‘We, the unemployed, the underpaid, the subcontracted, the precarious, the young … demand a change towards a future with dignity. We are fed up of reforms, of being laid off, of the banks which have caused the crisis hardening our mortgages or taking away our houses, of laws limiting our freedom in the interest of the powerful. We blame the political and economic powers of our sad situation and we call for a turn.’
When a new and unknown platform called Real Democracy Now called for a demonstration last Sunday, 15 May, few expected that something like 130,000 people would turn out across Spain. Around 1,000 of those attempted to occupy Madrid’s central square, the Puerta del Sol, overnight in a conscious imitation of Tahrir Square. They were violently evicted by police, but the next day similar camps sprang up in most major cities. They are still mostly there and intend to remain until Sunday’s local elections.
Of course, though the movement has taken even the organisers by surprise, it has antecedents and a context. Its roots include those groups and movements connected to the World Social Forum process as well as the protests organised by young people before the financial crisis over the high cost of homes as a result of the property boom. More recently, a ‘Youth without a future’ demonstration attracted up to 3,000 people in April, marching under the slogan ‘No House, No Job, No Pension, No Fear’. This was not a particularly impressive turnout, though it matched the unimpressive turnout for recent trade union mobilisations.
The trade union response to the crisis was slow in coming and quickly lost steam. A general strike last September happened nine months after the first austerity measures were announced. Then the large unions signed an agreement with the government on pension cuts in January. Although they were denounced by smaller, more militant unions, those unions were unable to call a significant mobilisation against the agreement. Union rank and file members are showing clear signs of demoralisation.
Then came the election campaign. A court battle concerning the possibility of pro-ETA candidates running in the Basque Country resulted in them being allowed to run (good news because it signals a better chance of bringing terrorism to an end) but provided the right with an opportunity to stoke Spanish nationalistic chauvinism. On the other hand the austerity policies and the high rate of unemployment have alienated a lot of the popular classes who would normally support the PSOE. As a result the polls were forecasting a landslide defeat of the PSOE to the PP. United Left (IU) is showing significant advances in the polls, but nothing to match the major shift away from the PSOE.
Then the marches last Sunday erupted. They were called mostly by word of mouth and through social networks. Thousands marched against the banks and for real democracy. Botín, CEO of Banco Santander, and other prominent businessmen were identified as responsible for the crisis, while one of the most popular slogans was ‘PSOE and PP are the same shit’. Corruption is also targeted. People shouted ‘no hay pan para tanto chorizo’ (there is not enough bread for so many sausages). As well as being a Spanish sandwich sausage, ‘chorizo’ also means ‘crook’ in popular slang.
Some are now advocating a ‘blank’ vote in the elections, but in most cases ‘real democracy’ is understood as the need to reform the electoral regulations and, more significantly, the primacy of elected bodies over the ‘markets’ and the accountability of elected officials.
The right will still most probably win the elections although a surprise cannot be ruled out. If the defeat is large enough, PSOE prime minister Rodrigo Zapatero will probably be forced to call an early general election. It does not seem realistic to expect a left turn as his government is highly committed to the austerity policies that are being designed at the European level.
But the Spanish landscape the day after could be different. There could be new actors on the stage. Whether or not this particular movement survives, contestation in Spain is gathering momentum and it will recover. And although this new impetus will not automatically shift either the unions or the PSOE grassroots to the left, this week’s mobilisations will certainly have an effect on the labour movement. The anti-globalisation movement in Spain, which was thought dead, has reappeared under a new incarnation.