- - Tuesday, February 10, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain — Supporters of Spain’s surging anti-austerity party, Podemos, have seized on a slogan that is sweeping the country: “Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.”

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, a ponytailed former political scientist, first used the slogan last month after the stunning victory of Greece’s Syriza party, which rode to power on a wave of popular anger against harsh austerity programs imposed as the price of an EU bailout. Like Syriza, Podemos has shaken the domestic political landscape with a platform demanding an end to the harsh terms of European rescue loans that helped pull Spain back from the brink of economic collapse — bringing Europe’s populist revolt against austerity demands to the European Union’s fifth-biggest economy.

As Spaniards, like Greeks, increasingly bristle at the tax hikes and spending cuts that have brought economic growth to a halt and caused unemployment to skyrocket, the image of a ticking clock is a clear message from Podemos — “We Can” in Spanish — to center-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that his time in office is coming to an end.

“For many years, I was disconnected from politics because I felt that no politician was talking about the things that matter to me,” said Gonzalo Floria, 39, an information technology specialist from Madrid. “But with Podemos, I am optimistic again. They are showing that it is possible to find different solutions to our problems.”

In a country where the official jobless rate is 23.7 percent and total public debt has hit $1.1 trillion, Mr. Floria and other Podemos backers aren’t engaged in wishful thinking. Even with Spain’s gross domestic product projected to grow by 2.5 percent this year, among the highest rates in the slumping European Union, many Spaniards are not feeling the recovery.

In a poll published Sunday in El Pais, one of the country’s leading newspapers, the 1-year-old Podemos leads all comers, with 27.7 percent of the vote. Mr. Rajoy’s ruling People’s Party was at 20.9 percent, while the traditional center-left Socialists lost 5 percentage points since December’s poll to finish third at 18.3 percent. A general election is scheduled for November.

In May — five months after its founding — Podemos won five seats in elections for the European Parliament with about 8 percent of the vote. The People’s Party and the Socialists won less than 50 percent of the vote in total, a sign of their dwindling support. In 2009, the two mainstream parties received more than 80 percent of the vote in European Parliament elections.

“A large portion of the population is resentful against the measures that politicians have been implementing from the beginning of the crisis,” said Jose Fernandez-Albertos, a research fellow at the Sociological Research Center. “They can’t find any comfort in the existing political parties. Podemos has managed to mobilize and bring all those people together with a plain crossover message.”

Despite the rosy forecasts, however, Podemos leaders are not satisfied. “The polls are not enough yet to have a government that, aside from rescuing banks, also rescues citizens,” said Inigo Errejon, the party’s election campaign chief.

Clash with Germany

The stakes are high.

New Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has requested that European leaders agree to debt relief, saying the country can’t make its payments on more than $270 billion in loans without destroying its economy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads Europe’s largest economy and Greece’s largest debtor, has rejected those pleas, setting the stage for a showdown on the future of the eurozone — the 19 countries, including Spain, that use the Continent’s common currency.

Parties like Syriza and Podemos argue that the established powers and creditor countries should heed their demands, if only to hold off even more extreme forces on the far left and far right.

Last week, after meeting with his German counterpart in Berlin, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis bluntly warned that “Nazi parties” threatened to gain popularity in his country unless Europe agreed to reduce Greece’s loan payments.

The upper echelons of Podemos are made of young university professors such as the 36-year-old Mr. Iglesias, with broad international experience, formidable public speaking skills and an easy familiarity with social media. They tilt to the political left, but they refuse to call themselves leftists.

“The difference between left and right is less important than the difference between democracy and oligarchy or the difference between whether those in power are at the service of people or at the service of a small minority that has accumulated a lot and is bringing the country to a dramatic situation,” Mr. Errejon said.

That message has made a deep impression on millions of Spaniards suffering from joblessness, decreasing salaries and massive cuts in social benefits.

“If employment rates don’t improve and social shortages continue, [Podemos is] going to get a lot of votes,” said Santiago Nino-Becerra, an economics professor at Ramon Llull University in Barcelona.

But many in Spain are fearful of the new political party.

“We all know they are a bunch of communists,” said Jose Maria Ares, 57, a retiree from A Coruna in the north who maintains several Facebook pages and Twitter accounts that feature posts against Podemos.

Mr. Errejon rejected the communist comparison. Instead, he argued, the situation in Spain is like that in the United States during the Great Depression. “We need something like the New Deal,” he said. “In a time when the private sector cannot lift our economy, we need to put the government in the service of growth.”

The rationale is a classic riposte to demands from Germany for balanced budgets and modest public spending, said Mr. Becerra. If the private sector isn’t creating jobs, Podemos wants the government to kick-start the economy by helping people earn a living so they can buy goods and pay taxes. “Their program is 100 percent Keynesian,” he said.

Expensive agenda

Podemos proposals’ include a 35-hour workweek, a universal basic income for the unemployed and poor, nationalization of the energy and health care sectors, and higher pensions and minimum wages. Its leaders have vowed to crack down on corruption.

Critics say those measures will result in the ballooning of Spain’s government debt, which already stands at more than 160 percent of gross domestic product. The People’s Party’s vice secretary for regional politics, Javier Arenas, said Podemos would bankrupt the country. “These are political options that have no viability,” he said.

Podemos’ meteoric rise in Spain is already felt in the marketplace. Investors are demanding higher interest rates for Spanish bonds than for those of Italy, where a new government is seeking to implement the strict financial reforms that creditors demand.

“The reason for Spain underperforming Italy is totally related to investors’ concerns about the political landscape in relation to what is going on in Greece,” Luca Cazzulani, a senior fixed-income strategist at UniCredit SpA in Milan, told the Bloomberg News service Friday. “It’s something that will probably carry on in the near term.

If the European Union relaxed some of its loan terms, then Podemos might have a better shot at alleviating the suffering of Spaniards, said Mr. Becerra. But he noted that Podemos mostly ignores one of Spain’s biggest problems: private debt, which amounts to 200 percent of GDP.

Mr. Floria dismissed Mr. Becerra’s skepticism.

Last month, for the first time in his life, Mr. Floria participated in a political rally, joining hundreds of thousands of other Podemos supporters in Madrid calling for a sharp political shift in Spain.

“We must believe in utopia to be able to get as close as possible,” said Mr. Floria. “If we think that we already have the best to which we can aspire, then we will never get out of this situation.”

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