Spain's rock 'n' roll election campaign

Marianne Barriraux
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Podemos leader and election candidate Pablo Iglesias in Palma de Mallorca on December 8, 2015

Podemos leader and election candidate Pablo Iglesias in Palma de Mallorca on December 8, 2015 (AFP Photo/)

Madrid (AFP) - The arrival of new parties with young, connected leaders has thrown Spain's election campaign into rock 'n' roll mode as voters better used to staid politics discover their candidates singing on TV, posing in glossies or commenting live football.

Anti-austerity party Podemos and centrist grouping Ciudadanos burst onto the scene on the back of a devastating crisis that left many citizens fed up with mainstream politics, and polls indicate they will attract a huge number of votes in December 20 general elections.

At home both on chat shows and social networks, their 30-something leaders are a constant presence in Spanish households, forcing even the country's stern, distant prime minister to turn a new leaf and embrace US-style pop politics.

"It's exhibitionism," complains Iker Merodio, founder of political communication firm Soluciones Comunicativas.

"This campaign is more televised (than previous ones), but not necessarily for the best, because what we see doesn't necessarily mean a valuable political point will be announced."

- Posing naked -

And so it was that Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed, 37-year-old Podemos leader, took out his guitar and strung a tune dedicated to "all those women who are with idiots and should leave them" on a popular talk show.

Or that Albert Rivera, the telegenic, 36-year-old head of Ciudadanos, posed for Glamour magazine in a black leather jacket, his motorcycle helmet in hand.

But that was nothing compared to how Rivera brought his party to the fore in 2006, by posing naked on an election poster -- "a marketing campaign plain and simple to enter a political system that... was impenetrable," he later wrote in a book.

"These are leaders... who are way more accustomed to pop politics, or appearing in the media, particularly television," says Xavier Peytibi, a political communication consultant.

None of it "really has much to do with politics but it is useful to get close to a large majority of the population, which became very de-politicised after the economic crisis."

And this "exhibitionism" -- as well as the parties' promise of change -- have had their effect, with polls predicting that Ciudadanos will give the long-established ruling Popular party (PP) and PSOE (Socialists) a run for their money at the elections, with Podemos not far behind.

Even the conservative PP has had to adapt.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, for instance, was seen emulating Michelle Obama on a chat show, performing a choreographed dance to Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk."

But perhaps most surprising of all, Mariano Rajoy himself, the 60-year-old prime minister who is running for re-election, has suddenly embraced television.

The man who once conducted press briefings via a plasma screen has sat down on the couch of TV host Bertin Osborne for a heart-to-heart -- divulging such tidbits as the time he bumped into Barack Obama in a South African gym -- and provided football commentary live on radio.

According to the conservative ABC daily, which is close to the PP, Rajoy only gave two television interviews in the two years after he came to power in 2011.

Now, he is accumulating them, although he was heavily criticised for refusing to appear in a debate with Iglesias, Rivera and Pedro Sanchez, the 43-year-old PSOE leader nicknamed "El Guapo" -- or "Handsome."

- Changing political landscape -

But more than just a show, the emergence of the new parties has fundamentally upset politics in Spain.

Podemos emerged two years ago riding a wave of discontent over economic inequalities, budget cuts and corruption scandals, particularly among the country's 7.5 million under-35 voters.

Then Ciudadanos, which was founded in 2006, truly started making a mark this year -- carried by a similar swell of disillusion.

For Merodio, these new leaders "make it possible for younger people to feel some affinity with what politicians say."

Even their use of social networks -- interacting directly with netizens, posting videos, photos -- has been emulated by the traditional parties.

"It's about ... demonstrating that citizens are being listened to, creating the perception of open politics, freed of the old structures of traditional parties," says Peytibi.

The end result is that from a bi-party system consisting of the PP and Socialists, Spain now has to contend with four competing groupings of considerable influence, says Ana Salazar, head of research and strategy at consultants Red Lines.

"Now we have the left and the right, and the old versus the new."