When I first saw Pablo Iglesias I thought to myself he looks like he could be my friend. He has a ponytail, a beard, wears casual clothing, studied political science and travels a lot, particularly in South America. I could imagine the two of us going for a walk in the park talking about history, politics and travel, a great companion.
Iglesias is the leader of Podemos a political party in Spain. They just celebrated their one-year anniversary, for such a young party they have enjoyed enormous success.
Podemos is a political party that has grown out of the Indignados movement of Spain in May 2011. The Indignados (the outraged) were a group of protesters that were born as a result of the crisis enveloping Spain. In May 2011 there were protests by this group due to the poor state of the Spanish economy, which resulted in budget and salary cuts. On top of this, unemployment was at a record high at 22% with youth employment reaching over 47%. The Indignados were frustrated with the ruling elite and the financial institutions and they wanted action to improve the unemployment situation.
2011 also marked the beginning in leadership of the current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy is part of the ruling elite that Podemos call la casta. This means the caste and refers to the classes and the superiority of these classes. The ruling elite has been responsible for a large amount of corruption within Spain. In 2014 according to the Transparency Internationals Corruption Perception index, Spain was ranked 37 out of 176 countries.
In January 2013, El Pais, one of Spain’s most well known papers, released an article saying that Rajoy received payments of 34000 Euro for almost a decade. These payments were said to be donations to the party from companies, especially those involved in construction. With construction being one of the industries largely responsible for the crisis that Spain finds itself in today. What does Rajoy say about this? In his opinion Spain has a “few bad apples”.
As a result of political corruption, austerity for the ruling elite and frustration for the working class and youth it is obvious that when Podemos formed three years later in 2014, it was welcomed with open arms by many frustrated Spaniards. They now had a party that was anti-austerity, anti-corruption and was promising to build a future for youth that had been taken away. According to a recent poll by the Republica.es 24% of Podemos’ voters are new voters that would not have voted if there had not been a party such as Podemos.
So what’s all this hype about you ask? What have Podemos actually said that they will do?
Podemos want to renegotiate Spain’s huge debt, higher taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage, amnesty for political prisoners that were arrested during Franco’s regime, expanded subsidies for the poor, a 35-hour working week, a ban on lay-offs for profitable companies, a return to state-controlled health care and greater state control over industries such as banking and the media.
Podemos also supports the self-determination of the Catalans, Galecians, and Basques, which have been silenced by the current government. However, controversially Podemos removed their support for Catalonia’s liberation referendum on November 9, 2014. Iglesia continued to speak openly about Catalonia’s independence, but without action. Inaction, worryingly looks like it could be a common trend.
There have been various issues that have sewn doubt in the minds of citizens about the Podemos Party.
One in particular is the relationship and ideology that the three leaders of Podemos share with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. All three of Podemos’ leaders Mr. Monedero, Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón have served as advisors to Chavez’ regime. Rivals of Podemos claim that the party wants to extend the power of the state in the same way as Cuba and Venezuela. Iglesia is part of a think tank in Madrid that is said to have sourced 60% of its funding directly from the Venezuelan government. Monedero received 452000 Euro from Venezuela in 2010 for work he did in aiding Chavez’ regime and allies. In addition, two of Mondero’s university mentors helped to write the Venezuelan constitution.
Iglesias was quoted as saying in 2012 that Venezuela is “one of the healthiest democracies in the world”. That has got alarm bells ringing. Venezuela is a country that today suffers from extremely high inflation, a suppressed media, many factory closures as well as food shortages.
Iglesias and Podemos are now trying to distance themselves from their connections with Venezuela and Chavez’ regime. Iglesias argues that his ideology is in line with many socialist democracies namely that of Denmark.
This connection with Chavez has obviously scared many Spaniards and given ammunition for their rivals. However it is important to note that Spain is a very different country to Venezuela. Spain does not have petroleum, and as part of the EU it would be difficult for Spain to prohibit dismissals and lay-offs – and almost impossible to nationalise banks.
My fears when it comes to Podemos are not their connections with Chavez nor their ideology. Instead I am afraid that they won’t be able to do what they’ve set out to achieve. Podemos has many holes in its political agenda. Many people are dubious about how it will fund its promises. I am also afraid that they will be the same as the other parties. They have already been caught out in some small lies. They claim that they have funded their campaign by crowd funding, however there is evidence to show that they have received payments by a think tank known as CEPS, whose leader is Podemos’ economic advisor Alberto Montero. CEPS in turn has received payments by the Venezuelan government for projects including public relations for Chávez’ programs, the design of labor policies and conducting opinion surveys in Venezuela.
I attended a rally that was held in Sevilla to see first hand what Podemos believe in and how they are going to change Spain. I went with two friends of mine from Italy. We walked away feeling none the wiser about their policies. The talk was set up on a stage next to a busy thoroughfare. It was set up like a concert, with a huge stage and lights.
After leaving the talk my friends told me that it felt as if they were still in Italy. The political party Movemento Cinque Stelle in Italy was very similar to that in Spain. They won a large portion of the votes, however once in power they did and achieved very little. Is this the fate of Podemos? Spain and Italy have many similarities. Their political history of dictators, the current crisis, corruption, terrorist groups (ETA and the Mafia,) the disillusioned citizens. It seems that both countries are now afraid of the extreme left. I don’t blame them, after living through years of a dictatorship it is very logical that they would want to avoid a party with extreme ideals, especially one where the leaders also have close ties to Hugo Chavez.
One of my colleagues at the school I am working in has told me that the Spanish mentality is the reason for the current political system. He believes that the Spanish politicians are not to be criticised for corruption and deceit, arguing that it is instead the fault of the people. He said that many of the people sit back and do nothing, because it is the mentality that if they were in the same position they would do the same thing. They would behave the same way, robbing the banks and taking their families on immaculate holidays.
After everything I have read and learnt about Podemos I still have a soft spot for them. I would like them to do well. Maybe it’s because I am naïve. Maybe it’s because I actually believe that they could change the situation in Spain (although I have less and less faith), or maybe it’s because the leader is a young man with a ponytail and I find it refreshing that politics are not reserved to suited, upper class men.
I think that Spain is in such desperate need of change that something has to give. Could this be the give? Could Podemos be the change? Could they convince a large enough amount of people that they can change the world? I’m not sure. I think not, I don’t think the population have enough faith in the party. However I was once told that politicians don’t win elections, they lose them. So maybe in December this year when Spain steps up to vote, Podemos won’t win the election, but maybe the Popular Party (PP) that is in power now will rob enough people, that they will lose. Then the party slogan Si se puede (yes it can), will no longer be a slogan, but a reality.
Resources and further reading.
Nichols, D, 2014, Spanish state: Eruption of Podemos sparks turmoil left and right, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
Bryne, J, 2011, “15M: The Indignados” The Ocuppy Handbook. NY: Back Bay Bokss. Pp. 209-217
Román, D, Feb. 26, 2015 “How Hugo Chavez Helped Inspire Spain’s Far-Left Podemos Movement” The WallStreet Journal