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Here’s what you need to know about Podemos and that luxury villa

Accusations of hypocrisy have rained down on the pair heading Spain's far-left Podemos party for buying a 600,000-euro luxury home with a swimming pool after previously condemning such extravagance.

Here's what you need to know about Podemos and that luxury villa
Iglesias and Montero are expecting twins in the autumn. Photo: AFP

The purchase caused unease among the rank-and-file of the party which was formed in 2014 to represent “the people” against “la casta” — its term for Spain's political and business elites.

And there are fears it could cost the party at the ballot box.   

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In response, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and his partner Irene Montero, the party's parliamentary spokeswoman, have called a grassroots vote over their leadership.

The party's nearly 500,000 members have until Sunday to vote on whether the couple should stay on, with the results due out on Monday.   

Iglesias said Wednesday that a low turnout “would be an absolute failure and force us to resign”.

“I would like it if there were more than 120,000 participants in the vote, that would be spectacular,” he told news radio Cadena Ser.   

The couple have confirmed taking out a 30-year, 540,000-euro ($635,000) mortgage for the property in Galapagar near Madrid after the press revealed the purchase earlier this month.


 An image of the property from the estate agent's brochure revealing that it has a private swimming pool in landscaped gardens

'Must we slum it?'

They justified the purchase by saying they wanted to have “a bit of intimacy” to raise the twins they are expecting after being hounded by the paparazzi.

“We understand that many Spanish families, even with two salaries, can't afford a mortgage like this. That's why we think it's so important to defend dignified salaries for everyone,” the couple said on Facebook last week.   

They received the support of far-left European leaders such as Greece's former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and France's Jean-Luc Melenchon. 

 Varoufakis, who was criticised himself after posing dining in style on the roof terrace of his Athens apartment for photos in the glossy French magazine Paris Match, told AFP it was “quaint if not ridiculous” to think that those who fight against inequality “must live in slums”.

Damages credibility

But Iglesias' past statements against politicians who “live in villas” and “do not know how much a coffee costs” have come back to haunt him.   

Critics recall that in 2012 he criticised conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's then economy minister Luis de Guindos for buying a luxury home.   

“Would you hand over the nation's economic policy to someone who spends 600,000 euros on a luxury penthouse?” Iglesias wrote.   

The couple say their purchase is different because they bought their house to live in, not to “speculate” on, like de Guindos.   

Political scientist Cristina Monge, an expert on the “Indignados” movement against economic inequality that took crisis-hit Spain by storm in 2011, giving rise to Podemos, said the affair would “mortgage” the party “in terms of credibility and loss of support”.

“Podemos tells its voters: 'We are going to represent you. We are like you, we are from workers' neighbourhoods, we wear jeans, we ride the metro',” she told AFP.

'Hurts electoral potential'

The furore risks tainting the party's image a year before municipal, regional and European parliament elections.   

The couple have also come under fire for calling the leadership vote.   

“It bothers me,” said Daniel Ripa, the party's secretary general in the northern region of Asturias, while Lorena Ruiz-Huerta, one of its Madrid leaders, said calling the vote was “a mistake”.

Podemos has become one of Spain's four main political parties after winning around a fifth of the vote in the 2016 general election.   

In opinion polls, it now matches and sometimes overtakes Spain's traditional leftwing party, the Socialists (PSOE).   

The scandal “mainly hurts Pablo Iglesias' image and thus it hurts the electoral potential of the party,” said Antonio Barroso, a political-risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.

But Podemos appears to have little other alternative than Iglesias and Montero.

“If you vote no, you will plunge the party into an enormous crisis a year from elections,” Monge said.

INCOME

Spain’s basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end

Three months after Spain rushed to launch a minimum basic income scheme to fight a spike in poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the programme is at a dead-end because of an avalanche of applications.

Spain's basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end
Red Cross volunteers bring food packages to elderly and low income people. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP
The measure was a pledge made by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftwing coalition government, which took office in January, bringing together his Socialist party with far-left Podemos as the junior partner.
   
The scheme — approved in late May — aims to guarantee an income of 462 euros ($546) per month for an adult living alone, while for families, there would be an additional 139 euros per person, whether adult or child, up to a monthly maximum of 1,015 euros per home. It is expected to cost state coffers three billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year.
   
The government decided to bring forward the launch of the programme because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Spain hard and devastated its economy, causing queues at food banks to swell.
   
Of the 750,000 applications which were filed since June 15 when the government started accepting requests, 143,000 — or 19 percent — have been analysed and 80,000 were approved, according to a social security statement issued on August 20.
 
 
'Months of waiting'
 
But Spain main civil servant's union, CSIF, paints a darker picture. “Nearly 99 percent of requests have not been processed,” a union spokesman, Jose Manuel Molina, told AFP.
   
The social security ministry has only really analysed 6,000 applications while 74,000 households that already receive financial aid were awarded the basic income automatically, he added.
   
For hundreds of thousands of other households, the wait is stressful. Marta Sanchez, a 42-year-old mother of two from the southern city of Seville, said she applied for the scheme on June 26 but has heard nothing since.
   
“That is two months of waiting already, when in theory this was a measure that was taken so no one ends up in the streets,” she added.
   
Sanchez lost her call centre job during Spain's virus lockdown while her husband lost his job as a driver. The couple has had to turn to the Red Cross for the first time for food.
   
“Thank God my mother and sister pay our water and electricity bills,” she said, adding their landlord, a relative, has turned a blind eye to the unpaid rent.
 
 
'Rushed everything'
 
A spokeswoman for the ministry acknowledged that the rhythm “was perhaps a bit slower than expected” but she said the government was working to “automate many procedures” so processing times should become faster from now on.
   
“The launch of a benefit is always difficult … and this situation is not an exception,” she added.
   
But Molina said this was a new situation, that was made worse by years of budget cuts to the public service which has lost 25 percent of its staff over the past decade.
   
“The problem is that they rushed everything, did it without training and a huge lack of staff,” he added.
   
The social security branch charged with the basic income scheme has only 1,500 civil servants, who also process most pension applications, Molina said.
   
These officials are facing an “avalanche” of requests, which already match the number of pension requests received in an entire year, he added.
   
About 500 temporary workers have been recruited as reinforcements but their assistance is limited because they do not have the status of civil servant, so they cannot officially approve requests for financial aid.
   
Demand is expected to increase. The government has said the measure was expected to benefit some 850,000 homes, affecting a total of 2.3 million people — 30 percent of whom were minors.
   
When the scheme was launched the government said all it would take is a simple online form, but this is a problem for many low-income families without computers and internet access, especially since the waiting time for an in-person meeting to apply is about two months, according to the CSIF union
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