Podemos’ Rise in Spain Challenges Two-Party Stranglehold on Power

Podemos’ Rise in Spain Challenges Two-Party Stranglehold on Power
Pablo Iglesias, center, at a Podemos rally in Malaga, Spain, May 17, 2014 (photo by Flickr user cyberfrancis licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license).

It was the poll that sent shockwaves through the nation. On Nov. 2, El Pais, Spain’s newspaper of record, unveiled what it called a “political earthquake.” Polling data suggested that Podemos, a left-wing party organized only in January of this year, was poised to win the 2015 national elections, besting the ruling, conservative Popular Party (PP), which enjoys a clear majority of seats in the Spanish parliament, and the leading opposition party, the venerable Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which last governed from 2004 to 2011. The poll showed that support for Podemos grew from 13.8 percent in October to 27.7 percent in November. Support for the PP dropped from 30.2 percent to 20.7 percent, putting the party in third place, behind the PSOE.

Podemos grew out of “Los Indignados,” the protest movement that rocked Spain in 2011, triggered by massive corruption scandals involving the nation’s leading political parties, largest banks and even the once-reputable Spanish royal family, as well as an economic crisis that saw unemployment skyrocket to nearly a quarter of the active population by 2013. More recent developments have exacerbated the anger toward the political establishment and, by extension, enhanced Podemos’ appeal. The El Pais poll came out days after 51 top government officials, bureaucrats and business leaders, including six sitting mayors, were arrested on charges of bribery and embezzlement in an investigation into “a network of corruption” involving nearly $300 million in contracts. The day before prominent members of his party were arrested, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had attempted to downplay the charges as “a few small incidents” of graft.

In 2014, there is no doubt that Podemos has captured the political zeitgeist in Spain. Pablo Iglesias, the 35-year-old pony-tailed political science professor from Madrid’s Complutense University who fronts the movement, stands out in an otherwise bland and staid political class. Iglesias’ rants against capitalism, a decadent political establishment and the unpopular austerity measures imposed by the European Union as part of the 2011 bank bailouts have made him an instant celebrity. His Internet talk show, La Tuerka, gives Podemos a platform for attacking business and political elites, organizing the party’s followers through grassroots communities—the so-called “Circulos Podemos”—and promoting the party’s economic program. Announced just in time for European Parliament elections last May, in which Podemos won nearly 8 percent of the vote and five of Spain’s 54 seats, that program calls for nationalizing key economic sectors, a state-guaranteed living wage, a 35-hour work week and a law preventing profitable companies from firing their workers.

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