Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
It all looked very possible in Sol, Madrid on January 31: Podemos could just rise and rise and win Spain’s general election. It might be led by geeky, scruffy, and Montero-aside, 30-something intellectuals, but if you’d done a casting call for a diverse crowd, you wouldn’t have got better than this, with its concrete-coiffed elderly women arm-in-arm, parents and teenage kids filming an historic day out on i-Phones, fathers bearing babies on their shoulders, liberally pierced students with dogs, snogging couples, labour groups arrived on buses from all over. It was a motley crew but a united one; everyone knew the slogans, and the roar of ‘Pres-i-den-te! Pres-i-den-te!’ was joyous and fervent as Pablo Iglesias bounded onstage, and accompanied by energetic pumping fists.
This breadth of appeal has surprised the detractors, but backs up the polls that put Iglesias and Podemos only just behind Rajoy and the ruling, right-wing PP, and the traditional opposition, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the PSOE. There are many in Spain willing to back Podemos simply to break the political stranglehold, the incessant debate between the PSOE and PP over which has been the more corrupt, and get on with moving forward.
Youth, is the big appeal, along with the attendant prospect of change. The PSOE responded to the Podemos threat by fielding Pedro Sanchez, a 42-year-old, not dissimilar in appearance to a young Ray Liotta to replace former leader 63-year-old Alfredo Rubalcaba. He moves around fast, top button undone, but is essentially a younger leader serving up the same ideas. Podemos is a different sort of animal, something new. The party is headed by polite and clever people your mother would like, but at the same time gives of an air of something naughtily radical. It has come from somewhere different, I mean to say from a world where academics sit round discussing politics as philosophy over coffee, but that could just as well be nowhere, given the fact the party has only been in existence since January 2014. They have successfully built grassroots support via regional circles, capitalising on a general feeling of frustration and disenfranchisement. With a name that references both Nike and Bob the Builder there’s the suggestion Podemos offers new capabilities and new ideas.
Of course here is where it gets a little more complicated. Their objectives are quite clear – they want to consolidate the disparate elements of the country’s left, lower the age of retirement to 60, raise the minimum wage and introduce a maximum wage, implement 35-hr working weeks, nationalise banks and utility companies, ensure free education for all, break the ties between church and state, ensure politicians have no immunity from justice, stand up against the controlling triumvirate of European Union, BCE and FMI, guarantee the right for gay marriage and abortions, and introduce higher penalties for the mistreatment of animals – but their methods, are of course untested.
The first test for Podemos is the first of the regional elections on Sunday (March 22). It happens to be in Andalucia, and as Spain’s second largest autonomous region with just under 18% of the total population, the results will be a fascinating indicator of a changing Spain. It is a PSOE stronghold – and has been since the return of a democratic system in the 1970s – with the forceful Susana Diaz currently heading the Junta; the Podemos candidate – only elected to the post last month – is the 33-year-old Teresa Rodriguez.
There are inherent factors that should be both advantageous and disadvantageous to Podemos: left-right divides and political loyalties are so well entrenched across Andalucia that most villages have double the number of drinking establishments needed because socialists won’t drink in PP bars and vice-versa; it is predominantly rural, and a bastion of taurino culture, plus 34.6% of the population is unemployed. So how will the party’s distinctly urban, intellectual, quite frankly trendy ideas play into this?
Latest polls show Podemos with around 15% of the vote, third between the two traditional rivals, but a scoop that would leave PSOE without an absolute majority. So this is where it could get very interesting. Would or could Podemos consider being part of a coalition? And if it does, will it lose its ace in the pack, the very quality that has seen it rise from nowhere in 18 months, its critical independence?