In the space of just two years, pony-tailed former university lecturer Pablo Iglesias has shaken up politics in Spain, where millions voted his far-left protest party Podemos into third place in last Sunday’s historic polls.
The 37-year-old, whose cheap supermarket clothing contrasts sharply with the suits and boots of other party leaders, has managed to harness the anger of Spain’s “Indignants” anti-austerity movement into an influential political force.
“We are starting a new political era in our country,” he had gushed last Sunday after the grouping he co-founded in January 2014 scored more than 20 per cent of the vote, coming so close to the long-established Socialists that it nearly overtook them as Spain’s main left-wing party.
His supporters see him as charismatic and sincere, while his critics brand him a demagogue who does not know how to fund the anti-free market policies of his Podemos party — a close ally of Greece’s Syriza. Bearded and with a solemn gaze regularly broken by a ready smile, Iglesias vows to defend the poor in a country stricken by sky-high unemployment, rising inequalities and corruption scandals.
“On the 21st [of December], there must be smiles on the faces of all those modest people who can give a lesson to the powerful,” he had tweeted just days before the elections.
Iglesias created Podemos in January 2014, along with colleagues from Madrid’s Complutense University where he taught.
Four months later, it won 1.2 million votes and five seats in elections for the European parliament — with young candidates mostly new to politics and a campaign budget of just €150,000 (Dh603,086). But after its meteoric rise, Podemos started running out of steam several months ago and polls suggested it would come only fourth in the general elections.
“We got a lot of things wrong, I was seen speaking too angrily, we could not explain some things, the pressure got to us,” Iglesias later said during a TV interview. But it gained ground again — thanks to his party’s skilful use of social media and Iglesias’s move away from the more radical, far-left ideals and rhetoric Podemos once espoused.
From regularly labelling Spain’s ruling class and business leaders “the caste”, for instance, Iglesias dropped the term altogether during his campaign. As a former politics lecturer at the Complutense University, Iglesias is well-drilled in articulating his message. “He has lots of self-control. In an argument, he stays calm,” said Fernando Vallespin, another political scientist at Complutense. That was in evidence in debates that preceded the vote, with Iglesias widely seen as bettering centrist Ciudadanos chief Albert Rivera and Socialist party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez with his conciliatory yet determined tone.
Born in the Madrid working class neighbourhood of Vallecas, where he still lives in a modest flat, his parents gave him the name of PSOE founder Pablo Iglesias Posse — in front of whose grave they met. Impregnated with politics from an early age — his father was jailed under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco — Iglesias was active in the Communist youth and anti-globalisation movement before the Indignants protest wave erupted in Spain in 2011.
He has won over many ordinary Spaniards hit hard by drastic spending cuts and unemployment that tops 21 per cent, particularly with his down-to-earth appeal. He recently spoke about his scooter excursions, for instance. “I love it, I observe a lot, it helps to have a pulse on what is happening,” he said. An aficionado of talk shows, he was seen strumming his guitar on television before the elections, singing a tune dedicated to “all those women who are with idiots and should leave them”.
One of his teachers, Ramon Cotarelo, remembers him as a “considerate” person and “brilliant” student, as evidenced by his pile of diplomas in Politics, Law, Communication and HR.
He also speaks good English, in stark contrast to Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s incumbent prime minister who now has the unenviable task of trying to form a government after his conservative Popular Party failed to secure an absolute majority in elections. But former colleague Antonio Elorza is not so full of praise. “You couldn’t trust him. He would do whatever he pleased, didn’t defend any just cause so as not to lose an ounce of power.”
And Podemos has a lot of sceptics, not least in the business world.
It has also been criticised for its supposed links with Latin American revolutionary regimes such as that of Venezuela.