Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, addresses the crowd during a rally in Madrid, January 31, 2015.
Susana Vera / Courtesy Reuters

In the wake of the January 25 general election in Greece that brought to power Syriza, a radical-left, anti-establishment, and anti-austerity party, the spotlight now shines on Spain’s Podemos, a sister organization in a significantly larger European country that is soon to face a national election of its own. Syriza’s ties to Podemos were amply displayed on January 30 at a massive rally in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, where some in the crowd held Greek flags and exchanged high-fives for Syriza party leader and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Labeled by its organizers as la marcha del cambio (the march of change), the Spanish media called it the start of the 2015 electoral season, which is sure to be unlike anything since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1977. That year, Spain held its first free elections since the end of the Civil War in 1939, during a wave of terrorism from Basque separatists and mutinies from disgruntled military officers.

Attended by some 100,000 people according to police estimates (Podemos’ own tally is 300,000), the rally is a testament to the charisma of Podemos’ leader, Secretary General Pablo Iglesias Turrión, the galvanizing 36-year-old political science professor from Madrid’s Complutense University. Iglesias, named after Pablo Iglesias Possé, founder of the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE), is Spain’s most popular politician, and his party is on a roll. A poll conducted by the Center for Sociological Investigations sent shockwaves through the political establishment last November when it revealed that Podemos was poised to best the conservative government of the Popular Party (PP) and the Social Democratic PSOE in the next elections. The international media has taken note, too. After watching what happened in Greece, observers have warned that Podemos could be an even bigger threat to the eurozone than Syriza given the size of Spain’s economy (almost six times that of Greece, and the fourth largest within the European Union). 

Comparisons between Podemos and Syriza make for provocative reading, but Podemos is not a carbon copy of Syriza and, more importantly, Spain is not Greece. International coverage of Podemos ignores the ongoing moderation of the party’s platform, and Spanish–Greek comparisons overlook unique features of the Greek electoral system, such as the very unusual practice of giving the party that wins the popular vote an extra 50 parliamentary seats. Further, the underlying economic and political conditions in Spain and Greece are fundamentally different. Spain has weathered the economic recession in better shape than Greece, and the establishment parties in Spain, in contrast to their Greek counterparts, are badly beaten but not defeated. This is not to say, however, that Podemos should be dismissed or discounted. It has upended Spanish politics like nothing else since the 1970s, and the party is set to make the upcoming elections the most unpredictable in decades.

A HOMEGROWN PHENOMENON

Podemos (a Spanish take on the Obamaesque slogan, “We Can”) was launched in January 2014, coinciding with European parliamentary elections. The party’s platform (its so-called European Election Manifesto), called for the nationalization of key economic sectors, a state-guaranteed living wage, a 35-hour workweek, mandatory retirement age of 60, a law preventing profitable companies from firing their employees, and a citizen’s audit of public debt.

In addition to its progressive manifesto, Podemos is also known for its rants against globalization and the tyranny of markets. “Some say that Spain is a brand, one that can be packaged and sold. Damn those who wish to convert our culture into merchandise: We are a country of citizens, we dream like Don Quixote, but we take our dreams very seriously,” said Iglesias to the throngs that gathered in Madrid. Such emotional appeals are central to the party’s approach to voters: “When was the last time you voted with hope?” asked the party’s slogan for the European parliamentary elections.

Given its policy predilections and penchant for fiery left-wing rhetoric, Podemos has been likened not only to Greece’s Syriza, but also to the far-left, populist movements that have erupted across Latin America, especially the “Bolivarian Revolution” of the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The comparison is not baseless: Juan Carlos Monedero, Podemos’ second in command, served as advisor to Chávez from 2005–10. Podemos’ mobilization and organizational strategies also borrow from Chávez’s playbook, including the extensive use of new media. Similar to Chávez’s show Aló Presidente, Iglesias has his own Internet talk show, La Tuerka (The Screw), which he uses for attacking la casta (the caste), a byword for the two-party system that has dominated Spanish politics since the post-Franco transition. Podemos’ followers are organized around a network of grassroots groups called Círculos Podemos, which echo Chávez’s own Círculos Bolivarianos.

Despite its Bolivarian influences, however, Podemos is its own phenomenon. Its genesis is usually traced to Los Indignados, the protest movement that rocked Spain during the summer of 2011 in response to an economic crisis punctuated by skyrocketing unemployment (almost 25% of the active population) and massive corruption scandals involving the nation’s leading political parties, largest banks, and even the Spanish Royal family. Demanding accountability for the political class and the business community, the indignados movement made national and international headlines not only because of its tactics—such as the occupation of main squares in Madrid and Barcelona—but also because of its place within the global wave of Occupy movements.

It is these origins that separate Podemos from Syriza and, indeed, other Bolivarian movements. Syriza, which stands for “the coalition of the radical left,” is an umbrella organization of previously established left-wing groups including social democrats, socialists, Trotskyists, and eurocommunists. And unlike its Bolivarian counterparts, Podemos promotes an unflinching commitment to democratic principles. Not surprisingly, Podemos defines itself as a “post-ideology” party—aligning itself neither with the left nor the right, but with “the people.” Making good on its rhetoric, the party’s decision-making structure is horizontallater with decisions resting in the hands of “citizen councils.” Many of its followers have never belonged to a political party or have disconnected from politics out of frustration or disgust.

FALSE COMPARISONS 

Economic conditions in Spain have been dire as of late, and this should help Podemos going into the general election. But no serious economist would confuse the situation in Spain with that of Greece. A Spanish recovery, although weak, is underway, allowing the government to argue that things are on the uptick and that a change in policy course would be unwise. According to the National Statistics Institute, the Spanish economy grew by 1.4 percent in 2014, which ended a five-year run of negative or flat figures. Government growth predictions for 2015 are a rosy 3 percent.

Other economic indicators suggest how much better shape Spain is in compared with Greece, which explains why, unlike Greece, there is no real concern in Europe about Spain’s capacity to pay back its creditors. The toll of the economic crisis was significantly greater in Greece than in Spain; GDP shrank 25 % in Greece versus 7% for Spain. Consequently, the bailout in Greece was significantly larger, costing 240 billion euros ($272 billion), compared to 42 billion euros ($47 billion) for rescuing faltering Spanish banks. Unlike Greece, Spain has undergone significant structural adjustment, especially of its labor market. Spanish debt is significantly lower than Greece’s (about 100 percent of nominal GDP versus 175 percent). Furthermore, Spain does not have Greek levels of corruption and tax evasion. Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index, (which ranks countries from the least to the most corrupt) has Spain at 40; and Greece, sandwiched between China and Swaziland, at 80.

Most important, perhaps, is that the Spanish political establishment is down but certainly not out—another key factor separating Spain from Greece. Indeed, Podemos’ biggest challenge, and that of any political upstart in Spain, is breaking through the PSOE and the PP’s stronghold on power since Spain became a multi-party democracy in 1977. Indeed, the PSOE and the PP have dominated the political landscape in Spain like few other parties among Western European democracies in the postwar years, essentially taking turns in office since 1982. Although the economic crisis of 2011 accelerated the PSOE’s last departure from power, Spain’s government did not implode and establishment parties did not vanish, as was the case in Greece.

Because of their continuing electoral viability, Spain’s establishment parties can, in theory, block Podemos from governing despite a victory by forging a grand left–right coalition government. This scenario is unlikely but not entirely impossible: Both parties often clash on social issues such as church–state relations, abortion, and gay rights, but are virtually indistinguishable on economic policy (which, as a result, has made it easier for Podemos to differentiate itself from “the establishment”). 

For now, however, the PP and the PSOE have declared war on Podemos, hoping to cripple the movement before it can begin in earnest. The PP devoted its recently concluded national convention to attacking Podemos, a striking development considering that Podemos has no presence in the current parliament. Hoping to discredit Podemos’ leadership, PP legislators have called for an investigation into Monedero’s political consulting business in Latin America, especially the 450,000 euros ($513,882) Monedero received from the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. But the most virulent attacks have come from the PSOE, whose near-hegemonic control of the left is directly threatened by Podemos. Former PSOE Prime Minister Felipe González—Spain’s most prominent post-Franco era politician, who is credited with consolidating the nation’s democracy and modernizing its economy—has characterized Podemos as “regressive utopians.” Current PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez has argued that Podemos “would take Spain back to the Great Depression of 1929.”  

PODEMOS’ CHALLENGES

Podemos faces numerous challenges going into Spain’s general election, the most apparent being its need to grow its electorate beyond young, low-wage earners in the service sector, the unemployed, and the intelligentsia. That challenge involves competing for working- and middle-class voters in a very crowded field of left-wing organizations, including PSOE; Izquierda Unida, a confederation of left-wing and socially progressive parties that includes the Greens and the Communists, and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, an anti-monarchy, regional-nationalist left-wing party. Lastly, Podemos does not have a monopoly on political freshness. There are other political forces on the horizon, such as Ciutadanos, a conservative party from Catalonia entered the national political scene in 2015, hoping to capitalize on the scandal-plagued PP as a means to reinvigorate the center-right.

A more daunting problem for Podemos is overcoming a notable experience deficit. Podemos’ post-ideology identity comes across as naive, and is a potential liability in a country where ideological cleavages run deep. It is unclear how the party’s emphasis on internal democracy, which the party regards as an uncompromising virtue, will play out during a national campaign, much less in government. Podemos has also yet to fully engage with all the national issues, especially on non-economic ones such as the thorny issue of regional separatism. Podemos has endorsed self-determination for Catalonia, a region that has experienced a flare-up of nationalist sentiment in recent years, but has yet to expand on how it would reconcile self-determination with the Spanish Constitution (which does not allow for the partition of national territory), and whether self-determination would be open to other regions of Spain, which, in theory, could lead to the dissolution of the nation. 

Perhaps sensitive to the political realities of the day, Podemos has begun to sound and act more like a party than a movement. The party’s leaders have pledged that, should they become a political force in the new parliament, they would work with other parties to enact legislation. Podemos has also begun to show signs that the period of radicalism is over, and that a more pragmatic organization is emerging. According to Diego Muro, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Institute of International Studies, Podemos is in the midst of a “de-radicalization as the party aims to become a catch-all party.”

Trying to make itself less threatening to the middle class, Podemos has given its economic program a makeover. Advised by economist Juan Torres López and political scientist Vicenç Navarro, Podemos’ new economic program no longer calls for Spain to leave the eurozone; instead, it seeks flexibility in dealing with Spain’s creditors, essentially the same position as that of the PSOE. Gone also are the most controversial features of the European Election Manifesto, such as basic universal income and a citizens’ audit of the public debt—the former deemed too costly and the latter impractical. Instead, the new program emphasizes a rise in the minimum wage and protections against further social cuts—standard fare for progressive parties.

For Podemos, meeting the contrasting challenges of progressivism with electability is a delicate needle to thread. The party can only bend so much before it breaks the promises and platforms that make it so special. With further policy shifts toward the political center, Podemos runs the risk of being perceived as the very thing it despises most: an ordinary party.