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Yes we can: Spain’s Podemos party leads electoral pack

Making EU leaders nervous, populist left-wing political group aims to roll back austerity and renew welfare policies

MADRID — Two dozen people are crammed into a small, freezing room above a bar in the Malasana district of Madrid. Paint is peeling off the walls, the only chairs available are kids’ school desks, and all the people have kept their coats on because the gas heater in the middle of the floor is broken.

A purple flag with a large white circle hangs by a window — the symbol of the political party Podemos. This is the weekly Thursday night meeting of one of its hundreds of local chapters, and despite the discomfort and lack of glamour, those attending are in a buoyant mood.

A few days earlier, on Jan. 31, Podemos, which means “we can,” gathered upward of 100,000 supporters in Madrid in one of the largest political demonstrations Spain has seen in recent years. Shortly before that, Greek elections handed victory to Syriza, a party that shares with Podemos a fierce anti-austerity platform.

Founded just a year ago, Podemos has become a political phenomenon, breaking the dominance of Spain’s traditional parties with its grass-roots structure and horizontal style. Fueled by widespread disenchantment with the country’s political and economic leaders, it hopes to emulate Syriza and get into government by the end of the year.

“The Greek elections have shown us that a party advocating a break with the austerity policies we’ve seen in Europe can get into power and can implement different policies from those we’re used to,” said Alberto Pajares, an architecture student who has been attending the meetings in Malasana since they started in February 2014.

“And the [Madrid] demonstration showed that there’s a social majority who can take us to parliament, which is where we want to be.”

Recent data back up this appraisal. A poll published by Metroscopia on Feb. 8 gave the party 28 percent of votes, 7 points ahead of the governing Popular Party (PP) and 10 points ahead of the opposition Socialists.

With a packed electoral calendar in 2015, Podemos has the chance to translate those figures into solid political power. Spring elections for most of Spain’s regional parliaments will be followed by general elections almost certainly by the end of the year.

One enthusiastic person attending the Malasana meeting was psychologist Maria Lobo, who said she joined Podemos “for the sake of my health. I was getting so outraged. Every time I switched on the TV news, it was just getting to me … It was the whole situation, the fact we were being robbed and the way the political class was acting in such a shameless way. When Podemos started, I didn’t have to think twice about joining.”

The party’s chapters across the country debate local procedural issues and broader questions affecting Podemos on a national level. At this meeting, participants voted on the creation of a Web page for the Malasana branch as well as on which candidates they want to represent them in May’s regional elections in Madrid, in which they hope to unseat the conservative PP.

“People don’t feel involved, represented or listened to” by traditional parties, said Josep Ramoneda, a political analyst and an author. He believes there is a chance Podemos could end up in a coalition government with the Socialists after the general elections.

“It’s a feeling that exists across Europe, not just in Spain. These systems we have need to be opened up if we genuinely want to be able to say that we’re in a democracy.”

In Spain that discontent cuts across age groups and social classes. Much of it is based on the perception that politicians mismanaged the economic crisis, which hit Spain in 2008 with the collapse of the real estate bubble, sending the country into a half-decade double recession. A wave of recent corruption scandals affecting mainly the PP and the Socialists has fanned contempt for politicians.

Podemos has labeled the members of the ruling class — politicians, bankers, business leaders and magistrates — “the caste,” a disparaging term that has its equivalent in “the 1 percent” in the United States. It is frequently used by party leader Pablo Iglesias, a 36-year-old ponytailed political scientist whose charisma is seen as key to Podemos’ success.

“We’re a country of ordinary people. We dream like Don Quixote, but we take our dreams very seriously,” Iglesias, dressed in jeans and a windbreaker, told the crowd gathered in central Madrid on Jan. 31.

“The winds of change are starting to blow through Europe,” he said, describing austerity as a “racket” and praising the new Greek government of Alexis Tsipras, with whom he has a close relationship.

In several other European countries — such as Germany, Britain and Sweden —voters’ disenchantment has been channeled through right-wing parties with an anti-immigrant agenda. But Podemos is different.

Although its policies remain vague, the few proposals it has made have drawn comparisons with Tsipras’ Syriza party. These include applying salary caps for high earners, introducing a 35-hour workweek and auditing the public debt.

The notion that Podemos leans hard to the left has been reinforced by its association with radical governments in Latin America. The party’s No. 3, Juan Carlos Monedero, for example, was an adviser to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.

But the party insists that the traditional division between left and right is now obsolete.

‘We’re a country of ordinary people. We dream like Don Quixote, but we take our dreams very seriously … The winds of change are starting to blow through Europe.’

Pablo Iglesias

leader, Podemos

“Unfortunately, in Spain the parties that claim to be of the right and those that claim to be of the left have ended up having similar economic policies,” Miguel Urban, one of the party’s co-founders, told Al Jazeera.

“We prefer to draw the line between those above and those below — a large majority of people who are suffering from the economic crisis and a minority who are making a profit from that suffering.”

Urban listed battling austerity and corruption as the party’s biggest priorities as well as reviewing the national debt and changing the current economic model.

The importance of the Spanish economy, which is the eurozone’s fourth largest and more than five times the size of Greece’s, means that other countries are closely watching Podemos’ progress.

Unlike Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus, Spain did not require a sovereign bailout from the EU at the height of the recent eurozone crisis. However, Spanish national debt has risen to about 100 percent of GDP. Podemos’ insistence that it would review those obligations and default on any it deems illegitimate could send financial shockwaves across Europe if the party follows through on that pledge, as could its plans to roll back austerity policies in place.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has accused Podemos of scaremongering with a vision of a “black Spain,” and he argues that the country’s economic crisis is now behind it. He points to the International Monetary Fund’s prediction that Spanish GDP will grow 2 percent this year — faster than the European average — as proof that a solid recovery is underway. But many Spaniards do not buy the government’s message.

Unemployment is falling, but at 24 percent, it is the second highest in Europe. Banks, seen by many as among the main villains of the economic crisis, are still evicting about 20,000 families from their homes each year because they are in arrears on their mortgages.

At one scheduled eviction in Madrid’s San Blas neighborhood, local residents gathered early in the morning to stop the authorities from foreclosing on an apartment belonging to a family that had fallen behind on payments.

“The economy is improving for some businesses, but a lot of families are still in a terrible way,” said Pedro Barragan, an economist who showed up to help his neighbors. “Podemos is going to get rid of the government this year, and there’s going to be a radical change.”

Many of the 70 or so people who arrived to stop the eviction expressed similar views. However, office worker Lorenzo Vazquez said that whichever party gets into power — including Podemos — its economic policies will be dictated by Germany and the European authorities. He’s going to vote for the Socialists this year.

“Telling people what they want to hear at a time when everyone’s angry and disappointed is easy. It’s very easy,” he said.

Moments later, authorities from the bank and a local court arrived to evict the family, but Barragan, Vazquez and the other protesters prevented them from doing so by blocking the door of the building, delaying the foreclosure by several weeks. It was one small victory for those who believe that Spain’s politicians and bankers have undermined social justice. Later this year, many expect Podemos to deliver a much bigger defeat to the country’s traditional powers.

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