Protest Party Podemos Shakes up Politics in Spain

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Protest Party Podemos Shakes up Politics in Spain

Leader of Podemos, a left-wing party that emerged out of the "Indignants" movement, Pablo Iglesias speaks during a press conference in Madrid on 2014 to speak about the party's eight percent result in last weekend's European elections

Madrid:  People were wondering what had happened to the "Indignants", the protesters who swamped Spanish squares in 2011 to demand political change.

The protests may have lessened, but just when Spain was least expecting it, the Indignants have surged back -- not in the streets but in the polls.

Podemos, a left-wing party that emerged out of the Indignants, won eight percent of the vote in last weekend's European elections, giving them five seats in the European Parliament.

Although they still have a long way to go to really trouble Spain's establishment, the result took many observers by surprise since opinion polls had forecast only a two or three percent vote share for the party.

It was particularly impressive since the party was only officially formed four months ago, and contributed to the decline of the mainstream Socialist party, whose leader, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, resigned in the aftermath.

"It is a party with little structure, largely based on television appearances," said Ignacio Molina, a specialist in European politics at the Real Instituto Elcano research group.

"It is very active on the social networks online. It is a party of new technology and young people, but a very important one," he added.

"It has managed to channel the protest movement and the hopes of the Indignados."

- 'We Can' -

At the helm of Podemos, whose name means "We Can", is its earringed, ponytailed lead candidate Pablo Iglesias.

A regular face on political talk shows, the 35-year-old university politics lecturer won over more than a million voters in Spain with his campaign against what he calls the established political "caste".

He echoes the cries of the mass street protests that rocked Spain in 2011 and 2012, condemning corruption and the financial powers that be.

"We are being governed by the menservants of the rich," he was quoted as saying by El Mundo newspaper this week, reiterating a regular line.

"What we need is a government of postmen of the people. Our party's aim is to become an alternative" to the political class.

"He is an outstanding person. He has a populist way of speaking, simple and effective," Molina said of Iglesias.

Podemos's unexpected success raised debate about whether Spain's old two-party system was under threat.

The country has been governed alternately by conservative and centre-left parties since democracy was restored in the late 1970s.

The governing conservative Popular Party and opposition Socialists each saw their share of the vote and seats plunge in the EU elections.

The Popular Party won the election, capturing 26 percent of the vote, down from 42.1 percent in 2009 while support for the Socialists fell to 23 percent from 38.8 percent during the last European election.

The Popular Party, which won the race, shrugged off the decline but Socialist leader Rubalcaba felt he had no choice but to step down.

- Ponytailed 'demagogue' -

Critics call Iglesias a demagogue, using inflammatory rhetoric to exploit the dire conditions in Spain, where 26 percent are unemployed and there are daily tales of families falling into eviction and poverty.

After the election, one of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's top advisers, Pedro Arriola, branded Podemos "freaks".

Iglesias responded that Arriola was "an intelligent man who can do better than that".

The first act Podemos plans when its members join the parliament in Strasbourg is to cut the European lawmakers salaries from 8,000 to 1,930 euros ($2,600).

To redistribute wealth, the party proposes a maximum salary in Spain, a 35-hour working week, retirement at 60 and financial reforms to "put the banks at the service of citizens".

He is not the only political leader to have campaigned on such issues in the years of economic crisis since 2008, but he is seen as having played the game better than most.

Centre-left newspaper El Pais described him as "a man of radical ideas in a velvet glove".

"He succeeded on television from the start," it wrote.

"He worked well in front of the camera. He could go on rival political programmes but never lost his composure."

But a lot more needs to be done to start affecting national politics. Molina said last week's EU vote share would only translate to four of the 350 seats in the lower house of parliament.

If it goes on to poach left-wing votes from the Socialists and the United Left which placed third in the election, "it could follow in the footsteps of Syriza", the far-left party that has shaken up politics in Greece, Molina said.

"But I don't think that is likely."

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