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Are we Spaniards better off five years afterwards?

On the eve of the elections, an audit of the political and social outcomes of the square occupation and the rise of the Podemos party in Spain.

Antonio Álvarez-Benavides
25 June 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

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Pablo Iglesias at the closing rally in Madrid, June 24, 2016. Francisco Seco / Press Association. all rights reserved. Five years ago, after the square occupation started by the activist network “Juventud Sin Futuro” (“Youth Without Future”) on May 15, 2011, a small group of people decided to camp at the Puerta del Sol, the emblematic square of Madrid. They pointed to the lack of political alternatives before local elections and the first major social cuts of the economic crisis provoked by Zapatero’s Socialist government. Traditional politics didn’t meet the aspirations of an overwhelming part of the citizenship, thus the Indignants movement began.

The facts are well known: almost a month-long camp, demonstrations in more than 60 Spanish cities, more than a million people on the streets, more than 500 assemblies all over the world, and a series of parallel mobilizations, like the different “occupy” movements.

Another relevant consequence was the birth of new political parties, among which Podemos stands out. Two years from its creation, Podemos has achieved power in some municipalities and one Autonomous Community. Today Unidos Podemos aspires to win the national elections.

Are we better off than 5 years ago?

If we look at the main claims, not only have the goals not been achieved, but also in most cases the situation is worse. More youngsters have been marginalised, and precarious work has spread to almost all layers of society. Some of the demands collectively approved on May 20 at Puerta del Sol included: respect for the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, such as the right to housing, free and universal public health and education; measures regarding the banks and financial markets; rejection and denunciation of corruption; calling for the regulation and monitoring of work conditions, etc.

According to the Spanish Economically Active Population Survey, youth unemployment has increased to 46.5%, with peaks these years reaching above 53%, becoming the highest in all Europe. The percentage of unemployed people is basically the same, around 22% of the population; however, there are fewer jobs because of the reduction in an active population. Thus, according to data from the National Statistics Institute, more than two million people have left Spain in the last 5 years, more than five hundred thousand of which are Spanish, mainly university graduate youngsters. The Labour Reform designed and approved at the beginning of the Partido Popular (PP) government, led to an even more precarious labour market. Temporary jobs represent 92% of the employment contracts signed last year, with 80% of temporary contracts, the highest rate in Eurozone.

According to the OECD, the gap between rich and poor has considerably increased in Spain, at a record rate of 10% yearly during this period. UNICEF claims that child poverty has reached 30% in Spain, and extreme poverty 7%. Spanish Federation of Food Banks’ data show that 350,000 children in Spain have no access to milk. In total, that figure amounts to 1.7 million people with a more than worrying deficit of that staple.

While major banks recovered and obtained significant profits, in any case not even a cent was given back out of the 100,000 million Euros of public loans, but at the same time foreclosures have continued. Thus, according to data from the Bank of Spain, more than 200,000 families have lost their homes in the last 5 years (600,000 since 2007), and many of them are still paying their mortgage interest, because nonrecourse debt is not accepted.

Public university, public education and public health haven’t recovered pre-crisis levels; their budgets are still being cut (between 8% and 12% per year). The same is happening with scholarships and social provision, as university fees increase. It seems obvious that the small economic growth that Spain has experienced in the last year and a half (between 2% and 3%), only benefited the richest. But behind this slight growth, there are also other extremely worrying macroeconomic data, like the fact that since February Spanish public debt has exceeded 100% of GDP, almost double that of 5 years ago. We owe more money than we have.

Lastly, regarding liberties, the approval of the “Gag Law” has undermined freedom of speech and association with outrageous arrests that have been denounced by Amnesty International, but which also undermine the freedom of press, taking Spain to the 26th European position according to FreedomHouse. Moreover, a few days ago, Spain was fined for the sixth time by the Strasbourg Court because of failing to investigate cases of torture.

At the same time huge new cases of corruption have been uncovered every day. Two ministers have resigned for being related to cases of corruption. At a national and regional level, PP is being investigated for illegal funding, as well as every treasurer of the party since its foundation. The situation is not any better for the Socialist Party (PSOE). At the same time, up to 4 judges who investigate these awful cases have been set aside, retired or laid off. Even several members of the Royal House are under trial or have been investigated for appropriation of public funds and/or defrauding public finance. Nowadays there are more than 1,000 politicians being investigated with a couple of dozen in jail. A study by the University of Las Palmas shows that corruption costs Spain about 40,000 million Euros per year.

Old and new politics

It seems obvious in retrospect that traditional political parties, mainly those taking turns in government, PP and PSOE, didn’t want to channel any of the majority proposals advanced by the 15M demonstrations. The words tweeted by President of the Madrid Community, Esperanza Aguirre, sum up quite well what has happened: The governments that infuriate the citizens are removed from office by peacefully voting at the polls. #acampadasol #democraciarealya

Since traditional parties haven’t incorporated any of those measures into their platforms, new political initiatives arose. These political parties and initiatives have been as varied as the ideas, collectives and citizens that were present in 15M. The one that has most matured is Podemos, a nationwide party that in less than 2 years since its birth became the third political force in the December 20 national elections. Today, after its alliance with Izquierda Unida (a more left-wing party, United Left), Podemos is in a position to dispute second and even first place in the June 26 national elections.

The debate taking place around this development is extensive, intense, and, in many cases, biased. How much 15M there is in Podemos? Is Podemos the political transformation of 15M? What we can say is that Podemos is one of the consequences of 15M, and that a significant majority of 15M activists sympathize with or are members of Podemos.

Podemos is a nationwide political party with delegations in every Autonomous Community and the main towns, but alongside it, different kinds of regional association have arisen, such as Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid), Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), Marea Atlántica (Atlantic Tide) or Zaragoza en Común (Zaragoza in Common). A year ago, those groups, with Podemos and also through agreements with other left-wing parties and initiatives, gained entry into several autonomous parliaments, governing in coalition or even winning the mayor’s office of cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Cadiz, Zaragoza and A Coruña. These are the so-called “governments of change”.

Nationwide, Podemos obtained 69 seats after the December 20, 2015 elections, but PSOE decided to sign an agreement looking to the right, with another new party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), born in 2006 in the heart of the Catalonian far-right, mainly consisting of former members of PP and several other failed right or far-right-wing associations, supported and funded by the IBEX 35 business leaders and with an openly nationalist, conservative and liberal nature. All of this had taken place in a context in which PP won the elections but was unable to form a government, mainly due to the corruption that infects every structure of the party.

Therefore, at a national level, making an assessment of Podemos’ political influence to turn 15M demands into reality is a complicated business, because they haven’t yet had government responsibilities. Nonetheless, thanks to the highly decentralized Spanish system, which delegates many areas of government to regional and local authorities, it is possible to analyze facts through the local dimension.

Governments of change

The most significant measures of the “governments of change” are focused on housing. Firstly, evictions decreased thanks to new laws or proceedings, like Cadiz’s Anti-Eviction Proceedings, Madrid’s Office of Mortgage Mediation, Barcelona’s Housing Emergency, etc., that ensured alternative accommodation before evictions. Likewise, the sale of housing to vulture funds has stopped, altering town-development plans consecrated to luxury houses and commerce, and adding a high percentage of public housing. In one year, Barcelona gave 550 houses for social rent, Madrid approved a plan to build 3,000 public houses in the current term, Cadiz approved the Program of Fair Rent, that is expected to include 60 to 100 private houses each year, and A Coruña increased this year’s budget in 600,000 Euros for a recently developed Plan of Access to Decent Housing.

There are serious proposals for taking back services that were privatized under previous governments, with the goal of offering a better service but also of reducing costs between 20% and 50%. Public housing, power, water, cleaning or funeral parlors are the main services waiting to be taken over by the town again.

Regarding demands for more democracy, all these “governments of change” started participative processes affecting urban planning, town planning, and even the budgets. Madrid, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Cadiz and the Community of Valencia developed so-called “open governments”, web applications that allow voting on the main activities of the government.

They also launched campaigns against homophobia or islamophobia, supporting gender equality or Syrian refugees, or against EU neoliberal politics such as the TTIP Treaty.

Therefore, some progress has been made in the recovery of social rights. But cuts and regression have been so brutal, with the Spanish right’s absolute majority, that such measures are more a matter of repairing than transforming. This has generated criticism from social movements. However, there are also promising macroeconomic data about the management of these governments. According to the Ministry of the Treasury, the three cities that reduced their debt the most since the 2015 municipal elections were Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

There is huge opposition to these governments from the Spanish political and business class, clinging to the privileges they gained during Franco’s dictatorship and the transition to democracy. Examples abound. Just two months ago, when a PSOE-Podemos government was on the table, the general director of the police stated that “Podemos is a threat against our democracy”, something that was repeated, among others, by former presidents Aznar (PP) and González (PSOE). In just one year, 5 cases have been initiated against Podemos for illegal funding, based on fake reports and a highly dubious police action, to say the least, all of them rejected by the public prosecution and the Supreme Court.

Mainstream Spanish journals, provided with news by agencies that were born during Franco’s dictatorship and that survive partially thanks to government advertising, make headlines day after day with news that connect Podemos to Chavism, Iran or even ETA terrorism. 

All of this has had a series of consequences, both positive and negative, inside Podemos, on their ability to attract a sufficient majority of Spaniards, not only the youngest or those involved in progressive and transforming social and political movements. In this fashion, electoral programs and the most ambitious initiatives have been watered down, and the party has gone through a rapid process of institutionalization. The party’s internal democracy has been reduced, the leader’s personal profile has increased, and their aspirations for change have been limited. The positive outcome is that nowadays, about 6 million Spaniards have decided to vote for Unidos Podemos in the upcoming general elections.

Beyond politics, post-2010 social movements are still alive

Actually, much has been achieved, and in many senses. On one hand, we have new political parties and their multiple alliances, but new spaces and ways beyond institutions arose too, with a big transforming capacity in achieving specific goals. We have significant examples: 15M, “citizens’ tides” [1] and related movements, succeeded in stopping the privatization of Madrid’s public hospitals and set barriers against cuts in education. The Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH, in its Spanish acronym) succeeded in stopping more than 600 evictions and gave a platform to the people affected. The movement “15M pa Rato” succeeded in prosecuting the former minister and IMF director, Rodrigo Rato, for one of many offences for which he is now being investigated. Charges have been laid against several corrupt politicians and bankers. Other collectives proved Euribor’s manipulation, leading to several big banks being fined by Brussels. Audits have been made on the Spanish debt, as well as alternative citizen measures for energy-saving (with estimated savings of 500 million Euros).

Almost coinciding with the 15M anniversary, another group of “indignants” has decided to set up camp in the Republic Square of Paris. They’re young too. There are many similarities, but many differences as well. The first thing to say is that Spanish youth live in a much more precarious situation than the French. This national dimension is crucial to understanding the so-called post-2010 movements, among which we find the indignants, “occupy”, Nuit Debout, and, of course, the Arab Spring. And it is becoming more and more important.

The diagnosis of a global neoliberal context that reached it highest levels of domination during the economic global crisis is still current. There remains a brotherhood spirit with other social movements, like Nuit Debout, the Kurds, Yo Soy 123 (I am 123), in Mexico, Greece and the different “occupy” movements. International demands continue in support of Syrian refugees, Palestine or global issues like women’s rights, the LGBT community or even European Islam. However, these connections are neither as strong or as continuous as they were in 2011.

The spring runs wild

15M is now part of Madrid. It’s something festive, an awakening that, like the spring, set hearts and consciences in motion. It articulated a long-held impotence and rage in thousands of people who don’t comply, who imagine, and who live and build a different world and a new way of relating between citizens and with politics.

Nothing will be the same after 15M. But the weight of our recent strongly Catholic and Franquist past, bears down oppressively on any kind of social transformation. Unemployment is endemic, and proposed solutions are exclusively confined to neoliberalism, strongly intertwined with profound institutional corruption and the arrogance of politicians.

After June 26, the old politics, specially PSOE, must ask itself how to react to the citizens’ needs and new demands and where to look to give support, whether to the new or old right; or to the left, more and more plural but united for the first time since the 2nd Republic.

In their turn, the left and the new parties have to ask themselves how to step towards the institutions, how far are they willing to go away from the spirit that was the seed of their gestation.

Spanish citizenship is still impoverished, but it has more and more both symbolic and real resources, feels less victimized, and is less willing to accept injustice and arbitrariness. These are citizens who finally, from rock bottom, overcame fear. Citizens have learned a great lesson thanks to 15 M, and they will never forget the power of unity. Beyond the old and the new parties, 15M made a new conception of citizenship possible, and a new way of making and understanding politics.


[1] The Tides represent a series of mobilizations against social cuts in different public areas. The first one, born in Madrid in 2011, was the Green Tide in defence of public education. In 2012, the White Tide (against the privatization of Madrid’s public hospitals), and later came the Purple Tide (cuts in equality policies), the Burgundy Tide (against forced emigration), the Orange Tide (against cuts in social services), etc. Since 2013, all of them are grouped under the umbrella, “Citizens’ Tide” (Marea Ciudadana).

How to cite:
Álvarez-Benavides A.(2016)Are we Spaniards better off five years afterwards?, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,25 June. https://opendemocracy.net/antonio-lvarez-benavides/are-we-spaniards-better-off-five-years-afterwards

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