The first sign I saw of what could be a turning point in Spanish history, seven minutes after the news was announced by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, was a picture of a baby elephant in a fountain. Aged 76, Spain's King Juan Carlos I is to abdicate the throne – the bathetic end to an increasingly unpopular reign, made more notorious during Spain's grim austerity years by photos of him going elephant shooting in Botswana.
"It is now the time to pass on to a younger generation," Juan Carlos announced yesterday, apparently referring to his son, Prince Felipe of Asturias, rather than the elephant – or the 54% of Spanish 16-24 year olds who are currently unemployed.
As the character studies of the incoming King Felipe are compiled, the still-breathing elephant in the room is the potential unravelling of Spain's entire political settlement. For good or (too often) for ill, it was a truth borne out countless times in Spain's tragic twentieth century that a crisis is more often than not also a pretty good opportunity.
So it was that almost immediately yesterday morning – within half an hour of the news breaking – demonstrations were announced for 8pm in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona. Within the hour, thousands were using social media to call for a referendum, and alongside the inundated #ReferendumYA hashtag was #AporlaTercera – for the Third, as in, the Third Republic. By 8pm last night, tens of thousands were on the streets of 100 Spanish cities – and London, and Edinburgh – calling for the same.
Photo: Fran Lorente (Twitter)
Why Third? Because the Spanish Second Republic was the democratic one destroyed by Franco’s military coup, its defenders tortured and murdered for decades after the civil war ended in 1939. At every demo I've been to in Spain since the crisis began, there have always been an astonishing number of Second Republic flags: the red, yellow and purple tricolour known as the bandera republica. You can even get a Spanish football shirt in the colours. It was once a symbol of antifascism, and since 2008 has been raised up once again, but this time, against austerity, against capitalism in general, against a right-wing government refusing to continue excavating Franco's mass graves – and against an entire political settlement mired in corruption and complacent self-interest.
Three generations of the 2nd Republic. Demo against PP labour reform law, 11 March 2012. Photo: Dan Hancox.
Millions of indignados took to the streets and squares in May and June 2011, calling for a 'Spanish Revolution', emerging seemingly from nowhere, private dissent and local organisation exploding into mass action. The same happened during the country's massive anti-Iraq war protests, and more recently in the remarkable upsurge in support for Catalan independence (look at what happens to this graph midway through 2012). How, asked English friends on Twitter yesterday, do the Spanish mobilise for protests so quickly?
The answer is that the political momentum is always there, latent, hidden in the gaps. Beyond the hated bureaucratic monoliths of Spain's two main parties, in the interstices of the political mainstream, lies the fizzing possibility of a true popular resistance, and sovereignty. The speed of movement yesterday – and we will see much more in the coming weeks – comes from the tireless groundwork done through local neighbourhood chapters of 15M (the indignados), the PAH (anti-evictions movement), and more recently Podemos, the indignados' first concerted attempt to convert mass horizontalist egalitarianism into the form of a political party, apart from the Catalan CUP. Podemos were formed only 3 months before the European elections, but stunned the Spanish establishment by winning over a million votes and 5 seats, after mass primaries in which 33,000 people voted.
It is this same spirit which has brought on calls for a referendum on the monarchy – and points to why Spanish Republicanism is not just about an individual family, or even an institution – but popular sovereignty. “Despite being against the monarchy, I am more against our leaders”, one young woman at the Madrid Republican demo told El País last night. It is true that Juan Carlos I is credited even by many on the Spanish left for helping shepherd the country to democracy after Franco died in 1975; he helped steer Spain away from an autocratic or military succession – 'Francoism without Franco' – in the late 1970s. But written out of this week's blithe histories is the fact the Spanish 70s were a time of mass popular protest and increasingly brave strike action (beginning even before Franco's death). In this sense, genuflecting to a royal because he had the decency – or perhaps, just the sense of realpolitik – to bow to the will of the people, seems to miss the point of the will of the people.
In any case, the contemporary Spanish royal family – with their corruption scandals, decadence, lack of accountability and manifest indifference to the plight of the Spanish people – look no different to Spain's bankers or political classes. In November 2012, the government-run Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) conducted their monthly 'CIS barometer' poll, and added a special question about the state of the nation. 67.5% of Spaniards said they were "little" or "not at all" satisfied with the way democracy works in Spain – the rendering of the indignados' message in plain numbers. ‘We are’, announced one especially profound 15M slogan, ‘neither right nor left: we are coming from the bottom and we’re going for the top.’
The simple fact of the matter is faith in all of Spain's elites, and the economic misery they perpetuate, are beyond repair. In February 2014's CIS barometer poll, 87% rated the country's economic situation as 'bad' or 'very bad'; while 82% rated the country's political situation as 'bad' or 'very bad'. Spain's governing party, the PP, and opposition PSOE, both oppose a referendum on the monarchy. But they would, wouldn't they? When your entire political ecology is a house of cards, you don't go waving your arms about.