Podemos: Spain anti-austerity party banging on doors of power - BBC News
From fringe to establishment: Spain's Podemos reaps election rewards | Daily Mail Online
This is an interview the party's leader had with the Financial Times last month:
The leader of Spain’s anti-austerity movement orders ‘neorealist’ salad in Madrid, talks about Merkel and Muhammad Ali and says people fear his party because ‘we have an idea’
The lunch venue selected by Pablo Iglesias is strange but compelling. The 8½ bookstore in central Madrid stocks thousands of volumes of film-related literature and criticism. Its walls are plastered with black-and-white pictures of Spanish directors and actors, and there is a small bar and eating area towards the back of the shop. We have a separate, book-filled room to ourselves, also stuffed with cinematic references. As I scan the walls, waiting for my guest to arrive, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman and the shark from Jaws stare back at me.
Iglesias is running late, which does not come as a surprise. The leader of Spain’s Podemos party is in the middle of a frantic political campaign — the most important yet for the anti-austerity movement he helped found only two years ago. On December 20, Spanish voters will elect a new prime minister, and Iglesias hopes they will pick him, a 37-year-old, pony-tailed political scientist with no experience of public office, to lead one of Europe’s largest economies.
As he rushes from one television show to the next, Iglesias’s confidence is disarming (he recently mused about the need to brighten up Moncloa, the prime ministerial compound outside Madrid, with some of his Ikea furniture). But he also knows perfectly well that the polls predict a different outcome. Podemos, which surged earlier this year on the back of frustration with Spain’s economic crisis and political corruption scandals, has recently fallen behind the mainstream parties again — forcing Iglesias to bang his drum louder than ever.
It is close to 3pm when we order — not an unusual time to have lunch in Spain, but I am famished. The menu expands on the café’s cinema theme, with dishes and drinks named after European directors and art-house classics. Among the options are a Buñuel ham toast and Mamma Roma meatballs. The choice is limited, but Iglesias does not seem to mind. “Ah, all the salads are Italian neorealist,” he remarks approvingly.
After a few seconds, he chooses an Amarcord salad, a goat’s cheese and rucola combination that pays homage to Federico Fellini’s film about adolescence in Mussolini-era Italy. I order partridge with rice, a special of the day which comes without the benefit of a Werner Herzog or Ingmar Bergman title.
Iglesias turns down my offer of wine. “When you are campaigning it is fundamental to eat little. If I eat a lot or drink alcohol for lunch, I have to relax in the afternoon. And I have to go to the television . . . ” His voice trails off as he mentally checks through the packed agenda for the rest of the day.
. . .
I start by asking him about the convulsions gripping European politics, particularly on the left. Does the sudden emergence of parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece — not to mention Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise triumph in Britain’s Labour party — herald the end of Europe’s traditional centre-left parties? Iglesias thinks it does — and that the shift is already “unstoppable”.
“The politics of austerity have been shown to be a huge failure,” he says. “The principal victims of that failure are the citizens, but another victim is social democracy, which has lost its traditional political space.” In Iglesias’s view, Europe’s centre-left parties betrayed their voters during the eurozone crisis by slavishly following the political right and pushing through welfare cuts and wage-compressing structural reforms. Spain’s Socialist party, which has yet to recover the ground it lost, is a case in point. But he reserves particular scorn for Germany’s Social Democratic Party, which he dismisses as a “crutch” for the government of Angela Merkel.
People say: “Iglesias, I am not like you. I have never had long hair and I have not read any of the books you like. But I will vote for you”
In speeches and on talk shows, Iglesias has made a habit of lashing out at the German chancellor, whom he accuses of subverting European democracy. But surely, I say, Merkel is simply fulfilling her democratic mandate, in much the same way as his friend, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister?
The problem, says Iglesias, is that Merkel’s Germany has failed to respect the sovereignty and the legitimate choices of other European countries. “It is very important that Merkel stops behaving like an emperor and starts behaving like the leader of just another member state of the EU, even if that state is Germany. I don’t want Merkel to treat me like the governor of a colony or, as is the case with [French President François] Hollande, as her deputy.”
Talk of national sovereignty grates with some on the left, but it is a key ingredient in the Podemos formula. Like Syriza, the Greek government party with which it shares close ties, Podemos is more than ready to use the emotive language of patriotism to push its agenda. Iglesias and other party leaders habitually decline to define their movement as leftwing; instead, they prefer to speak about Podemos (which translates as “we can”) as standing up for the interests of those “below” against the corrupt political caste “above”.
This strategy has a clear purpose — to attract voters who would otherwise not dream of voting for a self-described Marxist such as Iglesias. And, for a while, it proved stunningly successful. But Spain’s economic recovery, along with the arrival of a second new party — the centrist movement, Ciudadanos — has drained support from Podemos. The polls may shift again, and Iglesias, who prides himself on his campaign skills, is utterly convinced they will. But, if Podemos is indeed to taste power after December, it is likely to be as a junior partner in a large unwieldy coalition.
Iglesias’s personal ratings have also fallen steeply. After 18 months under the media spotlight, and a relentless barrage of criticism from much of the mainstream press, some of his freshness seems to have worn off: polls show that only Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s dour prime minister, is a less popular party leader.
He admits the past 12 months have taken a toll. When he was a TV pundit and junior professor at Madrid’s Complutense University, no one cared about his personal life. Yet when he split with his long-time girlfriend at the beginning of this year, it made news across the country. For the time being, he has to suffer the intrusions of fame without any of the perks (though he did arrive at our lunch with two bodyguards in tow).
“There is one thing I can still do,” he tells me. “I can escape on my motorbike. I put on my helmet, and I am an anonymous citizen once again, honking at other cars like everyone else. It is marvellous.” But Iglesias hastens to add that he is not complaining. “We are trying to change the history of our country, so you really can’t moan about not being able to drink a beer in peace.”
He traces his political ambition back to his family. His mother, a labour lawyer, and his father, a workplace inspector and history teacher, named him after Pablo Iglesias Posse, the founder of Spain’s Socialist party. “My family is a family of fighters that has always been ready to make sacrifices,” he says with pride. Both his father and grandfather were jailed for opposing the Franco dictatorship, setting an example that Iglesias says he has always strived to follow.
Politicians are normally keen to avoid the minefield that is Spain’s fraught fratricidal history but Iglesias argues that some of the country’s current ailments can be traced back to the Spanish civil war (1936-39) and the dictatorship that followed. Chief among them, he says, is the legacy of nepotism and cronyism that flourished under General Francisco Franco. “These families whose surnames we still all know, they all grew used to the fact that to become rich in Spain you did not need to be intelligent or have a good business sense, but you needed to be close to power.”
According to Iglesias, the same patterns of political proximity were to blame for the property boom that led to Spain’s crash following the global financial crisis in 2007. The economic hardship and political frustration that followed, he says, explain why his party appeals to voters in the centre, or even on the right of the political spectrum.
Our food has arrived but Iglesias leaves his salad untouched as he continues his argument. The key to political success, he argues, is to focus on themes that transcend ideology: “There are people who tell me: ‘Iglesias, I am not like you. I have never had long hair and I have not read any of the books you like. I come from a world that is much more conservative but I will vote for you all the same because you are honest and I think you are capable of cleaning out the corrupt from our institutions.’”
Just how many conservative Spanish voters think this way remains an open question. Iglesias’s remarks do, however, point to one of the most striking aspects of the Podemos phenomenon — the gulf that separates the party’s far-left intellectual leaders from the disenfranchised voters it claims to represent. Iglesias and other Podemos leaders hail from the faculty of social and political sciences at Complutense, a bastion of the radical left (its campus has perhaps the highest density of hammer-and-sickle graffiti in Spain). How was it possible to make the leap to leading a well-organised political movement with mass appeal?
Iglesias puts down his fork and smiles. Political theory, he insists, was essential to the success of Podemos. He points to Antonio Gramsci as an example. The Italian Marxist argued that revolutionary movements were often thwarted by the bourgeoisie’s iron grip on values, language and culture. For socialism to triumph in politics, it would first need to win cultural hegemony. “Gramsci didn’t write so that university professors could study his work. He wanted to understand reality and he was aiming at [political] action.” Podemos leaders realised that the movement would first have to change the way voters think of and speak about politics: “Reality is defined by words. So whoever owns the words has the power to shape reality,” Iglesias says.
. . .
His inspirations extend far beyond the usual academic canon. One particular interest is Game of Thrones, the TV fantasy series featuring dragons, zombies, eunuchs and the never-ending struggle for power. For the Podemos leader, the series, about which he has also edited a tongue-in-cheek book titled Win or Die — Political Lessons from Game of Thrones, is not only a useful tool to explain political concepts but also a metaphor for Spain today. When he was introduced to Spain’s new King Felipe, he handed him a DVD box-set of the series as a gift.
I ask him to give me an example of how the series sheds light on current politics. Iglesias does not hesitate. “Do you remember the ‘power-is-power’ scene?” he asks, referring to the second season, in which two protagonists argue about the nature of power. A royal courtier, hinting that he knows of the Queen Regent’s dark secret, warns her that “knowledge is power”. Cersei (the Queen Regent), orders her guards to seize him and cut his throat — only to rescind the order at the last second with a cruel smile. “Power is power,” she remarks.
“Who can put more votes on the table,” asks Iglesias, as he scoops up the last of his salad leaves, “the one who has a television programme or the one who is in command of the machinery of government? Is power really just power, or is power an idea?” Take the example of Podemos, he says. “We have no army, we have no money, and we have no powerful friends. So why is there so much fear? I think it’s because we have an idea. At the end of the day, Cersei is wrong.”
Podemos, he insists, “has already changed Spain from top to bottom”. According to Iglesias, much of the country’s upheaval over the past 18 months — including the abdication of King Juan Carlos in June last year — was caused at least in part by Podemos. The royal resignation, he points out, came just weeks after Podemos stunned forecasters by winning 8 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections.
“You suddenly started to see more and more young people in political talk shows,” says Iglesias. “And then everyone started to talk about ‘change’ and about ‘regeneration’ — and a good number of our proposals ended up becoming everyone’s proposals.”
Spain’s political scene, for decades dominated by the centre-right Popular party and the centre-left Socialists, has fragmented and the old leaders pushed aside. Today four of the five main parties have leaders in their thirties or early forties. It is also hard to quibble with Iglesias’s assertion that Podemos has shifted the political debate: outside the ruling PP, there is near-unanimous agreement that Spain needs constitutional change and an institutional overhaul. But Podemos does not only want to win arguments. It wants to win power and that may prove harder than thought.
Podemos, says Iglesias, has to be about more than just a protest vote. “Of course we have become more moderate. We have realised over the past 18 months that it is not the same to stand in a European Parliament election with the aim of taking a kick at the political system and to stand in an election with the aim of winning it, to become prime minister and to change the country,” he says. “This means we have to say, ‘OK, there are some things we would like to do that we now have to do more slowly.’”
The waitress asks whether we want dessert. Iglesias chooses yoghurt with berries and I order a carrot cake, which never arrives. We both ask for coffee.
He tells me that though his leadership and personality were crucial to get Podemos off the ground, he is less needed now. The party, he reminds me, is already represented in most regional parliaments, and Podemos affiliates lead the local government in Madrid, Barcelona and a raft of other cities.
There are, he claims, other signs that the movement and its leader are still in the game. “There is a strange thing that happens to me, and that is that people come and touch me. With the politicians before no one dared to get close to them or touch them. But they touch me in a very natural way, and they address me with tu. I think that is a good thing. It tells me that some things are changing.”
Our conversation is almost at an end. We have just two empty coffee cups in front of us, and I, too, am feeling a little drained. In just under 90 minutes, Iglesias has name-checked the writings of Karl Marx, Ernesto Laclau, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky and pondered the football tactics of Pep Guardiola. But there is still time for him to squeeze in Muhammad Ali.
“I was very rebellious,” he recalls when I ask whether his beliefs have changed over time. “I enjoyed answering back and provoking. I got angry. But I had to learn to withstand the blows.” He then recounts Ali’s shift in style, from the days when he dazzled opponents with his speed and footwork, to 1974’s legendary Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa.
“He just took blow after blow. People thought he could not withstand, but in the end he did,” marvels Iglesias. “Without presuming to make a comparison between myself and Ali, I would say that I have also learnt to withstand the blows. I have realised that the most important thing is not to win the first round or the second round, but to hold on until the end of the fight. Now we are approaching the end of the fight, and I think I am still strong enough for it.”
Tobias Buck is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief
Illustration by James Ferguson
Lunch with the FT: Pablo Iglesias - FT.com