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Digital innovation propels political success story in Spain

Spain's anti-austerity party Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias gestures as he delivers a speech during a meeting held for the upcoming elections in Andalusia, in Malaga on March 14, 2015.

JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

A start-up political party has launched itself into contention for power in Spain as it pioneers the use of digital participatory tools.

Podemos – whose name means "We Can" – has used online tools to attract and sustain followers, fund rallies and operations, and involve Spaniards in everything from developing party policies to selecting candidates.

"Podemos is top in the world in [digital] political innovation," says Yago Bermejo Abati, a member of Podemos's Participation Team in Madrid.

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Now, the party has a chance at forming government in this super election year in Spain – a national election before Dec. 31, and autonomous community (similar to provincial) and municipal elections on May 24.

Podemos has led in national polls since November, ahead of the Social Democrats, the Partido Popular, which holds a majority in Spain's parliament, and Ciudadanos, another surging, new national party.

But the first test for Podemos will be a vote in Andalusia on Sunday.

"The PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers' Party], where [Podemos] gets most of their votes from, has a very strong candidate in Andalusia," says Cristina Flesher Fominaya, a scholar on social movements and globalization at the University of Aberdeen.

It could be a "significant election because the PSOE has been doing well in Andalusia, unlike in some other regions," she says.

Podemos burst onto Spain's national stage last May when, barely 100 days old, it won five seats in European parliamentary elections.

The party's membership has grown to 353,000 in its 14 months of existence.

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It has vowed to end the endemic corruption and unpopular austerity measures of the established parties, and support the one in four unemployed Spaniards. Greece elected a similar anti-austerity party, Syriza, in January.

The rise of Podemos coincided with the wild popularity of its soft-spoken leader Pablo Iglesias, 36, a pony-tailed former professor and TV political analyst, who pits his leftist party against "la casta," or the ruling class of political and business elites.

Following European elections, Mr. Iglesias explained Podemos's direct and open democratic nature to the Guardian: "It's citizens doing politics. If the citizens don't get involved in politics, others will. And that opens the door to them robbing you of democracy, your rights, and your wallet."

Spanish media giant El Pais called Mr. Iglesias – who has 875,000 Twitter followers – the most influential political figure on social media in Europe.

But, it's not just Mr. Iglesias's charisma.

The use of social media has been a major success for Podemos, according to Miguel Arana Catania, co-founder of Laboratorio Democratico, the organization leading Podemos's digital strategy.

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Podemos's social currency reaches close to one million Facebook fans and 557,000 Twitter followers. To put that in perspective, the four largest federal parties in Canada have a combined total of 270,000 Facebook likes and 370,000 Twitter followers.

The party's social-media prowess was born out of its young and tech-savvy forerunners, active in the country's 2011 Indignados social movement, according to Mr. Arana Catania.

Social media gave the Indignados and Podemos spaces online to have conversations with people and to present social conditions more accurately than traditional media, he says.

"We changed … history. … What was happening for common people in the country was made more clear," he says. "People trust [social] media."

A link to an article posted on Podemos's Facebook page this week about an anti-corruption investigation into the awarding of a contract to a consultancy firm founded by Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro elicited a public outcry, with 5,000 people sharing the post with their social network.

"And why are we are resigned to wait for the general elections to drive [him out]? Make calls in all cities to demand [his] resignation and early elections, it's sure to be massive if summoned by Podemos," said a top-voted comment on the post.

There is compatibility between the idea of using digital tools and the party's democratic political imaginary, according to Prof. Flesher Fominaya.

"Offering participatory tools for its grassroots … is very in sync with the narrative of being a participatory movement," she says.

The core of its dialogue with citizens is through a space called "Plaza Podemos" on Reddit, a popular social networking and news website.

There are question-and-answer sessions with party leaders, virtual plebiscites and open discussion boards for issues, and posting news and videos.

"[It's] a wonderful place for debate – very open, a lot of people can join … for discussion," says Mr. Arana Catania.

At last October's National Citizen Assembly, Podemos used Reddit to debate the party's founding ethical, political and organizational principles – the first time a political party has used Reddit like this.

Podemos uses another tool called Loomio, a decision-making platform allowing groups to discuss issues collaboratively and organize themselves. Podemos's Circles, the party's local assembly groups, generate more than half of global use of the tool, which was born out of New Zealand's Occupy Movement.

It's "user-friendly and very well designed … to improve the debates and arrive to a better consensus," says Mr. Arana Catania.

Seeking to remain independent from banks, the party uses online crowd-funding campaigns to finance its events and operations.

The most recent crowd-funding ventures were for a 100,000-strong party rally in Madrid on Jan. 31 and for the campaign in Andalusia.

The party is also experimenting with other open-source digital tools, including a mass simultaneous polling app, a secure voting platform, and a new citizens' initiative platform.

While digital tools promise more democratic processes, they have limitations.

According to Mr. Arana Catania, today's tools do not yet match the complexity of political processes.

At Podemos's Assembly, citizens proposed 500 documents on party principles and structures.

But it was impossible to sift out strong proposals from different documents and combine those into one collaborative document, says Mr. Arana Catania. Mr. Iglesias's unchanged documents were approved because he is the most popular.

"The tools we are using now are basic," he says. "Of course it was really open … but it was not done with tools that were able to really solve the complexity problem we faced."

In addition, more research is needed on user experience, says Prof. Flesher Fominaya.

"They are confusing for a lot of people," she says. "You … have to research … people's experience in using the tools."

There is also the question of how participatory the party really is, Prof. Flesher Fominaya says.

"The structures … [are] way more participatory than other parties. But … it still has a lot of control from the top," she says, pointing out the candidate lists endorsed by the party overwhelmingly get chosen.

Despite these critiques, digital citizen politics may springboard Podemos into office.

Now, the party is focused on its campaign in Spain. But the intention is not to stop there.

"We hope these … new tools will be used in other countries and help transform [their] protest movements and … institutionalize [them]," says Mr. Bermejo Abati.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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