Radical Spanish Party Podemos Lead Polls for First Time

Pablo Iglesias, right, head of leftist group Podemos, or 'We Can', and spokesman Luis Alegre, pose before a news conference in Madrid. Andrea Comas/Reuters

Podemos, the new left-wing party that has turned Spanish politics on its head, has surged to first place in the polls, overtaking Spain's two major political parties for the first time.

The poll, published on Saturday by the Spanish newspaper El País, shows that just eight months after registering 0.2% in the polls, the left-leaning Podemos party now has 27.7% of electoral support.

The surge in popularity of Podemos, which translates as 'We Can', represents the first serious threat to the country's two-party system since the death of dictator Franco, and return to democracy 40 years ago. The opposition PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) received 25.5% support, while the governing conservative PP (Popular Party) was backed by only 20% of the electorate.

Podemos's lead comes after a string of high-profile corruption scandals which have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. On Tuesday, Spanish prime minister and leader of the PP Mariano Rajoy made a formal apology to the country after 51 people, including politicians, bankers and businessmen, were arrested following allegations that top officials were exchanging payments for favours to secure public contracts. Despite numerous corruption allegations against party members since the PP came to power, this is the first time the prime minister has formally apologized.

"I apologise in the name of the PP to all Spaniards for having appointed people to positions who weren't worthy of them and who seem to have taken advantage of them," Rajoy told the Spanish senate.

According to Newsweek correspondent Dan Hancox, who recently attended Podemos's first party conference in Madrid, their success is about more than just corruption scandals. "There is no question that the widespread economic malaise has also played an important role. Spain is faced with a housing crisis in which millions of homes remain empty and millions of people are evicted because they cannot afford to pay their mortgages. This, alongside youth unemployment which is at a steadfast rate of about 50% means people are seriously disenchanted with the current political system."

"A deeply entrenched and long generational crisis is underway in Spain. People are looking for a more radical solution." says Hancox.

As well as promising to end corruption in the political system, the party has proposed to break away from the privatization process that the conservative government has pushed forward by making sure that Spain's health and education systems remain public and free.

The party, which has its roots in the 2011 'indignado' mass protests, is structured around 'circulos', circles of people that can be based on location, profession, special interest, and so on, rather than the traditional power structures of the established parties.

According to an editorial by the left-leaning El País: "The accumulated anger of recent years leads [people] to believe that Podemos is the best alternative for giving the traditional parties a punishment for failing to improve the political and economical situation."

Podemos secured 1.2 million votes and 5 seats in the European elections in May 2014, only four months after the party had been formed, and with a campaign budget of just €150,000.

Momentum has gathered behind the party, led by 35-year-old former politics lecturer Pablo Iglesias, over the last few months. In August, Podemos were polling 10.7%, still considerably behind the two major parties.

On October the 19th the party held its first Citizen's Assembly in Madrid. Iglesias, known for his articulate attacks on the establishment on TV, addressed more than 8,000 party activists.

According to Hancox, the next general elections, which are to be held in October 2015, are going to be "messy and very close".

"It is difficult to see how the two main parties will rebuild reputations" says Hancox. However, he thinks that the establishment parties may resort to measures unimaginable just a few years ago in order to keep Podemos out of power. "There is the strong possibility of a coalition being formed between the PP and the PSOE. We are dealing with an entirely new state of affairs".