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12 February 2015

Podemos goes pro: how the Spanish party are fine-tuning their election message

Much has changed since the protests of 2011. Now, last year's upstart party might just be in with a chance.

By Liam Aldous

On a cold winter’s Saturday, a moving sea of people pours into the Puerta del Sol plaza in Madrid, flags and placards waving in the wind. Four years of economic austerity have left Spanish voters exhausted. “I don’t need sex,” one placard reads: “My government screws me every day.” But here, the slogans on display suggest a shift in the national mood.

Spain’s upstart political party Podemos (“We Can”), founded in 2014, has capitalised on voter frustration, siphoning off support from the two largest parties. The “March for Change” on 31 January was a carefully executed political set piece. Supporters young and old were bussed in from across the country in a deliberate show of force.

Many of the participants have been here before. In 2011, a spontaneous protest filled the square; the demonstrators were referred to as the indignados (“the indignant”), or as members of the 15M movement. A shanty town sprang up with everything from a makeshift media centre to a library and a crèche. A roving microphone allowed students, retirees and the unemployed to stand before captivated crowds, relaying stories of despair and anguish in very public acts of catharsis.

At the time, several politicians and commentators derided the movement, challenging participants to form their own party. A group of political scientists heeded the call. Now, Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues in Podemos have returned. Their message, blaring from the stage, is no longer “We can” but “We did” and “We’re going to win”.

Much has happened since 2011. Scandals of alleged corruption involving both major parties and even the royal family have embittered the public further. Two judges responsible for investigating corruption, Baltasar Garzón and Elpidio José Silva, have been accused of overstepping their authority, adding to the perception of political impunity.

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“Rajoy: the next evictee,” reads one placard, a reference to the eviction of nearly half a million Spaniards from their homes. The “preferentistas”, a group of retirees, blow whistles to protest the loss of their life savings after bad advice was given by their banks.

Meanwhile, headlines explain how board members at the Caja Madrid bank racked up over €15m in undisclosed expenses while seeking a bailout from the government.

It all feeds into a feeling of institutional crisis and Pablo Iglesias’s promise to kick out la casta (the country’s ruling elite) has a quixotic appeal. Iglesias tells the crowd that time is up for the traditional ruling class. “History begins today,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced. Looking on sceptically is the 33-year-old Andrés Lomeña, a secondary school teacher from Cádiz – the region with the highest unemployment rate in the country, at over 40 per cent. He is undecided about whether Podemos can deliver more than populist slogans but he is here nonetheless.

“What’s undeniable is the effect they are having on the political landscape,” he says. “Podemos is reshaping the political lexicon and the national debate. Other parties are struggling to catch up.”

As everyone joins together to sing “Todo cambia” (“Everything Changes”), a markedly – albeit prematurely – jubilant demonstration draws to a close. After years of economic hardship, many are willing to embrace an untried political force simply for what it is not. With this rally, the Podemos message has been finely tuned to lure the undecided in an election year. “We heard your voice and together we will take on the system,” it rings out. “Change is coming.”