If first impressions count, then the political force that wants to transform Spain in 2015 consists mainly of student types and self-conscious outsiders. That, at any rate, is the scene when you enter Podemos’s crammed, disorderly office in Madrid’s popular Lavapiés district. Posters are being prepared for the movement’s first big street demonstration, planned for 31 January. A young woman sitting in front of a computer says she has no job and decided to become a Podemos volunteer because “if we don’t start taking things into our hands, la casta will just continue as before”.
This is the closest thing Spain has to Syriza, the radical leftwing party that just came to power in Greece. Only a year after its launch last January, Podemos (“We can”) is riding high in opinion polls. General elections are due at the end of the year. Just like Syriza, Podemos has a charismatic leader, the pony-tailed 36-year-old professor of political science, Pablo Iglesias. Like Syriza, Podemos calls for an end to traditional politics and rolling back austerity. Its key target is la casta (“the caste”), the dominant two-party system that has ruled Spain since democracy was restored in the late 1970s, after Franco’s death.
Opposite the Podemos office, there’s a book shop run by some of its activists. Browsing through it feels like you’ve stepped into a time-machine: there are collections of Lenin’s works, and books on the Italian communist thinker Antonio Gramsci and the French 19th-century revolutionary Louise Michel.
The more likely clue to Podemos’s rise can be found on the television news: an endless stream of revelations about corruption cases. Spain’s macroeconomic situation may have improved, but that hasn’t translated yet into improved living standards: youth unemployment still stands at a staggering 50%. Podemos taps into the despair over these numbers just as Syriza has done in Greece. It offers new young faces and resorts to social media in its bid to modernise Spanish politics, calling for more social justice and democratic accountability of the elites. But beyond that, its programme remains vague.