May and Spain's Bermuda Triangle

Real Democracy Now, if it had done nothing else, has rescued a supine Spanish electorate from the stultifying boredom of the recent election period. However, people still turned out to vote. So what’s new?

Pere Vilanova
3 June 2011

In the (highly unlikely) instance of a professional politician - that’s to say, a member of the ‘political class’ - asking my opinion on events taking place in dozens of cities across this country, and faced with the avalanche of analysis being made in our press - the very volume of which makes it hard to keep up with - I’d limit myself to a few impressions or comments. I hardly need say that I offer them from the rather antiquated point of view of the spectateur engagé - the involved observer, neither neutral nor impartial. 

This movement ‘goes down well’, by which I mean it garners a lot of sympathy in all sectors of society. It’s called ‘15 M’, the ‘Spanish Revolution’ (outside Spain; no Spaniard in their right mind would call it that!), or DRY (Democracia Real Ya!, ‘Real Democracy Now’), and is looked on with indulgence. To start with what it isn’t: it isn’t a movement of young people, or at least not just young people. We all know of its objective limitations, and we shouldn’t deny them; but what it has done is come just in time, because of two immediate effects.

On the one hand, in blocking off and occupying the streets just one week before election day, it transformed an utterly dull, routine, predictable, numb campaign. Among the dullest of all time. And transforming it had a direct impact: the campaigning politicians suddenly discovered that not only could they not ignore the movement, they also had to be extremely careful - all of them, right and left - when pronouncing on it. In other words, the movement tore up the script of the boring film we’ve all been watching. Not that it introduced much suspense with regard to the predictable result of the election, but it did move the ground beneath the candidates’ feet. That’s no small thing for the times that we live in. The second beneficial effect was that it made an anaesthetised media and its long-suffering journalists, strait-jacketed by an abusive electoral norm, sit up and pay close attention to how the candidates found themselves obliged - much to their regret - to comment on a movement that had taken them as much by surprise as Tahrir Square did Mubarak. It’s our duty to denounce these electoral regulations which, with the limitations and criteria that the media have to follow when informing us about the parties, reduces almost to zero the observers’ professional autonomy. So many minutes and so many seconds per party, according to their strict institutional representation, not just on the platform of obligatory electoral propaganda (so far, nothing new about that), but also... on the news itself! You don’t have to be British to be scandalised by such an abusive practice instigated by ... the political parties!

On the plus side, there has been imagination by the ton; and that takes this author back, at least forty years, with slogans that will be difficult to translate into any language, not least English, but it’s worth a go. One is, ‘If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep’; another, ‘Jobless: move on!’; and indeed, ‘Rebels without a casa’*, etc etc. And my favourite, by the way: ‘We’re not on Facebook, we’re on the streets!’ It’s not much, of course, and I can already hear the critiques from here, but you have to have read the parties’ electoral propaganda that comes through your postbox, or is emblazoned across the banners at ‘their’ rallies… 

I’d also mention a very stringent self-regulation of the public space: cleanliness, organisation, tolerance, etc. To be sure, protest movements in the past have often spent more time discussing how to debate and vote on how to vote on how to make decisions than on putting together concrete proposals that mean not just the jump ‘from protest to proposal’, but proposals that the political establishment cannot avoid including in the pubic agenda. And commenting on them.

So what will all this amount to? It seems clear that the global economic crisis is the ‘ideal’ generic context for so much unrest, but the thing that makes it truly universal and that unifies the collective discontent isn’t just the crisis: it’s the chasm between ‘them’ (the political parties, all of them) and ‘us’ (ordinary people in all their heterogeneousness). The general perception is that the members of the ‘political caste’ have become managers of a sort of systemic fatalism, which they also live off, and they live well. This is true more than anywhere in a country with five million unemployed, and 43% of its youth out of work - the most drastic figures in the whole of Europe. We should emphasise this fact: after three and a half years of crisis, unemployment is increasing, but it is increasing because the continual destruction of job positions is continuing unchecked.

And the social perception that ‘all politicians are equal’, though untrue, is an unstoppable tsunami. All means all - but of the two larger and more powerful parties, much more is going to be required. If they (their leaders) want to be listened to and accepted, they might for example adopt certain compromises. First: reinstating the distinction between judicial responsibility and political responsibility, all the while upholding the presumption of innocence of a person being charged, but not looking to the ballot boxes for an answer that should be found in a court of law. Political corruption in Spain has reached levels that can compete with berlusconismo; and it doesn’t seem logical that, in regions or municipalities with several candidates who have criminal charges against them, this doesn’t just not cost them any votes, it actually increases their advantage over their opponents. We don’t know if being corrupt is ‘cool’, but we do know that it doesn’t cost a single vote. So the parties (or some of them) might commit to a motion that would block candidates with charges against them from elections. It may sound like a small change, but right now in Spain it’s the size of Mount Everest.

Second: committing to the necessary legislative reforms (and parliament is the sovereign legislator for this) for the forfeiting of a mortgage to mean that the lender ends up with only the house, and not the family and their descendants too, as is currently the case. There are many countries (democratic, normal) where that system is enshrined in law and the argument that the bank would restrict the borrower’s credit is absurd given that there is no credit - but there was of course financial recovery at the expense of the taxpayer. And the taxpayer is tired of playing Superman.

Third: a commitment to no longer manipulate, finance and contaminate public institutions whose independence or functional autonomy the constituent power proclaimed (at least in theory). I’m referring to the Tribunal Constitucional (Constitutional Court), the Consejo General del Poder Judicial (General Council of the Judicial Power of Spain), the corporate entities of the public media, the Tribunal de Cuentas (Court of Accounts) and, presently, the Junta Electoral Central (the public body in charge of electoral processes). Their current troubles, which are of enormous proportions, are the responsibility - and people do see it this way - of those who appoint their members, and not of the institutions themselves, which in other times have worked better. And who appoints them? The parties - but two of them above all, because the laws (made by the parties) provide that a parliamentary appointment requires a certified majority (2/3, 3/5 etc) in order to ‘guarantee a consensus’. And what consensus is that? The consensus of the two large parties, the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero de España) and the PP (Partido Popular) who can thus increase their control over those institutions that are outside government and parliament. In my opinion, this is the greatest of the systemic threats to our democracy. The political parties are no longer just a legitimate expression of the right to free association; they are much more: para-public bodies with ever more control over all of our institutions, and not the reverse. 

And yet, waking up to all this can be hard. On election day (and the days leading up to it), the squares of more than fifty cities were occupied by some tens of thousands of people. But not millions. On Sunday the PP picked up more than eight million of the votes, the PSOE more than five million, and so on down the list, and turn-out was 66%. Two in three eligible voters turned out to vote - they were quite if not very disappointed or indignant, but they turned out to vote. To describe this movement, we could conjure the image of a giant waking from a long sleep; but in fact the parties still have that not-very-secret weapon: on election day, people vote, and they vote for them. The politicians know it. We won’t let them rest though - we must demand of them that they restore the dignity of words, of language, so that the distance between what they think, what they say and what they do does not look to the people like a Bermuda Triangle in some other galaxy. That is the distance now. 


Translation by Ollie Brock 

Note from translator:

* ‘Rebeldes sin casa’ is of course a play on the film title Rebel Without a Cause - so an alternative that rhymed (the Spanish almost does) would be along the lines of ‘Rebels without doors’, ‘Rebels living outdoors’ etc. 

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