Podemos rise in Spain mirrors that of Syriza in Greece

Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, has become a close ally of Alexis Tsipras

Of all the photo-ops in Greece during the country’s recent general election campaign, it may have been the one that sent the most shivers down the spine of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

At the final rally of Alexis Tsipras's Syriza party on Thursday, Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's Podemos, took to the stage to address the Athens crowd.

“The wind of democracy that is blowing in Greece is called Syriza, in Spain it’s called Podemos,” Iglesias said, speaking in Greek. “Hope is coming.”

Many Europeans will watch this Sunday’s Greek election closely. But nowhere will it be followed more avidly than in Spain. The country’s economy is just starting to bounce back from the euro zone crisis and Spaniards are facing a year of potential upheaval of their own, with regional and municipal elections in May and a general election probably at the end of 2015. Moreover, there appear to be clear parallels between the two countries’ political situations.

Anti-austerity rhetoric

Podemos was founded just a year ago and its staunchly anti-austerity rhetoric has already threatened to break a two-party dominance which has lasted over three decades. With the party emulating Syriza by topping polls recently, many in Spain see the Greek election as having a direct bearing on their own political and economic landscape.

“I’m following the Greek election very closely, because it affects us,” says José Luis Yaguero, a central heating technician who supports Podemos and goes to the weekly meetings of one of its local chapters in southern Madrid.

“[Podemos and Syriza] are two very similar ideas: parties that burst onto the scene with a new way of facing up to austerity and the Troika,” he says. Yaguero believes a Syriza victory would be an enormous electoral boost for Podemos. But otherwise, he warns, “the IMF and the Troika and the elites will be allowed to continue imposing their policy of fear – and that will have repercussions in Spain.”

Tsipras (40) and Iglesias (36) have become close allies. In October, the Greek politician visited Madrid to watch as Iglesias was formally confirmed as leader of Podemos in front of thousands of militants. At an event organised by Tsipras’s party in Greece earlier that month, the host told Iglesias: “Podemos can become the Spanish Syriza”.

Similarities

Although Spain’s economy is over five times the size of that of Greece, there are obvious similarities. The euro zone economic crisis was disastrous for both countries, reversing growth, sending debt soaring and leading to austerity policies which have eroded the welfare state. In Greece’s case all of those woes have been more pronounced than in Spain. However, Spanish unemployment, at just under 24 per cent, is not far off Greece’s 26 per cent.

The kind of market-based contagion that hurt Spain and Greece so much a few years ago has receded. But Spain would be one of the most vulnerable EU countries, along with Italy and Portugal, should a Syriza-led Greece find itself in a stalemate with European authorities over how to handle its debt, according to Lluís Torrens, of the IESE business school.

“The situation is now under control – the markets have digested the fact that [Greece and Spain] have high levels of debt,” he said. “But what isn’t controllable is if Greece leaves the euro and a crisis of confidence follows.”

Like Syriza, Podemos’s rise has been fuelled by economic crisis. Its policy proposals include increasing public control of strategic sectors of the economy, the introduction of a 35-hour working week and an audit of the public debt, although it has abandoned a previous proposal to lower the age of retirement.