It would be easy to say that I felt Spain was on the cusp of profound political change in the summers of 2011 and 2012. I was in Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia, watching mass protests against the increasingly inept federal government. Fed up with the kind of endemic corruption and cronyism that lines the pockets of the already-moneyed class and makes the costs of daily life untenable for the average citizen, Spaniards had decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. The M15 movement, as it became known (so-called because it started on the 15th of May 2011), foreshadowed similar protests around the world, including Occupy Wall Street, which began four months later.
That narrative would be easy but it wouldn’t be the truth. There was excitement and a sense of possibility, yes, but there was also the righteous indignation so common in protest movements: An outrage that comes easily but has little sustainability because it doesn’t lead to actual change. So, though it was energizing to walk through throngs of Spanish citizens who had taken to the streets, there wasn’t a real sense that anyone had gotten around to answering the inevitable, and important question: “What’s next?”
Fast forward four years and we’re beginning to see that the seeds of outrage, the sense of “enough’s enough” — referred to in Spain as “el hartazgo” — have sprouted in the form of the still-new political party, Podemos (Spanish for “We Can”), which picked up where the 2011-12 protests left off. Founded in January 2014 and registered as a political party in March of that year, Podemos was created by 36-year old Pablo Iglesias, a university lecturer of political science who, along with activists, labor leaders, writers and journalists, and professors helped articulate a manifesto for political, social, and economic change, asking: “Does it make sense that 90% of the population who is suffering from [existing] policies should lack the tools to create a better future?”
The manifesto, titled “Mover ficha: convertir la indignación en cambio político” (“Move the dial: convert indignation into political change”) explained that the 2011-12 protests forced an opening, and concluded that Spaniards “…can’t let that window of opportunity, which was made by so many good people, close. We think it’s time… to offer tools [to channel progress in response] to the indignation and the desire for change.”
“Mover ficha” was attractive to protesters and to disaffected citizens who had never joined them in the streets but still railed against the government, albeit privately. It offered a compelling vision, a sense of possibility, and, crucially, an invitation for everyone to channel their energies toward meaningful action that would result, it hoped, in meaningful change. The manifesto’s authors —self-professed liberals who hoped to harness dissatisfaction with the existing order and, in so doing, unite a spectrum of ideologies ranging from socialism to communism — outlined a 10-point action plan that would focus the party’s efforts, rejecting, among other things, the privatization of public services, and embracing social inclusiveness by denouncing machismo, homophobia, and “all forms of discrimination.” They activated social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube and made it clear that theirs was a movement by, about, and for the people. And when they threw open the doors to the party, inviting fellow citizens to register as Podemos members, even they were taken aback by the response. Within the first 20 days after party inscription opened in January 2014, more than 100,000 people joined up.( In the 15 months since then, party membership has more than tripled and Podemos has not only changed national politics, but Continental politics as well, thanks to its five representatives in the European Parliament.)
Podemos was particularly successful in attracting young people. Just 36 years old, Iglesias was representative of the new party’s base: Young people who felt disenfranchised but didn’t want to be excluded from the political process. Along with his academic bona fides — which included studies in political science, psychoanalysis, cinema, as well as a law degree — Iglesias had key activist cred, having monitored elections in Bolivia and Paraguay. And, perhaps most importantly, Iglesias didn’t look like a politician, sporting a ponytail and rejecting designer suits in favor of blue jeans and button-down shirts. His energy was infectious. Standing at a podium, preparing to speak in front of thousands, he smiled warmly, and spoke slowly, confidently, and directly to the audience. “It’s moving, so moving, to see the pueblo smiling [here in] the Puerta del Sol,” he said during the introduction to a 20-minute-long speech in January 2015. (The crowd, of course, went wild.)
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If all this sounds sort of familiar, like a chapter from Barack Obama’s 2008 “Hope and Change” playbook, think again. For all of its new media savvy, grassroots feel-goodery, and semi-outsider status, many of Obama’s campaign tactics were old school strategies engineered by long-established political players like David Axelrod, who’d been in the two-party politics game his entire career. That’s not to dismiss or downplay the areas of radical departure the “Hope and Change” campaign represented, nor its effects, namely, the uptick in voter empowerment and engagement. But Podemos isn’t borrowing from anyone else’s playbook; it is writing its own. And it’s doing so as if it’s one big citizen political project, one in which every citizen matters. After all, isn’t that what politics was—still is—supposed to be?
Take, for example, the way it communicates with party members and the public offline. Eschewing the postal system to send snail mail, the party has relied on hand delivery by ordinary citizens to ensure its most important messages reach everyone. In one letter, dated May 2014, Iglesias wrote,
This letter won’t reach you by postal mail because sending letters like this costs more than two million euros. Ask the parties that have sent you a letter by post to explain where they got that money and in exchange for what. We don’t ask for favors from banks nor from corrupt parties, and we make all our accounts public on the web. If you’re reading this letter, it’s because someone who lives close to you wants things to truly change.
Though Podemos has succeeded in doing what most other countries in similar circumstances have not — channeling outrage constructively by proffering a new political party that seems to have real momentum and potential — some citizens and political analysts warn that real tests for Podemos lie ahead. As in the U.S., Spain’s traditional two-party system rarely makes room—at least not easily—for what it perceives as fringe elements…even when those fringe elements have hundreds of thousands of members.
“Podemos has had a powerful impact because it’s been a long time since [we’ve seen] a party with such a different character, one that really breaks the mold,” says Gemma Suñer, a product manager for a tourism board in Cataluñya, one of the regions of Spain agitating for independence. “Podemos has been able to take advantage of the public’s discontent and lack of confidence in the current system.” Riding that wave, of course, will only take the party so far. Suñer describes Iglesias as being portrayed as a messiah, as someone who can save the country, but who hasn’t—at least not so far—really clarified the “how-tos” of the party’s action plan. And while the party has put Iglesias as its front man because he has a “communicative capacity” that is much better than that of other party leaders, Suñer says Podemos has done so to its detriment, obscuring the other leaders and party members — including women like Tania González, Lola Sánchez, and Teresa Rodríguez, all of whom are now serving in the EU Parliament — as well as their platform.
If the idea was to break the mold of traditional party politics, embodying greater inclusion and a more democratic leadership, Suñer isn’t sure Podemos will ultimately represent an alternative. “Sure, any alternative seems better than our current government, with its corruption and poor decision-making,” she says, “but we still don’t know what will happen in the long run.” From afar, I’m willing to hold out hope. Though examples from other countries suggest the hope and change Podemos represents may ultimately be frustrated, the extent to which it has disrupted the existing system in such a short time offers enough promise to make it relevant and worth watching, particularly as elections begin in Spain this month.