Reclaiming the power in Spain: A lesson from Podemos in grassroots political change

Pablo Iglesias sees a small window of opportunity for Podemos and they are taking it with both hands.

Pablo Iglesias sees a small window of opportunity for Podemos and they are taking it with both hands.

From nationwide protests on the streets to the electoral ballot box- a new peoples party in Spain shows that in times of austerity and growing disdain for the status quo, it needn’t only be nationalist and far right groups that emerge as an alternative- far (to the left) from it.

Greece’s astonishing election of Syrizia last month has only strengthen Podemos’ chances and their message- despite what Mr Osbourne, The Economist or the FT would like to have you believe.

Spain has been in a bad way for some time now. It’s second dip into a recession has now passed, but it’s 25% unemployment rate which has remained virtually unchanged for some time, now means that up to 5.46 million have been out of work in Spain for the last three years. And with 50% of youth unemployment, the futures of the younger generation has looked beyond dire for some time.

Three years ago, this culminated in the growth of the indignados movement which gained huge momentum and popularity throughout the country, brining thousands to streets- much like the Occupy movement. Also much like Occupy, the movement seemed to run-out of steam, seemed to peter-out into deserted and sporadically visited Facebook groups and quasi-inspiring social media memes.

However the indignados, never did quite vanish. Far from it in fact. Instead it did something quite remarkable: less than 100 days before the European elections in May last year, it resurfaced as a political movement; that is to say a ‘political party’, with the name “Podemos” (We Can).

Not only was that in itself a hugely significant moment in the party’s story, but further still they went on to amass an impressive 1.2 million votes, gaining 4 MEP’s. From absolutely nowhere (I hope you’re watching United Kingdom).

But who were the voices behind Podemos that inspired such a result? Who were the faces no longer able to hide behind the Guy Fawkes masks of Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid? And did they really mean business?

To be fair to them, they never were hiding; they were just preparing for the right moment. This moment. The party has strong ties (and it’s foundations) in the Complutense University of Madrid. Many original members, including it’s leader Pablo Iglesias,  are either lecturers or academics at the liberal university. The university has strong ties to Latin America and the socialist movements taking place in the likes of Venezuela. (for this reason, Pablo Iglesias may struggle to shake off the communist labels Spain’s mainstream media have continued to throw his way ever since the movement became so directly political)

Podemos became the political voice of the famous Madrid-based indignados movement

Podemos became the political voice of the famous Madrid-based indignados movement

The impressive and seemingly obvious transformation from movement to party has gained huge support among the young people who took to Spain’s streets in May 2011. A Compultense history student confirmed that, “Podemos existed before it was named, before it was created. The general sense of indignation was already there. What happened was that it was finally transformed into a political movement.”

But what does the party actually stand for in terms of policy? What politics are they really pushing? That is less clear. Like Occupy it is much clearer what they are against than what they are for- knowing exactly what it is that they don’t want, but often disagreeing when considering what it is that they are looking to offer.

Until now, election promises have included abolishing tax havens, establishing a guaranteed basic minimum income and lowering the age of retirement to 60- seemingly in a bid to free up more job and apprenticeship opportunities for what is quickly becoming the  ‘generation that Spain left behind’.

Tax rises for the rich to directly improve public services, a restructuring of public debt and even plans to reduce the number of working hours as a way of reducing unemployment, have all be quoted at various times from Pablo Iglesias. They also publicly endorsed the manifesto of Syrizia, suggesting deep policy agreements especially in relation to EU membership and involvement.

In-line with the party’s beliefs, Podemos’ MEPs would also act accordingly: rather than the standard salary of more than €8,000 (£6,500) a month in Brussels, “not one of our MEPs will earn more than €1,930, an amount that’s three times the minimum wage in Spain”. The remainder would either go to the party or a chosen charity voted by it’s members.

All of this is very refreshing to say the least and the fledgling party, with the pony-tailed Iglesias at the helm, sure are causing waves on the domestic political scene- a recent poll found that if general elections were held today, Podemos would emerge as the strongest party!

It’s strong support, especially among the youth has lasted this far and supporters feel confident that they can have strong if not pivotal role at the next general election, although opponents and critics see it as just another “protest vote” and believe their actual support is far smaller compared to their media publicity and coverage  

It is true that in May they only won 8% of the national EU vote. It’s no earthquake, but it came only 100 days after the party formed and has at the very least caused ground-tremors throughout the current spanish political establishment.

Podemos feel confident that they can go right to the top and see now as their chance- a small window of opportunity that they are grasping with both hands.  

They are well organized and already campaigning months in advance on their familiar home of the streets once more- where it all started- but this time the masks are off, as supports gather in regular town hall meet-ups, local parks, cafes and at student organized lectures. Real grassroots political change- one of the few positive things to have grown in Spain in recent years.

with over 1000 local 'branches' across Spain, the grassroots actions in town halls, lecture theaters, cafes and civic centers has made it difficult to fully measure the party's impact

with over 1000 local ‘branches’ across Spain, the grassroots actions in town halls, lecture theaters, cafes and civic centers has made it difficult to fully measure the party’s impact

Until it’s recent European electoral success, the party had been financed through online crowd funding campaigns; tapping into the already thriving social network platforms and supporter bases that the indignados movement had previously developed.

I would do them a disservice to consider them a ‘left wing‘ party, Iglesias remains adamant that such definitions are useless today, insisting “..the main political fault-line running across Spain is not left versus right, but above versus below”.

And that is maybe why their message has been welcomed so eagerly by citizens throughout the country. Podemos doesn’t just want to represent citizens, but rather engage them. Regardless of the next step Podemos take or not, their story until now, has at the very least given hope to so many in Spain-hope- a feeling you may have forgiven them to have almost forgotten.


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