a coalition – meaning it would have to compromise on its more radical policies.
Recent declarations by its leaders already suggest Podemos is moderating its manifesto. At Saturday’s unveiling of its new economic programme, for example, the party scrapped plans to reduce the retirement age to 60.
Nonetheless, many observers say Podemos will have a major impact on the Spanish political landscape, whether in government or not. They point to the likes of the UK Independence Party and Beppe Grillo‘s Five Star Movement in Italy, which have forced traditional parties to alter their stances on issues such as immigration and corruption.
“The same thing is likely to happen in Spain,“ said the European Council on Foreign Relations‘ Torreblanca. “The two main parties will have to decide how to face up to this phenomenon. And after the elections, the map of coalitions and alliances will change.“