MADRID, Spain – “Freaks”. That’s the word Pedro Arriola, the principal advisor to the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, first used to refer to Podemos, the new political formation that in the May 2014 European Elections managed to gather 1.2 million votes, elected five deputies, and became the fourth political party in Spain.
In the hours and days following the election night’s outcome other politicians, journalists and political analysts tried to react to the earthquake caused by the newly created group whose official registration was just two months before the election. They asked “What is Podemos?”, “What do they want?”, “How did they get here?”, “Who voted for them?”
Podemos tapped into “the feeling that there was no expression of that protest in the Spanish political system.
The night of the European Elections, Pablo Iglesias, a 35 year old political scientist with a long brown ponytail did not seem surprised. You could feel the calmness in his voice as he announced that the electoral results were not good enough. Not according to his goal, at least. He wants Podemos to beat the two major Spanish parties: the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP).
The explanation for what happened that night can be traced back to May 15th, 2011, when thousands of Spanish men and women camped on the streets of Madrid. They were protesting against the domination of the two major parties, and demanding a more direct form of democracy. These men and women became known as Indignados. Some of the people behind Occupy Wall Street have said that the Spanish protests served as one of their inspirations.
Podemos tapped into “the feeling that there was no expression of that protest in the Spanish political system”, says Carolina Bescansa Hernandez, one of the founders of Podemos, and a political scientist who teaches at Spain’s major university, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
Months before the protests of May 15th took off, Pablo Iglesias began participating in webcasts, where he criticized austerity policies in Europe and corruption in Spain. Iglesias’s views as well as his figure – he usually wears casual shirts and vests, and never loses his nerve – caught the attention of some directors of national TV programs who invited him to join the political shows every week.
José Manuel Ruano, another teacher at Complutense, thinks Podemos benefited from the “free media campaign” given to Pablo Iglesias because of this appearance on political TV shows.
It was precisely at Universidad Complutense, traditionally associated with the Spanish left wing, that Podemos was born, after a group of political science and marketing teachers decided they would create a new movement. In January 2014, two of those teachers, Pablo Iglesias and Juan Carlos Monedero, revealed the new group and its first goal: 50, 000 signatures, so it could run in the European Elections. That number was reached in less than 24 hours.
Podemos’ campaign for the European Elections was fought on social media and used appealing slogans. Actually, the name of the group is a literal translation of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan “Yes, we can!”. In the ballot papers, instead of a symbol, the electors found the face of Pablo Iglesias.
A real political platform or a demonstration of populism?
According to the political platform published on Podemos’ website, the group calls for a citizen debt audit, the creation of an “European Public Rating Agency”, nationalizing public transportation as well as the energy and the telecommunications sector, and proposing a minimum income for all citizens.
When journalists question how much of this will Podemos be able to achieve, Pablo Iglesias usually answers like this: “We’re called ‘yes, we can’ because everyone else says you can not”.
José Manuel Ruano, echoes one of the biggest critics of Podemos. He says it’s populistic because it proposes “easy recipes for complex problems” and says people what “they want to hear”.
To those who say Podemos is populistic, Jorge Verstrynge, another political scientist at Complutense and Iglesias’ former teacher, says the original meaning of the word has a positive sense. “In political science, populism means the desire for a deeper democracy, one in which the people is consulted and listened to. The word populism has been used in such a pointless way that accusing a party of being populist means nothing. If by populism you mean giving most of the power to the people, then I am a populist”.
Who voted for Podemos?
One of the big questions posed by Podemos’ results in the European Elections is if this is a party that’s going to stick around and change the entrenched Spanish system, or if it’s only a bubble that’s about to burst.
Days after the May election, the Spanish daily newspaper El País published a poll that identified the voters of Podemos by demographics and education. The study surprised everyone. Those who thought that it was essentially a youth vote were shocked when they realized that 66% of voters were older than 35. 21% of the voters had a higher education degree. Half of the total voters had a job, and the other half was unemployed. These numbers destroyed the idea that the social base for Podemos was mainly made up of workers with little job security, and young, unemployed people. Not all of Podemos supporters were “freaks”, it turned out.
If by populism you mean giving most of the power to the people, then I am a populist”, says Jorge Verstrynge, Iglesias’s former teacher.
This is especially important considering Spain will be holding local elections early in 2015 and a general election in the fall. Few think Podemos will play a major role in the general election. Like José Manuel Ruano, who’s convinced it will be hard for Podemos to have an important result in the legislative election, where the abstention rate is much lower than in the European Elections. But some think Podemos is here to stay. Ruben Herrero, who teaches International Relations at Complutense and associates himself with the Spanish right wing, is convinced Podemos will become the second or third party in Spain.
On June 17th, the newspaper El País wrote that the Center for Political and Social Studies (CEPS), whose executive board is led by the three major figures of Podemos – Pablo Iglesias, Íñigo Errejón and Luis Alegre – received $4.2 million dollars from the government of Hugo Chavez since 2002.
According to the same Spanish newspaper, the CEPS accounts reveal that Chavez was the main client of the foundation and that most of the income of such center came from advisory services to the former Venezuelan President. Iglesias assured that all Podemos’ accounts are published, that the movement received no money from any government or foundation, and all funding was donated by supporters.
Some members of Podemos were paid for advisory duties in various Latin American countries, as with other elements of the PSOE and the United Left, writes El País.
Jorge Verstrynge says that he remembers Juan Carlos Monedero telling Hugo Chavez that it was a bad idea to practice the “hyper-leadership” that was a symbol of his presidency. Chavez, says Verstrynge, was upset with Monedero but in the end acknowledge he was right. The former teacher of Pablo Iglesias dismisses the scandal around Podemos’ members advising governments in Latin America. He says it’s actually a good thing. “It means they’re no fools, but well educated people”. After all, Verstrynge goes on, “advising Chavez was not an easy task.”