Angus Berwick - When Alberto Rodriguez of Podemos turned up for the new Spanish parliament’s first session in the grand chamber in Madrid, his dreadlocks, jeans and scruffy jumper drew a look of disapproval from the staid prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.

Such scenes are likely to become commonplace with the end of two-party domination of Spanish politics and a new wave of delegates taking their seats alongside the well-groomed ranks of the old guard. It is more than just a style issue, however.

The national election on Dec. 20 left Rajoy’s ruling People’s Party (PP) without a majority and opened parliament’s doors to two new parties, the anti-austerity Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos.

Rodriguez, 34, and his cohorts want to reform a political class tainted by its handling of Spain’s economic crisis and corruption scandals that have reached as high as Rajoy himself.

“Rajoy has not understood that we are in a new political era in which parliament is not the private reserve of the few,” Rodriguez, a former oil refinery worker, told reporters when he made his parliamentary debut last week.

Although the 218 first-time delegates in the 350-seat lower house mark only a slight increase from five years ago when Rajoy won a comfortable majority, they come from diverse backgrounds - from actresses and poets to restaurant-owners and winemakers.

Party leaders are now wrangling over forming a government, with the opposition Socialist’s leader, Pedro Sanchez, proposing a leftist coalition and Rajoy a “grand coalition” of centre-right and centre-left parties.


Podemos says the fuss kicked up by the traditional parties over Rodriguez and his dreadlocks was to distract people from the problems at hand. Despite a rebound in the economy, Spain still has Europe’s second-highest youth unemployment rate.

“It is a symptom of how the political class want to prevent change,” said Sofia Castanon, a well-known poet and Podemos delegate for Asturias, a mountainous region on Spain’s northern coast.

Parliament had lost the trust of Spaniards, Castanon told Reuters, and Podemos would restore it by eliminating the privileges politicians had enjoyed, such as official cars, generous tax allowances and special pension schemes.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has restricted his lawmakers’ salaries to three times the minimum wage of 757 euros ($824) a month, a change Castanon, 32, said showed how the party was in touch with Spain’s economic reality.

Political analysts said that how far the new parliament could go in changing the course of Spanish politics remains to be seen, especially if the next government is a fragile coalition of many parties that could struggle to agree on a strong reform agenda.

Teleo Intelligence analyst Antonio Barroso said there was a risk that Podemos, whose delegates’ average age is 11 years below that of the PP, would stick to dramatic and symbolic messages without tackling more complex budgetary issues.

Iglesias, for instance, cradled his party deputy’s baby during last week’s first parliamentary session and vowed, with a clenched fist raised high, to change the constitution to create a more federal Spain.

“There is a lot of potential for the parliament to become a political circus,” Barroso said. “But I think by bringing in fresh blood you will actually increase the quality of the debate.”


Although Podemos stole the headlines with its break from the norm, delegates from Ciudadanos, whose leader Albert Rivera has called for a more transparent and meritocratic government, say they have similar plans to reform parliament despite their more conventional style.

Many from Ciudadanos spent their working lives prior to politics in sectors such as law, finance and higher education, and they are now eager to correct what they see as the governement’s inadequacies.

Patricia Reyes, a lawyer who defended customers of Spanish banks such as Bankia, said one of her priorities is to revoke the government’s power to pardon officials charged with corruption.

Hundreds of politicians across Spain are under investigation for embezzling public funds, including the PP’s ex-treasurer. A former justice minister said two years ago more than 17,500 official positions had special protection before the law.

“I went into politics because I was outraged by the privileges politicians had,” Reyes, 42, told Reuters in her new parliament office. “There are politicians that have spent their whole lives here, they live completely apart from reality.”

Another Ciudadanos delegate, Marta Martin, investigated gender and labour disputes for 18 years as a university professor in Alicante. Within a week of arriving in parliament she has filed a proposal to extend Spain’s maternity and paternity leave. “I couldn’t just keep complaining from my couch at home,” Martin, 43, said.


New reformist faces are not just found in the two upstart parties. Miguel Angel Viso followed his parents and grandparents in working in the wine industry in the rainy northwestern region of Galicia before becoming PP delegate for the city of Ourense. “The PP saw the need to freshen up its ranks,” Viso, 45, said. “The big advantage I have is my connection with local people and my skills as a manager.”

Although he now spends three days a week in the capital, he said the rest of his time he will be back at his vineyard outside Ourense to listen to his fellow winemakers and farmers. “I don’t want to be too far from home, I want to be close to the people that voted for me.”–Reuters