Over the last two years, Spain’s political landscape has been transformed by the emergence of the progressive, anti-austerity party, Podemos (“We Can”).
Formed in 2014, the party has already built a membership of over 350,000. In opinions polls, it matches the country’s two establishment parties only a few months way from the general elections.
The party’s astonishing rise in popularity within Spain has been the subject of numerous media headlines across Europe.
Less discussed, however, has been Podemos’ strong support among Spanish economic migrants, many of them young people, who have had to flee Spain in order to find work.
The United Kingdom (UK) remains one of the most popular destinations for Spanish migrants.
Between 2012 and 2014, there were 95,500 new national insurance registrations for Spanish people entering the UK, making the country Britain’s third largest source of immigration, behind Poland and Romania.
Many of them are encouraged by the rise of a party which they feel has given them a political voice and whose leader, Pablo Iglesias, has promised to “create a country they can return to.”
“We’re a country in which social movements are very much in touch with political reality and that’s something to feel proud of,” says Alberto Velazquez, a 37-year-old architect living in Manchester.
Velazquez is a member of the Podemos Manchester ‘Circle’, one of several hundred local groups set up around Spain and around the world in support of the party.
His story is depressingly familiar. He is articulate and highly educated but, like the majority of his peers, cannot find work back home. The country’s total unemployment stands at 5 million with youth unemployment at over 50 per cent.
“In Spain you began to feel as though work had become a luxury,” he tells Equal Times. “Leaving Spain you realise that professional workers are usually able to find a decent job or in the worst case scenario they find work outside their sector.”
Unlike leaders of other Spanish parties on the left such as Izquierda Anticapitalista and Izquierda Unida, Iglesias has been keen to distance himself from language reflecting traditional political narratives. “It’s not a problem between left and right, it’s a problem between democracy and austerity and I think that democracy is going to win,” he recently told a BBC reporter.
Iglesias uses terms like ‘la casta,’ (the establishment), to frame the debate as a battle between the economic interests of the ruling elites and those of the general public.
In doing so he has captured the attention of people who might not normally associate themselves with the left, but are nevertheless incensed at the perceived injustice of public spending cuts in response to an economic crisis caused by politicians and bankers.
“Iglesias and his colleagues started to popularise a message and a way of talking that reflected quite well popular sentiments,” Carlos Frade, a professor of sociology at the University of Salford and one of the oldest members of the Podemos Manchester circle, told Equal Times.
It’s a tactic which paid off for their close allies in Greece, Syriza, who took power with 36 per cent of the vote in January and whose electoral success Podemos hopes to emulate.
“I’m following closely events in Greece,” says Frade. “If they achieve something and manage to bring about some real change the establishment is going to find it almost impossible to convey the opposite message.”
Getting a “political voice”
Yet Podemos face many challenges if they are to follow suit.
Opinion polls put Podemos at 28 per cent in January. However, in recent months, their popularity has fallen and they are now polling at between 18 and 22 per cent, on par with the two major parties, the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).
It’s a downward trend that could be attributed to accusations of fraud and the emergence of a fourth major party, the centre-right Ciudadanos (“Citizens”).
Yet with such a large membership base, it seems unlikely that the party will disappear any time soon. In January, hundreds of thousands of people travelled from all over Spain to hear Iglesias deliver a typically rousing speech in Madrid’s central square, la Puerta del Sol.
Members of Podemos circles abroad, were able to stream the event on YouTube as he dedicated his party’s efforts “to the people who have had to flee abroad to work and who we want back!”
“It’s a very strong message because most of them want to go back. They want to develop successful careers and you can’t blame anyone for that,” says Frade.
“I would go back tomorrow if I could,” says Miguel de Frutos, a 36-year-old finance worker living in Manchester, “but I don’t want to go back to the same situation as when I left: living with my parents, temporary jobs and not being able to make any plans.”
In the meantime, they must settle for attempting to influence change from abroad. With Podemos circles operating in nearly every major city in Western Europe, many young migrants feel – often for the first time – they have a political voice. Marcelo Armendáriz, a spokesperson for Podemos Belgium in Brussels, says their mission to help Podemos create a better country is more urgent than ever.
“Spain is losing a large part of the population that was educated and trained with taxpayers’ money and other economies are now profiting from that,” he says.
“This means we have a society in which many educated young people migrate while the population ages. By transforming society and democracy we can achieve decent life chances for those who are in Spain and offer those who have migrated the chance to return.”
Members of Podemos circles are able to vote on the way the party is run, including leadership and policy decisions. In an attempt to get more Spanish people involved in politics, the groups hold weekly meetings to discuss politics and organise events.
Every two weeks Podemos Manchester screens a film, usually related to Spanish society, before opening the floor for a lively political debate.
The circles have also worked hard to raise awareness of the registration process that Spanish people living in the UK must go through in order to be eligible to vote in November.
With around two million Spanish nationals now living outside the country, this may turn out to be an important task which could affect Podemos’ electoral prospects.
In March, Podemos stormed into Andalusia’s regional parliament, winning 15 seats and a significant portion of the vote. Crucial to their success was the fact that 30 per cent of foreign residents who voted in the Andalusian elections voted for Podemos, a higher share than any other party.
But winning the general elections may prove more challenging. With polls showing support for the four biggest parties almost evenly split, it is likely that Podemos will need to go into a coalition in order to form a government.
The only major party they could conceivably work with is the centrist, Socialist Party, but having built their popularity on an anti-establishment message, this would be seen by many activists as selling out.
“If they can get into government with one of the other left wing parties like Izquierda Unida that would be good,” says de Frutos, “But do a pact with la casta?”
He shakes his head. “No, because if you tolerate them you become one of them.”