Imagine if the United Kingdom had been affected rather differently by the economic crisis. Imagine if we had been so badly hit that 54% of the country had moved to an inferior social class, while over half of young people were still unemployed. In this imaginary United Kingdom students are desperate to emigrate and work elsewhere in the EU to escape.
Meanwhile, in a series of corruption scandals, the governing Conservative party is going to court and has seen its treasurer sent to prison in relation to allegations of secret illegal slush funds used to pay for party headquarters, campaigns, and even the Prime Minister’s clothing. The Labour party has faced its own accusations about regional politicians and dodgy use of local government funds.
Replace the United Kingdom with Spain (and the Conservatives and Labour with the Partido Popular and the Socialist Party respectively) and you get some idea of why Podemos has topped most polls in the past five months and threatens to reshape Spain by winning the General Election later this year. It rejects austerity and labour market reforms and has called for a basic universal national income, while railing against the corruption among what it calls the “caste” of mainstream politicians.
One other key to Podemos’ success has been their desire to engage with the mass media rather than consider themselves above it. Leader and political scientist Pablo Iglesias is clear that most people form their opinions from television and his appearances on political chat shows have made him a household name and diffused his ideas into Spanish homes. Podemos has also embraced digital media to appeal to tech-savvy young Spaniards. It has been termed the first “Reddit” political party because of its use of the social news website for debate and discussion, and it has set up a system for members to vote on policy online.
Since coming under more scrutiny the party has made an effort to appear less radical. But doubts remain. “Hugo Chávez in person” I heard one man exclaim at a café as Iglesias came on screen. The party has struggled to play down its links to the Venezuelan regime. A Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional claims its country’s government has provided the party with millions of euros, and a report presented to Venezuelan MPs claimed Podemos coming to power would reflect well on Venezuela and give it a strong ally.
When senior member Juan Carlos Monedero was investigated by tax officials about money received for consultancy work for several Latin American governments including Venezuela, the Spanish establishment reacted with relish to the irony of the anti-corruption party facing its own scandal. How well Podemos do may depend on their ability to shake off the fear their interests are just as murky as those of the others parties.
Their result in the election will be a test of just how rebellious the Spaniards are feeling. Polls over the last year have changed so much it is impossible to predict how they will look by then. However, it is clear the rise of Podemos is part of a greater shift shattering the political certainties of the past few decades. For the past thirty years the Partido Popular and the Socialist Party have swapped power in a two-party system.
But since the crash, the political status quo has been shaken. There has been a surge in political interest: stats show the Spanish speak more about politics with friends and family, while television schedules are filled with tertulias, political chat shows. Another new party, Ciudadanos, which advocates liberal economics but breaks away from the old Spanish right through being anti-nationalist, socially liberal and taking a strong anti-corruption stand, has similarly emerged from nowhere to threaten to take about a fifth of votes. One young person tells me among his age group it is only the “fanboys” of the two main parties who will carry on voting for them.
Podemos have capitalised on discontentment with an entire political establishment. If they can get Spain to trust them, they can overturn the whole system.
The Spanish election will take place later this year at an unconfirmed date, not necessarily in December as this article originally stated