Spain's surging Podemos party rushes to get to the top

The faculty of political sciences at Complutense University of Madrid makes no secret of its ideological leanings.

Its long, red-brick corridors are covered with anti-capitalist slogans, strike appeals and stickers bearing the Communist hammer and sickle. The atmosphere is cheerfully anarchic: students light up cigarettes and joints despite a university-wide smoking ban. The hall outside the faculty library is the scene of regular unlicensed parties.

The academic department itself has long been known as a bastion of leftwing political theory, a place to study neo-Marxist thinkers and analyse the revolutionary movements of Latin America. More recently, however, it has gained fame for another reason: as the epicentre of a political earthquake that has shaken Spain's four-decade old party system.

Podemos, a new anti-establishment movement, was founded only 10 months ago by a closely knit group of Complutense academics. The group surprised analysts by gaining 8 per cent of the national vote in May's European Parliament elections.

It has gone from strength to strength ever since. One recent poll found that Podemos would emerge as the strongest party in Spain if elections were held now. Another placed it almost level with the ruling Popular party and the opposition Socialists, prompting excited talk that Podemos will, at the very least, have a crucial say in who governs Spain after next year's general election.

The era of stable majorities for the centre-right and centre-left appears to be drawing to a close, along with the country's much-prized reputation for political stability.

Led by Pablo Iglesias, a 36-year-old lecturer in politics, the party has emerged as the principal beneficiary of Spanish voters' deep disillusionment with the political class. After six years of economic crisis and a seemingly endless series of corruption scandals, many Spaniards have lost faith not just in parties and politicians, but in the system as a whole.

"Podemos is not a political experiment. Podemos is the result of the failure of the regime," Mr Iglesias told the party's first congress last weekend.

Despite their background in leftwing and alternative movements, Podemos leaders insist theirs is not a leftist party. The main political faultline running across Spain today, Mr Iglesias argues, is not left versus right but above versus below. He and other leaders take evident pride in the fact that as many as 10 per cent of their voters are former supporters of the centre-right PP.

Surveys show support is especially pronounced among younger voters, such as Julio Martinez, a Complutense history student and party activist. "Podemos existed before it was created," he says. "The general sense of indignation was already there. What happened was that it was finally transformed into a political movement."

On the third floor of the faculty building, where the teaching staff (and some Podemos leaders) have their offices, the sudden rise to fame of Mr Iglesias is a subject of fascination. "They have created a political movement that has revolutionised the party system," says Jaime Ferri Dura, a professor of political sciences.

Mr Iglesias, he notes, has long been interested in political communication, carefully honing his skills in lecture halls, the university theatre group and as a television talk show host. "He always wanted to be a great communicator . . . and he has a great way of connecting with people," says Mr Ferri Dura.

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>But for many in Spain, Podemos's rise has been a cause for alarm. Business leaders point to the party's European election manifesto, which includes a commitment to a 35-hour work week and to lowering the age of retirement to 60. The platform also advocates banning profitable companies from sacking workers, and placing the European Central Bank under parliamentary control.

Such demands have rarely been made in public of late, suggesting the group is keen to burnish its appeal to centrist voters. Mr Iglesias has told interviewers that a new political programme is in the works. In the meantime, he and other leaders have tried to focus on broadly popular issues such as the need to prevent banks from evicting families from their homes.

Paloma Roman, a politics professor at Complutense who has known most Podemos leaders for years, says the group's recent vacillation should not come as a surprise. "They capture the sentiment that we have in Spain right now," she says. "We know what we don't want. But we don't quite know what we want instead."

One thing Podemos and its leaders are clear about is the need for speed. Unlike other insurgent parties - such as the Greens in early 1980s Germany - the group feels it has no time to work its way up through town halls and regional assemblies.

"They are not interested in the long path to power. They don't want to show that they can be trusted to organise rubbish collection," says Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "They want to go straight to the top. They see a small window of opportunity."

Despite its surging poll ratings, analysts caution that it remains far from clear which party stands to gain most from the Podemos phenomenon. If the new group ends up drawing votes largely from other leftwing parties, Podemos could make it easier for the rightwing PP to hold on to power. If it steals support from across the spectrum, and ends up drawing level with the PP and the Socialists, it could leave the Socialists as the only viable party of government.

In the meantime, Podemos and its leaders are facing increasing scrutiny. Barely a week goes by without new revelations in the Spanish press about, among other things, alleged links to the government in Venezuela. "They know that the golden phase is over. People will have a real go at them now," says Ms Roman.

Mr Iglesias himself warned this week that the party faces a tough road ahead, though he also boasted that it was a matter of "when" not "if" Podemos would win the next general election.

The same confidence is palpable among grassroots activists such as Mr Martinez. For him, the party's prospects boil down to a simple fact: "The majority in this country wants change."

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