BARCELONA, Spain — With his scruffy long ponytail and rolled-up sleeves, Pablo Iglesias looks the part of a working stiff with a can-do attitude.
But the 35-year-old is no ordinary proletarian.
The political science professor is also the leader of Spain’s newest and now fourth-largest political power, an upstart leftist party named Podemos, or “We Can.”
While much of the continent lurched sharply to the right during European parliamentary elections last month, Podemos stunned political analysts by surging to success in crisis-ravaged Spain, scoring five seats with 1.2 million votes, or 8 percent.
During his first news conference after the win, Iglesias dismissed any notion of a fluke.
“Podemos wasn’t born to be a token force,” he said. “Our vote is not a vote of protest, it’s a vote to change the old for the new.”
That’s a bold prediction given that a mere three months ago, the party didn’t even exist.
Its roots date back to 2011, when demonstrators calling themselves "indignados" ("the outraged") camped in city squares to protest austerity measures and forced evictions brought about by the country’s ruinous economic crisis, providing a model for the global Occupy movement.
While many believe the movement since faded away in Spain, some 300 grassroots groups, or “circles,” continued working quietly in neighborhoods and cities across the country.
Iglesias came to attention thanks to his savvy use of social media, particularly Twitter, hosting alternative TV debates and his regular appearances lampooning establishment politicians on two of Spain’s main television channels, La Sexta and Cuatro.
It enabled him to speak for a grassroots movement largely consisting of disenchanted and jobless young people who long avoided picking a leader.
But it wasn’t only the young who backed Podemos last month. Almost half of the party’s voters were aged 35 to 54 and had stable jobs, the newspaper El Pais reported last week.
Fernando Vallespin, professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Madrid, says Podemos deftly capitalized on deep voter dissatisfaction over recent political corruption scandals, ongoing high unemployment and the harsh austerity policies imposed by international lenders in exchange for aid to overcome Spain’s five-year double-dip recession.
“It’s easy to explain — it’s a way of protesting against the system,” he says.
The party’s spectacular rise proved disastrous for Spain’s traditionally powerful conservative People’s Party and center-left Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE), which together failed to garner 50 percent of the vote.
The dismal result quickly forced Socialist leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba to quit as the party scrambles to recover from its worst-ever election result. It’s now seeking to reinvent itself as a viable alternative to the ruling conservatives before Spaniards head to the polls for national elections next year.
That political transformation is taking place along with another changing of the guard after Spain’s longstanding King Juan Carlos — who helped steer the country toward democracy after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975 — announced last week he would abdicate in favor of his more popular son Prince Felipe.
Podemos and other leftist parties immediately called for a referendum on maintaining the monarchy, prompting mass demonstrations in cities across the country.
Together, the changes may mark the beginning of a new era for Spain.
“We’re now in a very peculiar situation because somehow this financial crisis has provoked the end of a certain regime that started during the transition to democracy,” Vallespin says. “The King was the main actor, he and the two main parties. Now we have a breakdown of the relative strength of the two main parties and the abdication of the King. This will probably bring constitutional reform.”
Attention is now turning to 2015 and the looming national elections, which could deliver Spain a coalition government, says Manuel Villoria, a political science professor at Madrid’s King Juan Carlos University.
“The polls indicate that our bipartisan system, our system with two big parties, will finish and we will have a more pluralistic political system with at least five big parties in the parliament,” he says. “So we will have a different political system after the next election. There will be a coalition almost for sure.”
But just how a coalition would form is anyone’s guess.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party has alienated its traditional allies, the nationalist parties of the northern Basque Country and Catalonia, by refusing to legitimize their push for independence.
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On the left, the smattering of competing parties could struggle to find common ground and risk splitting the left vote, handing power to the conservatives as they did in 2011.
Iglesias and his four fellow MEPs must now grapple with the party’s lack of a formal organized structure to develop an accountability system without alienating its grassroots, anti-establishment support base, experts say.
The party must also shore up its vague policy platforms, says analyst Cesar Molinas, who penned a withering attack on Spain’s political class in late 2012.
“They haven’t thought seriously about the problems they will find if they reach government,” he says. “That’s natural — all parties that have no real chance of getting into government or a coalition that governs, their positive messages are usually very weak intellectually.”
Iglesias insists his party is in it to win outright, despite facing a voting distribution system that favors the major parties. A former Communist Youth party member who was named after the revered founder of the 1800s Spanish Socialist Party, he plans to stand for Podemos in the national elections.
“We will not stop here,” he said on the night of his European election win. “This is not a symbolic result for us. We are going to begin a period of convergence with other political forces. The big parties have suffered the biggest blow … but we will not have achieved our goal until we beat them.”