By Imogen Calderwood and Jacqueline Fanchini
EUROPEAN politics are in turmoil. Far-right and anti-EU parties are making impressive gains across the continent as a discontented populace demands new brooms to sweep away self-serving ‘establishment’ parties.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) sparked a ‘political earthquake’ this month, after taking its first ever seat in the House of Commons, following on from several shock results at this year’s European elections.
But while other European countries offer up ‘protest votes’ to an advancing far-right, in Spain the wind of change is blowing from a different direction, driven by the tempestuous force of Pablo Iglesias Turron and his revolutionary ‘centre-ground’ group, Podemos.
Fundamentally standing on a platform of anti-corruption measures, the party’s main goal is to topple Spain’s dominance of the two main parties the PSOE and the PP.
Established by a group of intellectuals – teachers, professors, scientists and activists rather than career politicians – Podemos is aiming to clean up Spain and try to stop the culture of politicians stealing money from the electorate.
Although only founded in January 2014 – in time to get an incredible five out of 54 Spanish MEPs in the European elections – the party is gathering strength at breathtaking speed.
While polls suggested last month that Podemos could wrestle control off the 35-year Socialist dominance of the Junta de Andalucia, an amazing 24% of voters have just announced they will support the party in next year’s general election.
In the landmark poll for national TV station Telecinco this Sunday, they pipped the PSOE into third place with just 23%.
It is a remarkable rise, many percentage points above UKIP’s, and quite understandable perhaps in a country torn apart by years of appalling corruption by both of the two main parties.
Their strongest weapon is dipping into the general mood of discontent over:
- Austerity politics which has led to widespread inequality, insecurity and poverty, while billions of euros languish in tax havens abroad – the buried treasure of a lucky few
- Politicians becoming synonymous with greed and corruption, while their widespread pillaging of public funds goes largely unpunished
- A 25% unemployment rate continues to hover over the country like a black cloud
Iglesias, the 36-year-old writer and professor leading this well-timed charge, is not your average politician – and not only because of his ponytail and eyebrow piercing.
“The key to Pablo’s success was that he managed to connect with the hundreds of thousands who participated in the many (protest) movements and who are now frustrated with the rottenness of the existing political system,” explains David Rey, editor of the Marxist magazine, Lucha de Clases.
“He captured their imagination by mercilessly attacking the bankers and the whole system directly, as opposed to normal politicians who are always ambiguous and never say anything clearly,” he continues. “Podemos is the reflection of a deep mistrust in the system.
“While the people are suffering, those who are responsible for the crisis are rewarded with bonuses and the banks get billions of tax dollars.
“There have been many lawsuits but no convictions. Many people in Spain feel that bankers and politicians are ‘untouchable’ in the present corrupt political system.”
Who is Pablo Iglesias?
Pablo Iglesias is a professor of Political Science at the leading Complutense University of Madrid, from which he graduated with a Law degree in 2001 and a Political Science degree in 2004. He received his PhD doctorate in 2008.
He moved on to a postgraduate programme in Media Philosophy at the European Graduate School, where he studied under world-famous philosopher Slavoj Zizek, gender theorist Judith Butler and American philosopher Michael J. Shapiro.
The Madrid-born academic didn’t just arrive out of nowhere. He has been a pundit in TV debates for years, making him a nationally-known figure, respected across wide swathes of the population.
The son of a lawyer and a history professor, Iglesias – like Angela Merkel in Germany – was a member of the Communist Youth of Spain from 14 to 20.
While he denies being a communist sympathiser today, he doesn’t deny participating in the worldwide anti-globalisation movement in 2001, when he advocated civil disobedience as a form of struggle.
Due to his fearless and passionate rhetoric against Spain’s right-wing parties, Iglesias has been the subject of a bitter smear campaign from the right-wing media, and stands accused of being in league with the communist dictators of South America.
But he is not prepared to take it and in July, he sued Madrid’s PP President, Esperanza Aguirre, after she accused him of supporting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and ETA. Journalist Eduardo Inda has also claimed that Iglesias received illegal funding from Venezuela. Nothing has been proved.
Nevertheless, he has continued to gain the trust and support of the public.
The story so far
Podemos stunned political analysts at May’s European Parliament elections when, from zero support it won 8% of votes – 1.24 million crosses on ballot papers – in a matter of months.
Iglesias’ reaction was even more surprising. Instead of declaring a huge victory, as most career politicians would have done, he said simply: “Our objectives have not yet been achieved.”
He later added that no victory could be declared until his party was in power.
How does it work?
It is certainly a different party to most, tapping into a democracy reminiscent of the ‘Occupy’ movement that swept across the Western world in 2012.
Rather than branches, Podemos is founded on a system of ‘circles’ and anyone can become a member.
The Podemos political programme has been slowly drawn up by the leadership and sent out to the circles to present amendments.
These are then edited by a committee and posted on the internet, where all its members can vote on them.
There are currently more than 800 circles across Spain, some grouped geographically, others according to profession or philosophy.
The geographical circles scattered across the country include locally Benalmadena, Fuengirola, Malaga, Mijas, Marbella and San Pedro.
Indeed in late July, Podemos allowed supporters to register as party members on its website, with more than 32,000 people joining in the first 48 hours.
Within 20 days, it had more than 100,000 members, making it officially the third largest party in Spain, behind the PP and the PSOE. Membership currently stands at more than 208,000, and that total is rising daily.
It comes as the party finally started putting together its policies for the 2015 elections.
What do they want?
And one of the most eye-catching moves was to move away from its initial (and much assumed) leftist stand, insisting it was going to instead fight for the ‘centre ground’.
Building on this new, less radical image, Podemos no longer advocates defaulting on Spain’s public and private debt, a change from the party’s European elections policy.
They have enlisted a number of key economists and analysts, including Malaga’s highly-respected professor Juan Torres, who previously helped to formulate policy for the PSOE and the IU parties.
And, as disagreements emerge over how the party should be run, Iglesias acknowledges that even a leader is not immune to the overriding democracy of the party.
While he prefers a single leader and a small team of aides, two of the party’s European deputies – Pablo Echenique and Teresa Rodriguez – favour a ‘citizen council’ with three spokespeople.
Iglesias accepts he is not indispensable and if the party membership votes for the council he would be prepared to step aside as leader.
“I am not an alpha male and not indispensable,” he said, epitomising the spirit of his party. “I will submit to the orders of the majority.”
A year is a long time in politics. Is this is the dawning of a new political age in Spain, or a ‘revolution’ that will fizzle out before achieving its aims?
As the old newspaper saying goes, watch this space…
35hr working week
Retirement at 60
Citizen Audit of public and private debt
Consider the provision of electricity, water and heating as a basic right that should be guaranteed by public companies
Complete equal rights for LGBTs (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)
End of counter-terrorism and public safety policies that violate freedom of expression, the rights of association, demonstration and protest
Right to legal aid and with all the guarantees of access to it in terms of equity
Return all privatised centres and hospitals to the public sector
Increase in the public health workforce
Right to safe, open and free abortion
Guarantee the right to a dignified death
Reduce VAT (IVA) from 21% to 4% on cultural events
Eliminate any subsidy and assistance to private education, allocating savings to finance and improve public schools
Policy supporting self-determination for Western Sahara
Recognition of a Palestinian state
Demand a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories
Referendum on Spain leaving NATO
Ban bullfighting and trafficking of exotic or endangered species
Elimination of tax privileges of the Catholic Church and the privileges that are granted in education
The other faces of Podemos
PABLO Iglesias may be the poster boy, but there are many others providing the driving force behind the scenes. Podemos won a total of five seats at the European Parliament elections. These are the other elected MEPs elected:
Teresa Rodriguez Rubio – a 32-year-old secondary school teacher from Cadiz.