Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed, 36-year-old leader of anti-austerity party Podemos, is very busy with the Catalan election campaign.
For over a week, he has been drumming up support for Lluís Rabell, the candidate for Catalunya Sí que es Pot (Catalonia Yes We Can), a left-wing coalition whose members include Podemos. This group is selling itself as an alternative to the secessionist Junts pel Sí (Together for yes) bloc, whose members include regional premier Artur Mas.
In this interview with EL PAÍS, the Podemos secretary general talked about the Catalan independence challenge, international politics and his party’s main goal: the general election coming up at the end of the year.
Question. Podemos and Catalunya Sí que es Pot have pledged to hold a “clear and Catalan” referendum on independence. But if Artur Mas himself was unable to hold one, how are you proposing to do so?
Answer. We don’t want Catalonia to break away from Spain, but we feel that Catalonia has the right to decide, and that the legal relationship between Catalonia and Spain should be decided by the Catalans. So what’s worrying Mas? He knows that if we win, very likely a majority of Catalans would not want to break away. The situation leading to a huge increase in the number of Catalans who wish to secede has to do with the Popular Party (PP). We’re saying that it’s perfectly understandable for a majority of Catalans to want to ditch [Spanish Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy, but we’re saying ‘stay with us and let’s all kick out Rajoy together.’
Q. What’s causing Catalunya Sí es que Pot’s declining support in opinion polls? Is it the message, or not enough familiarity with the candidate, Rabell?
A. It is very important to analyze the political situation in Catalonia with one’s feet firmly grounded in reality, and not in the bubbles that may have been created by the surveys. This is a very difficult context, filled with complex corners. I will never get tired of saying it: Catalonia is a different country – it’s not just a nation unto itself; in political terms the scenario is not applicable or comparable to the rest of the [Spanish] State.
Q. Some people were offended by your references to some Catalans as descendants of people from Extremadura and Andalusia... Did nobody tell you that this message would cause trouble?
A. If I offended anybody, I apologize. But I notice that nobody seems to remember statements made by Marta Ferrusola [wife of longtime Catalan premier Jordi Pujol], who said it bothered her that a Catalan premier could have the Spanish-sounding name of José Montilla [in office between 2006 and 2010]. In Catalonia, as elsewhere, people’s origins are very diverse, and voters’ origins are diverse, too. But you cannot deny that there are neighborhoods in Catalonia where life expectancy is 10 years lower than in other neighborhoods. You cannot deny that there is a working-class Catalonia that is suffering the effects of the cuts, and that has nothing in common with gentlemen like Mr Mas.
Q. You are a political scientist and now you are hoping to govern a country. Have you envisioned the difficulties of deciding between what’s ideal and what is possible?
A. When you want your ideas to stand a chance of being put into practice, you have to accept the playing field. These last few months, two options have clearly stood out. Some do not wish to govern, and would rather remain in a pure state in the opposition. I respect that. But we want to govern, because that’s the only thing that helps change people’s lives. And if you want to be prime minister you have to understand that, just maybe, you will have to adopt a tougher attitude and become pragmatic.
Q. How much wiggle room does the government have against the EU or other external factors such as the Chinese economy or the price of oil?
A. The percentage is small. But I wouldn’t fall back on cynical reason, because if we take that argument to the very end, we would eliminate democracy and let bankers decide who sits in government. The percentage is small, but governments still have notable leeway for intervention.
Q. How have the lives of Greek citizens improved since January?
A. To begin with, home evictions have ended, which is no small thing. The Greeks have a public television station once again. Syriza has managed to reduce the three-percent surplus it was being forced into to just 0.5 percent, which means a lot more resources for social policies.
Q. There is a negative public perception of governments and people with whom Podemos has identified: Syriza, Venezuela’s chavista regime and also [Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn in the United Kingdom.
A. The problem with that way of thinking is that, taken to its final consequences, we could ask for the Labour Party not to hold primaries because people are making a mistake.
Q. And what about Venezuela?
A. We have been highly critical of things we view as mistakes on the part of the Venezuelan government, highly critical.
Q. Two years ago you said you envied Venezuela.
A. I think some things were well done. The social policies implemented by the Venezuelan government for a while achieved goals that even the opposition has acknowledged. Even in majority opposition sectors you hear things like “Chávez did many good things and perhaps his successor is not up to the task.” Evidently, there are bad things too. Someone can put a gun against your head to take your cellphone. Just like in Colombia.
Q. Do you identify more with Barack Obama or with Vladimir Putin?
A. I have more in common with Obama than with Putin. When it comes to cultural tastes, we like the same TV series, especially The Wire and also House of Cards. Putin is a former KGB agent who had to work as a taxi driver. That resentful attitude of a Russian nationalist with little respect for human rights and democratic procedures means he has little in common with us. I would have my differences with Obama, but many more with Putin.
Q. If a party like Podemos ever emerged in Russia, its leaders would end up in prison.
A. I agree. In Russia we would end up in prison, but perhaps in the United States we would be delivered a few blows as well.
English version by Susana Urra.