If the current poll numbers hold, Spain’s next prime minister will be Pablo Iglesias, a pony-tailed 36-year-old political scientist who cut his teeth in the Communist Youth and the anti-globalization movement—but whose party, Podemos, wants “to change the rules of the political game,” Iglesias told the journalist Jacobo Rivero. Left and right, he added, are metaphors that are no longer “useful in political terms”: “the fundamental divide now [is] between oligarchy and democracy, between a social majority and a privileged minority.” Or, as Podemos likes to put it, between la gente and la casta, the people and the caste.
Podemos was founded only a year ago and, in May, it stunned Spain’s political establishment by winning five seats in the European Parliament (1.25 million votes, nearly 8 percent). In many respects, the party—whose name translates as “We can”—is the Spanish sibling of Greece’s Syriza. Central to its still-evolving platform is a broad set of economic-stimulus measures that buck the European obsession with austerity as the only way out of the continent’s economic crisis. Among other things, Podemos proposes a restructuring of the national debt, a “deprivatization” of essential services such as healthcare and energy, and a form of universal basic income that would provide a road back into Spain’s anemic economy for the millions of unemployed—officially nearly 24 percent of the workforce, and as high as 54 percent among those 18 to 25. The party also wants to reform the country’s Constitution, which cemented Spain’s democratic transition in the late 1970s as a compromise between the Franco regime and the opposition. For Podemos, the Constitution has become a “padlock”: the cornerstone of the failed “regime of ’78” that, starting in the 1980s, was built on a bipartisan consensus between the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and the right-wing Popular Party (PP), breeding corruption while stifling democracy.
As it happens, Iglesias was born in October 1978—the same month the Constitution was approved in Parliament. And this is not the only irony of fate. Podemos may soon drive the final nail in the coffin of the Socialist Party, after whose nineteenth-century founder Iglesias was named. According to a postelection analysis on ElDiario.es, “What appears to be true is that wherever support for the PSOE deteriorates fastest is where people have voted most for Podemos.”
* * *
The ascension of Podemos has changed the face of European politics, raising the prospect of a powerful southern coalition riding an electoral wave to challenge the austerity policies imposed by Germany and the European Central Bank. (Podemos, Syriza and other parties have joined the European United Left coalition in the Parliament in Brussels.) In Spain, as in Greece, Italy and Portugal, these policies have been nothing short of disastrous. In addition to the massive unemployment, Spain’s national debt has soared close to 100 percent of gross domestic product and, according to the grassroots organization Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), nearly 570,000 families have lost their homes since the housing crisis hit in 2007. Under Spain’s antiquated mortgage law, homeowners retain their debt even after foreclosure; thus, over 1 million people have been sucked into a black hole of financial despair. The country has seen a wave of economically induced suicides. According to UNICEF, Spain’s child-poverty rate is at 36.3 percent. And the country suffers Europe’s largest rate of income inequality, with the top fifth enjoying seven and a half times the wealth of the bottom fifth.