When the radical left Syriza party walked into Greek government in January 2015, as the Greece crisis tore hell through the country's politics and economy, many commentators said this would open the door for other anti-austerity parties across Europe. One of those was Spain's Podemos.
Podemos has fallen short of what Syriza achieved. The far-left party, whose name translates as "we can", came third in Spain's national election. But it has undoubtedly changed the face of Spanish politics by securing more than a fifth of the popular vote – and enough seats that it may form part of a coalition government. Ciudadanos, or "Citizens", a liberal left party not even a decade old, secured over 13% of the popular vote and came fourth as faith in the traditional parties breaks down.
The vote shares of the two major parties – the conservative People's Party (PP), which won the election but not a majority, and the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), which came second – shrunk considerably. Where once the two would command as much as 80% of the popular vote, now they just scrape over 50%. Their dominance is dying.
Spain election results: Vote share and seats won in the Congress of Deputies
People's Party: 28.72% and 123 seats
POSE: 22.01% and 90 seats
Podemos: 20.66% and 69 seats
Cuidadanos: 13.93% and 40 seats
Others: 14.68% and 28 seats
Spain has suffered under the weight of government austerity. It was among the worst-affected eurozone countries during the sovereign debt crisis, with yields on Spanish bonds surging past the 7% threshold considered to be unsustainable and a sign of impending default.
Spain did not default. But its government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of PP, committed to fiscal reform and billions of euros in public spending cuts, including to its welfare programme. Unemployment soared – a quarter of working-age adults were out of work – and incomes tumbled as banks stopped lending, firms went out of business and the economy was gripped by recession.
From this morass, as in other struggling eurozone countries, sprung left-wing anti-austerity movements. The streets filled with activists, the unemployed, trade unions and striking public sector workers. And in March 2014 was born Podemos, a party attempting to unite those on the streets under a coherent anti-austerity umbrella party with a real chance of taking power at the ballot box. Hundreds of thousands signed up to Podemos and it is now, by members, the second largest political party in Spain, behind Rajoy's PP.
Its founder is Pablo Iglesias Turrión, a 37-year-old pony-tailed, goateed and modestly-dressed political academic from Madrid, the Spanish capital. "I'm a normal person," he told The Guardian in a June 2014 interview, shortly after he led Podemos to 1.2 million votes in the European Parliament elections and five MEPs, one of which is himself.
Among Podemos policies are cutting mortgages for poorer homeowners, imposing a "solidarity tax" on the financial sector, and an aggressively pro-green agenda. It also promises to protect public investment and exclude it from deficit calculations. "Today is an historical day for Spain," Iglesias told reporters after the election results. "We are very happy for the fact that in Spain the two-party system is ended, and we are happy because we are starting a new political era in our country."
Now begins long and difficult negotiations to form a government. With the PP weakened, perhaps to the point where it is unable to form a governing majority, there is a real chance that Podemos will walk into power as part of a left-wing coalition. Not bad for a party formed less than two years ago – and a stepping stone, perhaps, to much greater success later on.