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Meet Podemos: the party revolutionising Spanish politics

Man of the moment, Pablo Iglesias. EPA/Zipi

A new political party has erupted onto the Spanish political scene and is now making major waves. Podemos – whose name translates as “we can” – has pulled ahead of the country’s two main political parties in an opinion poll published by El País, and it has shaken the establishment.

Podemos secured a surprise victory at the European elections in May, winning five MEP seats and garnering more than 1.2 million votes. All this just three months after the party was created.

At the time, some saw this as a typical case of a midterm protest vote. The general election, due at the end of 2015, approaches, and Podemos continues to gain momentum. As this latest poll shows, it is now becoming a serious threat to the status quo of Spain’s two-party system.

Its leader is Pablo Iglesias, a charismatic 36-year old political economy lecturer at the Complutense University in Madrid. Against a backdrop of shocking levels of corruption, a dismal economic situation and an overall unemployment rate of nearly 25% (more than 50% among young people), Podemos is suggesting a new type of citizen politics.

It aims to recover democracy, put politics at the service of the people, and defend human rights. To achieve this, the party takes a participatory approach: its programme is based on individual proposals from members of the public that have then been debated at local citizen assemblies. These debates are not even restricted to Spain and some have taken place in the UK.

Podemos advocate auditing and restructuring Spain’s debt, stopping evictions of those unable to pay their mortgage, defending public healthcare and education, and introducing urgent anti-corruption measures.

Podemos ran its European election campaign on a shoestring, posting an open letter online and asking citizens who liked what they saw to print a dozen copies and stick them through the letterboxes of others who might be interested. It was a creative approach that obviously worked.

This is an exceptionally media-savvy organisation that has a lively presence on social media sites too. When it comes to finance, it relies on crowdfunding as one of its main sources, with 37% of its €500,000 income achieved through this medium. And as one would hope in the case of a political party challenging a corrupt ruling elite, it is obsessive about the transparency of its accounts.

Rising up the ranks

The El País poll puts Podemos 1.5 points ahead of the socialist party, and seven points ahead of the ruling Popular Party. It predicts that – as things stand – Podemos would take 27% of the vote while the Popular Party would only take 20.7%. Traditional Popular Party supporters appear to be disengaging from politics and are planning to abstain in large numbers in the next elections, partly due to the lack of an economic recovery and partly to a growing unease about a string of corruption scandals that has rocked Spain. The Socialist Party, for its part, fears that the sudden surge of Podemos will fragment the left wing vote.

With municipal elections only seven months away, and general elections in a year’s time, the other parties are finally beginning to sit up and listen. According to El País, we might be witnessing the end of an era for Spanish politics.

Although many voters do not necessarily think the policies of Podemos are realistic, levels of disenchantment and feelings of being let down by the traditional parties are running high. Whether Podemos can maintain its momentum and retain the good will of the voters long enough to seize a substantial percentage of the votes at the next elections remains to be seen.

The impending vote might result in a fragmented hung parliament, which could give Podemos the opportunity to govern in coalition with other left wing parties. Whatever happens then though, Podemos has already shown it is a force to be reckoned with.

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