THE BLOG
01/20/2015 04:34 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Is Spain Flirting with Chavismo?

In early November an opinion poll rattled Spain's political establishment. It revealed that Podemos, an anti-establishment party founded by a group of radical left-wing academics, had surged to first place in popularity, overtaking the two main political forces, the governing conservative Popular Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialists' Workers Party (PSOE). Since then PSOE appeared to recover the lead but a poll published last Sunday revealed that Podemos, which formally became a party only 10 months ago, is again in the lead, about five points above the PSOE and nine above the PP. Its charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, is the most popular politician in the country.

Podemos had already stunned the country in the European elections in May, securing 1.2 million votes and five seats. But the latest poll revealed that Podemos, like its ally Syriza in Greece, is a serious contender for the general elections, scheduled for the end of the year. Even before the surge in November, former leftist President Felipe González had sounded the alarm. He said that the rise of "Bolivarian alternatives influenced by regressive utopias" would be a "catastrophe" for Spain. By Bolivarian alternatives he meant movements inspired by the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who Podemos' leaders consider a paragon.

So how could a tiny party created a year ago become a major player? Corruption is part of the explanation. Podemos' surge followed a string of high-profile scandals enmeshing members of the two main parties. Traditional Spanish politicians have been gravely discredited, and Podemos has ably exploited the public's anger. Its message is simple: the scandals are more than a case of bad apples. They are the latest manifestation of a corrupt two-party system. This system has created a casta (caste) that has long governed to satisfy its own interests instead of the people's.

The corruption scandals, though, are just the most immediate cause. The bigger cause is the economic crisis. Since the global crash in 2008, Spain has suffered from levels of unemployment similar to those of the Great Depression in the US. Next to Greece, the country has the highest unemployment rate in the developed world, with more than half of the youth and 24 percent of the overall population out of work. The country has also faced a severe housing crisis; millions of people have been evicted from their homes because they cannot afford to pay their mortgages. And misguided austerity policies have increased the suffering. This situation has provided an opening for entirely new political actors. Podemos has stepped in.

Is Podemos as dangerous as critics claim? Fears about the party are not unfounded. Podemos has a Manichean discourse that divides the world between well-meaning masses and la casta -- the supposedly self-serving and corrupt political elite that has ruled Spain since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Podemos sees the past governments of the PP and PSOE, with their different and evolving ideologies, as part of a homogeneous regime deserving of dismantlement. It downplays their democratic legitimacy and achievements since linking la casta to the people's will and Spain's impressive progress in the post-Franco era would undercut its Manichean narrative. Surely Spain is still plagued by grave problems. But issues like corruption, clientelism, economic crisis and the democratization of political parties are problems that any democracy faces, not only Spain. Democracies address them through democratically established laws and policies. In the typical manner of populists, Podemos' leaders paint these problems as exceptional, inextricably linked to the corrupt essence and origin of Spain's two-party system. And when problems are exceptional, they require exceptional solutions.

Seen in this light, Iglesias' call to scrap the "regime of 1978" by rewriting the Constitution is especially concerning. The same could be said about his admiration for Hugo Chávez, who began to dismantle Venezuela's democratic institutions through a "constitutional" process. Podemos' relationship with the authoritarian government of Venezuela exceeds simple mutual admiration. Several leaders of Podemos, including Iglesias, have reportedly worked as handsomely paid consultants for that regime.

It is true, though, that Podemos has toned down its rhetoric during the last months. The party has rowed back on earlier controversial pledges like defaulting on Spain's debt and nationalizing the main utility companies. It has watered down its populist proposal to fight poverty with a fixed living allowance for all citizens. The party still backs the introduction of a 35-hour work week but abandoned its previous demand to lower the retirement age. Recent interviews with Iglesias, in which he sounds more like an old-fashioned social democrat than an angry member of the anti-capitalist left, contrast starkly with his old pronouncements.

Whether these changes constitute a real ideological shift or are just a ploy to seduce the moderate voters Podemos needs to win is now anybody's guess. But the move to the center reveals something about Podemos' leader that makes it hard to dismiss him as a fad. "I can't stand losing," Iglesias has said. "I don't want to win 15 or 20 percent of the vote...I want to win." And if winning requires him to profess more moderate policies, so be it. If winning requires no longer wearing proudly the radical leftist label and substituting as models Latin America's populists for Scandinavian social democrats, so be it. In this sense Iglesias resembles traditional politicians more than he will admit.

In his fixation with the media Iglesias also shows he aspires to more than a few seats in the European Parliament. He has said that 95 percent of political leadership, campaigning and messaging is an "audiovisual device." Podemos' leaders invest considerable energy in their communicational strategy, preparing for each media appearance and tailoring their message to their different audiences. They rarely refuse an invitation to debate on TV and they constantly give interviews without pre-conditions. In fact, Pablo Iglesias owes his improbable political rise to an audiovisual device. He turned into a public figure by hosting two TV programs and becoming a regular face on other shows. In this respect, too, Iglesias shares similarities with Hugo Chávez. But Chávez's success as a TV personality was more a result of his political instincts and natural predisposition as a communicator. Iglesias' clever use of media stems more from academic theorizing and careful design and implementation of a strategy.

The big question Spain now faces is whether Iglesias is a pragmatic leader who ultimately will govern within the system or whether his anti-establishment discourse derives from a deep conviction that his country's ills can only be solved by demolishing the current political order. Is he a Bolivarian leader that will use his popularity to upend institutions and undermine liberal democracy in the name of social justice or is he just a social democrat with reasonable proposals to combat austerity and restructure Spain's debt? The leaders of Podemos have said enough to make the first option plausible. And given the risks of this scenario, Spaniards should run from the party and consider other alternatives.