Ponytail Populism

Can Chavez’s Ghost Swing Spain’s Election This Year?

Funded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his successor, Podemos is the party to beat in this year’s Spanish elections.

02.22.15 11:45 AM ET

MADRID—If it looks like a communist, walks like a communist, quacks like a communist, but national elections are less than a year away, it’s a social democrat. It’s Pablo Iglesias.  (“The guy with the ponytail.”) The good buddy of Venezuela’s deceased Caesar, Hugo Chávez. The young university professor who jumped from TV debates and Twitter to the head of the political class.  The man who, last year, won a surprising five seats in the European Parliament with Podemos, his extreme left party created only months before the elections.

And today, it would seem, Podemos (which means, very roughly translated, “Yes We Can”) is the most popular party in Spain, according to all the polls. The latest of them lead us to two clear conclusions: that Pablo Iglesias is an excellent television commentator, and that Spain has turned communist but doesn’t know it. Afraid people will find out, Podemos has ordered a formal shift toward social democracy, even if, in the archives, the paeans to Lenin survive.

Nationalize the banks, prohibit layoffs at companies that have subsidies, put a cap on salaries and proclaim the right of a basic income for everybody. Those are some of the economic proposals that figure in the Podemos platform. But everything in this party seems to be improvised, as if it’s unfinished. Its current proximity to power scares entrepreneurs, sure, but also the rest of Europe: Podemos is against the free trade treaty between the European Union and the United States, which will be debated this year in the European Parliament. They have a plan to dynamite the agreement.

The other day while I was having a beer in Madrid I came across two retirees, conservatives, convinced they are going to vote for Podemos in the next elections. “That guy with the ponytail, Pablo Iglesias, said they’ll guarantee good pensions for everyone,” one assured me. “Even for those who never paid into the system in their entire lives!” the other chimed in.  And neither of them took the next obvious step, nobody posed the question: “And who’s going to pay for it?” These men were in ecstasy. Their eyes glistened as they talked about Podemos. Once upon a time they were voters for the center-right, for former Prime Minister José María Aznar. Today they’re too busy converting themselves into Chavistas to ask themselves if the dreams of Podemos can come true. They believe. And nothing more. They believe, “Yes we can!” They believe in Pablo Iglesias, the new messiah of Spanish politics. It’s a matter of faith. Only faith.

The great political success of Pablo Iglesias is himself. He’s an extraordinary communicator. Charismatic, with a very agile mind, simpatico, and also affable when away from the cameras. As a professor of political science, he knows the political terrain and dominates academic discussions. As a militant of the Union of Young Communists of Spain until he was 21 years old, he knows all about propaganda. As a prestigious antiglobalization activist since 2001, he is an expert handling citizens’ movements. As a representative of the of the avant-garde left he turned himself into a talk-show regular, first in marginal Madrid TV programs and then in the mainstream media.

Taking advantage of hundreds of cases of corruption in the major political parties, plus the unbearable unemployment rate of 26 percent and the hardships of the economic crisis, Pablo Iglesias focused his sights on what he called “caste and its privileges.” His oft repeated and much celebrated slogan: “Let’s be done with the ‘political caste’ and give power back to the street.”

They invited him to current affairs debates on conservative channels because they figured that his rhetoric, so close to Hugo Chávez and his successor Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, would discredit him and make the left look ridiculous. The right was overjoyed to see how the radicalism of Pablo Iglesias took up more and more space, erasing the traditional parties on the left or, what is the same thing, “deactivating” the United Left (Izquierda Unida) and the once dominant social democrats of the PSOE, suffering from a profound crisis of leadership.

In 2013, the members of the government were laughing at Pablo Iglesias in private. Conservative pundits were laughing in his face. And the leaders of the left, laughing, called him “outdated” and “marginal.”

But in January 2014 Iglesias signed with other activists the manifesto “Converting Indignation to Political Change” and announced that he would be a candidate in the European Parliament elections.

The jokes stopped, and abruptly, when the results came in. The outdated and marginal communist appeared, as dawn broke on May 26, 2014, on the front pages of newspapers celebrating his electoral surprise: five seats and almost 8 percent of the vote, “denying the governing conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialists a majority of votes for the first time since the country’s return to democracy 35 years ago,” as The New York Times put it. How did that happen? Was it all thanks to the eloquence of Pablo Iglesias?

Of course not. The sudden transformation of Spanish public opinion was not accidental. As the conservative daily ABC reports, at least since 2003 the Venezuelan government has been funneling up to €300,000 a year to the leaders of Podemos through a foundation as payment for their services as consultants. According to ABC, 75 percent of the money got to Spain while 25 percent went to cover the “luxurious lifestyle” of the consultants in Caracas.

The love affair between these “advisors” and Hugo Chávez was so great that the late president (who died in 2013) had ordered an office for them installed next to his in the Palacio de Miraflores—an office often occupied by Luis Alegre, the current spokesperson for Podemos.

Maybe this explains the relentless defense of “Chavismo” made by the leaders of Podemos from the classrooms of the Universidad Complutense de Madred to the usual social media.

In October 2002 the columnist and philosophy professor Gabriel Albiac wrote a column criticizing Chávez in the Spanish newspaper La Razón. The response of Luis Alegre was an outraged article published on the Internet, and recently erased, fantasizing about Albiac committing suicide: “The great enigma that confronts us is… Why has he not killed himself yet?”

Albiac, like many others, suffered afterwards from harassment and threats by the extreme left at the university.

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The love that Pablo Iglesias felt for Hugo Chávez is worth a whole other chapter. When Iglesias heard of the Venezuelan president’s terminal cancer he warned, “Chávez alive is very dangerous for the powerful, but dead he would be invincible.”

Without renouncing “Chavismo,” with which it is twinned implicitly, Podemos is softening its image ahead of the 2015 general elections, which have to take place sometime before the end of this year. If in October 2013 Pablo Iglesias proclaimed on television “I am a communist,” in December 2014 on Spanish television he dodged the question “are you a communist?” up to four times.

Meanwhile, no one has answered the big question ignored by the Podemos platform: Who will pay for all this?

Translated from the Spanish by Christopher Dickey