Spain: Just how far can the Angry Ones go?
23 May 2011
On 22 May, the Spanish electorate severely reprimanded the ruling Socialist party at the local and regional elections, while throughout the country demonstrations and sit-ins are taking place calling for more political democracy. But perhaps the movement isn't structured enough to last.
The spark struck by the platform of Real Democracy Now (DRY) has caught. And in such an unexpected and powerful way that few dare to gauge just how far the grassroots movement towards democratic regeneration, pursued by thousands of young people who have been camping out in various city squares around Spain for seven days now, will burn.
01. The causes: the economic crisis, but not just that
“One of my best students from a few years back was there at the Puerta del Sol on May 15. He’s working as an intern at a law firm for 300 euros a month,” says Professor Irene Martín, a political scientist from the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM). This case is hardly exceptional. Rather, it typifies the problem of Spanish youth, who know job insecurity all too well now that youth unemployment in Spain is hitting 43 percent.
“Their situation is the worst in all Europe, even worse than in Greece,” Martín stresses. Pointing to youth as the most important group of the 15-M Movement, she highlights two features: “They belong to organisations that are little known and they are people who were not particularly politicised.” In fact, they share a situation that “is, objectively, dire, and that will probably get worse.”
Although the economic conditions are crucial in explaining the phenomenon, they are not the sole explanation. For Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a professor of sociology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the despair at the crisis is evident: “The conditions have been clear since May 2010, when Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero made the debt crisis U-turn in economic policy and cut social spending.” The trigger, however, was “the perception shared by many people that the government is powerless to deal with the situation.”
While DRY’s platform is critical of the way citizens are viewed as “commodities for the politicians and bankers,” Sánchez-Cuenca’s believes the 15-M Movement is placing too much emphasis on the political class. In reality, he believes, they have their hands tied. “Governments can’t respond autonomously to the crisis,” he explains. “The responses are all dictated by the EU or by Germany.”
02. The goals: a better democracy
One criticism from the 15-M Movement is levelled squarely against the current democratic system. “They don’t represent us!” is one of the slogans heard most. Fernando Vallespín, professor of political science and former president of the CIS (Centre of Sociological Investigations), highlights the symbolic nature of the movement and stresses that “what matters most is that it has occurred because there are some deficiencies in the way democracy is working and in the relationship between politics and society.”
These faults are picked up in surveys. For more than a year, politicians and parties have been seen by citizens as the third problem of the country. The 15-M Movement feels that “the blank cheque that politicians used to get for four years after an election is over and done with,” states political scientist Juan Carlos Monedero, who adds that in the fall-out from the 22nd of May politicians will have to start delivering on “horizontal accountability” (state agencies inspecting other state agencies for abuses).
03 The example: Contagion from the south
The winds of revolution in the Arab world have blown across to Spain. There are some differences, though: “The newest approaches” may be “coming from the south,” says Monedero, but for political scientist Ignacio Criado at the Autonomous University of Madrid, the only point in common between the two movements is the use of social networks.
“These have let highly diverse groups and individuals get together,” he maintains. Irene Martin, a researcher of the political culture of youth, clearly distinguishes between the situations: “Here there is democracy, and in North Africa there isn’t.” She does, however, see links. “It's easier for us to come out and protest,” she observes, “when the rest of the world is in an even greater upheaval.”
04 The consequences: lessons for politicians
Some experts draw attention to the possible changes that the traditional parties will be forced to come to grips with. For Vallespín, there are two modifications that will come up in the near future as a result of the “democratic fatigue” that seems to be afoot. On the one hand, he points to a “reform of the electoral system by expanding the Congress to the 400 deputies allowed under the Constitution”. On the other, he expects an “opening up of the electoral lists” of the political parties.
The professor notes a danger in the current situation. “It can lead to populism on the left,” he says, recognising three parallels: the distrust of political elites, the appeal to the people, and the simplification or generalisation of the problems, the politicians and the parties. Pablo Oñate, professor of political science at the University of Valencia, is more sceptical. “It’s easy to mobilise people, but hard to keep them active.” Even so, he expects the traditional political formations not to turn a deaf ear: “They would do well to respond and open up the channels to citizen participation,” he believes.
05. The future: How to win changes?
In view of the patchwork of proposals from the different groups that have shaped this movement, experts doubt it will continue. According to Ismael Peña, professor of political science at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), “either a party is created, or it will be very difficult for the traditional institutions to change things.” For now, some of the DRY spokespersons are remaining cautious on the matter, insisting it is still early. Given the strength that the camp-ins and gatherings are achieving, Vallespín argues that the spirit of this movement will “return and still be there in the next general election.” This does not mean, he explains, “that there will be a continuous camp-in, but that there will be protests at the right times.”
Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer