Understanding ‘Spanishrevolution’

For the last week, Spain has been rocked with its own ‘Spanishrevolution’ - a civil movement which has sprung up to demand deep democratic changes.

Pedro Silverio Moreno
23 May 2011

Seven days before the local and regional elections in Spain, the main political issue has been the ‘Spanishrevolution’, a civil movement which has sprung up to demand deep democratic changes. Thousands of young people, the unemployed, retired, and people from every sector of society have been camping in the main squares of Spanish cities calling for democratic changes. For the onlooker, this may well prompt comparison with the Arab uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia: but there are too many differences. Spain is a mature democracy, where the economic situation is not so good but whose democratic institutions are very similar to those of other countries of the European region. While Arab protesters want to remove dictatorial governments who have ruled their countries for the last thirty years without any election, the Spanish want to radically overhaul the intrinsic democratic mechanism, transforming a representative democracy into a more participative and direct democracy. They have several requests - most of them well beyond anything that is likely to be adopted by any political party who aspires to be part of the government.

In the 1993 general elections, PSOE, PP and CiU( Socialist government, Conservative opposition and Catalonian nationalists) obtained 78,48% of the votes and 90,58% of the seats. Fifteen year later, in the last general elections in 2008, PSOE, PP and CiU obtained 86,80% of the votes but won 95% of the parliament seats. The increase suggested that it would be all but impossible to expel these parties from power. Since 1993, PSOE and PP have taken turns in the Moncloa Palace with the support of Catalonian nationalists. From changes in the electoral law (a system which promotes the bipartisanship of conservatives and socialists while completely sidelining all other options) to easier access to the labour market (unemployment among young people is above 40 per cent, and only one in three youngsters has what might be called a quality job), Spanish society has become accustomed to a political class who think that the best way to solve a problem is just to wait and see.

But since the current financial crackdown, Spanish voters have been looking for an alternative. Add the housing bubble - another dark legacy - and corruption into the mix, with the three parties sticking together to prevent any impeachment of increasing numbers of corrupt city council representatives – and people have been beginning to seek a way out. Whether you look at the reform of the labour market in September 2010, or those imposed by the EU in May 2010, on the last budgets for 2011, even on the position against Basque terrorists  - it has become routine to see the three parties arguing amongst themselves while the Spanish people were clamouring for a common position. But when on February 15, PSOE, PP and CiU all agreed to pass a law on the use of the internet which went against the interests of the majority of the people, initially nobody said boo. Once the law was passed however, the social networks began to buzz. An account published in the Wikileaks papers of how this law was passed, told of the US Embassy working with the Spanish Culture Minister during the previous month to seal the deal. One controversial aspect of the new law in particular came to light, allowing any website to be shut down without any room for judicial supervision if an anonymous complaint claimed that it had no right to the information posted on its pages. On twitter, there emerged the most significant response - #nolesvotes (do not vote for them)  - bearing a message for those about to vote in the local elections on May 22, ‘Do not vote for any of these three main parties.’ According to the results of the local and regional polls conducted this Sunday, these parties have lost 5.81 % points. Together they now command under 69 % of the votes. What has made the difference is the ‘SpanishRevolution’.

Real Democracy Now

In the beginning, nobody, not the traditional media, nor the big parties thought that it was a significant event. On May 15, a demonstration was called for in the main Spanish cities under the slogan “Real democracy now!” By Sunday evening, the main Spanish squares were full of people shouting and calling for more democratic participation and more transparency in political decisions. Since then, they have occupied Puerta del Sol, the central square in Madrid, and a dangerous, democratic virus has begun to sweep through the rest of the country. By the following week-end, messages are coming in of hundreds of camps springing up much further afield.

Within Spain, the organization of these camps is striking: they work like small kibbutzim where everybody shares what they have and where the decisions are adopted by consensual agreement. Their posters carry slogans as imaginative as those from May ‘68 in Paris: “Our dreams are too big for their polls”, “I think, therefore I disturb”, “No house, no job, no retirement, no fear”, “Take the street”, “Read more”, “I am not against the system, the system is against me”, “Your booty, my crack” (Botín, the family name of the owner of the Santander Bank, the biggest Spanish bank and one of the biggest all over the world, means ‘booty’ in Spanish). Reading the slogans, you will find few complaints lodged about particular political leaders as one might have expected. Instead, people are focused on the lack of participation in decision-making processes and market tyranny over the entire political class. These protesters are by no means apolitical: they like to refer to themselves as ‘superpolitical’. The call that went out to people voting on Sunday was against abstention, explaining the differences between blank votes and null votes. Fortunately, participation in the elections has risen: an estimated 65 percent of the nation's 34 million eligible voters cast their votes in Sunday's polls.

From their first moments, life in these camps, in Madrid and everywhere else, has proved to be totally resistant to violence. In the run-up to Spain’s local elections every candidate was suddenly scared of this movement: the socialists, because they knew that most of the people settled in the camps are socialist voters who are disillusioned with them; the conservatives, because they remember the demo before the March 11 attacks in front of their headquarters when they lost power. Spain’s Electoral Central Board tried to rule that the gathering should not continue into this weekend, arguing that the protest could unduly influence the voters.  But the deadline has come and gone. Government said that if there was no incident, the police must let the people stay in the squares. The camps celebrated the decision, and now they have decided to stay for another week at least.

The big challenge of course is what demands to cohere around. The lack of specific proposals may encourage both conservatives and socialist to ignore the protest, concentrating instead on their respective election results. The socialists have lost the main cities they had - their traditional electoral fiefdoms and 1.5 million voters have repudiated them. Zapatero refused, one month ago, to lead the party for a third election: they must choose another candidate to lead them.

As for the conservative opposition Popular Party, their victory at the polls may be misleading. They only gained 0.5 million votes. If you take into account the slightly higher participation (680,000 votes), around one million votes were cast elsewhere in protest, blank votes having risen by nearly 33 %. Conservatives would be mistaken if they concluded that the camps were set up just to protest against Zapatero and not against the system.

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