Madrid, Spain—“How does Podemos propose to solve Spain’s most important problem?” Albert Rivera, 36, asked Pablo Iglesias, 37. The two young party leaders—Rivera of Ciudadanos (“Citizens” in Spanish) and Iglesias of Podemos (“We can”)—were sitting across from each other in a cafe in the Nou Barris district in Barcelona, home to three of the five poorest neighborhoods in the city.
The casual conversation, which took up the entire hour of the popular documentary program Salvados in October, was watched by 5.2 million viewers—intrigued to see what might happen when political leaders talk to each other face to face, at a remove from the highly staged format of a debate. Neither Podemos or Ciudadanos is currently represented in Spain’s Congress of Deputies. Yet between the two of them, they are poised to sweep up more than a third of the country’s votes in the general elections on December 20—the biggest change in Spanish politics in thirty years. Rivera or Iglesias may well become the next prime minister.
Rivera was asking Iglesias about the country’s unsustainably high unemployment numbers. Despite government assertions that 2015 would witness “the greatest reduction of unemployment in Spain’s history,” it still hovers at around 21 percent officially overall, with youth unemployment at just under 48 percent. Iglesias’s answer to the question? “Not to look like Bangladesh and look instead like Denmark.” And, he added, “In order to look like Denmark, we have to raise salaries.” “But you can’t do that by decree,” responded Rivera. Yes, you can, Iglesias rebutted, “you can raise the minimum wage from what it is today.” (The minimum wage in Spain is $690 a month.)
For many on both the left and the right, Rivera and Iglesias represent a possible changing of the guard from the two-party domination of the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) and the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE). But the back-and-forth they shared on the show is telling. While Iglesias approaches the state as an instrument for repairing and building social welfare, Rivera sees that use of state power—often invoking the specter of Venezuela and other populist governments in Latin America—as evidence of creeping authoritarianism. Rivera’s answer to the unemployment problem is an even more flexible labor market, further reducing job security and workers’ rights.
Spain’s slight but much-touted drop in unemployment this past year is largely due to the rise of contratos kleenex (“Kleenex contracts”): short-term, badly paid, precarious jobs. Though the country’s median yearly salary remains a meager $24,000, the most common salary is around $16,500. All the while, income inequality has soared in Spain since the beginning of the crisis, going against the trend elsewhere in Europe. Today, some 3.7 million unemployed have run out of benefits and receive no income whatsoever.
The fundamental disagreement between Rivera and Iglesias throws into sharp relief the decision Spaniards will face on December 20. At stake are Spain’s next prime minister as well as all 350 seats in the lower chamber and more than three-fourths of its Senate. That the country’s electoral map will change is clear; the question is how much and to what color. Both the PSOE and the ruling PP will lose significant numbers of votes to the two newcomers, Podemos and Ciudadanos. But while opinion polls differ in their predictions, they all indicate that an unusually large number of voters are still undecided.
Podemos’s short life—it was founded in January 2014—has been a rollercoaster ride marked by strong fluctuations in strategy, popularity, and election results. By its one-year anniversary, the party was polling as high as 27 percent, beating all others. More recent polls have pegged it in fourth place, with as little as 11 percent of the vote. The only constant has been the media’s relentless attacks.
But the party has faced internal tensions as well. Some of the members of Podemos “circles”—the party’s assembly-based citizen groups—refer to two versions of Podemos. One, they told us, is the centrally organized, top-down structure that emerged from the party’s founding meetings last fall. The other is the grassroots, movement-based coalition of citizens and civil-society groups that backed mayors Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid, both of whom won progressive victories in municipal elections last spring.
From its birth, Podemos has had to navigate the tug-of-war between its desire to reinvent politics from the ground up and the need to play by the rules of the existing system. This tension has made Podemos more vulnerable than its competitors to disappointment among its base. While voters take the established parties’ corruption and authoritarianism for granted, the slightest appearance of duplicity has hurt Podemos disproportionately. During a meeting of the Moncloa-Chamberí circle, one member spoke out against what he saw as the “precious little participation of the circles in the overall Podemos program.” “I speak for myself and for many others who participate in circles in other communities,” he said, signing off.
Early in the run-up to the general elections, an attempt to form a broad, progressive front on the national level failed when Iglesias and Alberto Garzón, the charismatic young leader of the United Left, couldn’t agree on the terms of a coalition. Though many have argued that an alliance with the old-left apparatus was anathema to Podemos from the start, some saw the lack of agreement as a sign of stubbornness. It certainly revealed the fractured state of the Spanish left—an age-old problem.
Podemos has also faced external challenges that have been out of its hands. Syriza’s failed bid in Greece to stand up to European Union–imposed austerity sowed doubts about Podemos’s ability to provide a viable alternative to the savage cutbacks in public spending. Recent events in Portugal (where left parties won more than 50 percent of the vote, ousting the right from power), while promising, have not been met with the same kind of hope in Spain.
The Catalan elections in September, which spurred serious negotiations about the region’s push for independence that may last well into the new year, benefited parties that, unlike Podemos, were either strongly in favor or strongly opposed to it. Finally, catastrophic events such as the recent terrorist attacks in Paris tend to make voters risk-averse, driving them back into the arms of establishment parties. Though Podemos has refused to join in the war-mongering and is calling for a broad approach to starve Daesh politically and financially, these proposals will likely not pay many electoral dividends.
While Podemos saw its support drop on October and November, Ciudadanos has risen meteorically. Some polls today have it in a virtual tie with the PSOE for second place. Its leader, the anti-independence Catalan politician Albert Rivera, often looks like he just walked out of a boardroom meeting. The politicians of Ciudadanos present themselves, notes journalist Patrycia Centeno, as “men and women who, through the appearance of diligence and ability, look to improve Spaniards’ quality of life through PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets.” It helps that his party’s program is catnip for big business—including the country’s most powerful media conglomerates.
“Ciudadanos, in reality, does not have political principles,” writes Josep María Martí Font, a Barcelona-based journalist. It instead has “management models for power structures that are not up for debate, but whose functioning can be improved.” It is thanks to this vague self-identification with a technocratic ethos, as well as the sympathy of the media, that a popular narrative has emerged—especially on Spanish TV—embracing Ciudadanos as the party of “people that have a plan,” while spurning Podemos as the party of “indignation, but without a plan.” Few want to acknowledge that behind Ciudadanos’s crowd-pleasing façade is a deeply unpopular neoliberal core, including the erosion of workers’ rights, regressive tax policies, and co-pays in health and education.
Ciudadanos’s message goes down easy with some Spanish voters because, rather than questioning the stories Spain has been telling itself for at least two centuries, it reinforces them. Podemos became famous for challenging what it called the “regime of ’78,” referring to Spain’s democratic transition, based on a compromise between the Franco dictatorship and the opposition. Ciudadanos, on the other hand, has doubled down on its celebration of that moment. Rivera has often invoked the memory of Adolfo Suárez, the politician who ushered in Spanish democracy as its first elected PM since Franco’s death. And he also likes to compare his own party to Suárez’s, as he did in a national debate on November 30, emphasizing his ability to bridge the gaps between the country’s left and right. (It helps that Suárez has been memorialized ad nauseam in Spain recently; the Madrid airport now bears his name.)
Podemos hit rock bottom in the wake of the Catalan elections, where the Madrid-based party leadership made some dire tactical mistakes—including a clumsy new party name, a less-than-charismatic candidate, and a couple of cultural faux-pas. But the tide seems have turned once again. Despite the failure to build a national alliance, in the regions of Catalonia, Galicia, and Valencia, Podemos has joined the same kind of broad left coalitions that proved successful in the city elections this past May. And as in May, the party has managed to recruit prominent non-politicians with a large amount of cultural capital. These include former chief of defense and four-star general José Julio Rodríguez Fernández, and the judge in charge of the corruption case against King Felipe VI’s sister and brother-in-law.
“I smell an upswing,” the party’s second-in-command, Íñigo Errejón, has been saying at packed town-hall meetings across the country. At one of those meetings in Getafe, near Madrid, Pablo Iglesias spoke about a “different roadmap,” which includes “five constitutional guarantees:” reform of the justice system to curb partisan justices; elimination of “revolving doors” connecting politicians and big business; the constitutional guarantee of education, health, and social rights; reform of the electoral law to involve the citizenry directly in political decision-making; and democratic referenda on independence in regions including Catalonia and the Basque Country.
In fact, Spanish politics has already changed beyond recognition, thanks in large part to Podemos. Many of its proposals that were initially dismissed as dangerously populist have by now been adopted by the PSOE, Ciudadanos, and some even by the PP—including a crackdown on tax evasion, constitutional reform, and some kind of basic income to help Spain’s poorest citizens. The copycat tactic is so shameless that Podemos has released a series of tongue-in-cheek videos comparing their initial proposals with those now being promoted by the other parties.
Meanwhile, Podemos’s regional coalitions, inspired by the rebirth of municipal politics and local activism, are helping erode the country’s heavily centralized and hierarchical political structures. And the high probability that no party will win an absolute majority will make a coalition government inevitable—another first in Spain. (Although the PP stands to lose more than a third of its support, it will likely remain the largest party—but that does not necessarily mean it will get to form a government.)
It remains to be seen whether Podemos will be able to rekindle the grassroots enthusiasm that won it five seats in the European Parliament less than two years ago. But that’s not for lack of trying. In two recent debates with his rivals, Pablo Iglesias came out winning. The event in Getafe, which featured regular circle members alongside Iglesias, Errejón, and other leaders, unchained a massive word-of-mouth campaign in which the party invited participants to write a letter to a friend or family member explaining why they will vote for Podemos.
At the meeting, party founder Carolina Bescansa, a political scientist, broke down in tears as she read the letter she had written to her young daughter. “My daughter is too small to know what voting means,” she said. “When you are old enough to vote, I wrote to her, I’m not sure Podemos will still be around. But there will certainly be decent people fighting for their dignity and their rights. And I told her to vote for them, to defend her rights, because it is only when we defend ourselves and recover our dignity that we can live in freedom.”