Why They’re Protesting in Spain

If 2011 has shown us anything so far, it is that there is truly power in numbers – specifically, when masses of young people, organized through social media, come together peacefully to call for change. In Tunisia and Egypt they toppled dictators, and as the Arab Spring spreads throughout the Middle East, the region is at a crucial historical juncture.

It’s not surprising, then, that those impressive movements are inspiring others yet, notably recent youth protests in Spain. Some are calling it The Spanish Revolution. However, aside from perhaps borrowing some inspiration from the Middle East, the Spanish protests bear less resemblance to the Arab Spring than to last year’s demonstrations against austerity measures in Greece and tuition increases in the UK. An astute article in The Economist compares them to the protests in Argentina in 2001-2.

The Spanish movement is known as 15-M, for the day – the 15th of May – that the protests began, exactly one week before local elections were scheduled to take place in many of Spain’s provinces and municipalities. The grassroots group Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now) harnessed the power of social media, especially Twitter, to energize a few hundred small organizations and thousands of individuals (many of them university students) to organize major protests in cities across all of Spain.

Puerta del Sol, a central plaza in Madrid, has been the epicenter of the protests, although events have been organized in more than 50 Spanish cities and even in other countries, often in front of Spanish embassies. It would be an impressive feat for any organization, but especially for an incipient one like Democracia Real Ya which was only formed earlier this year. The demonstrations are peaceful, and organizers have discouraged confrontations with police and the consumption of alcohol. One article in El País, Spain’s most widely-read national newspaper, described the atmosphere at the protests as “festive.” However, the messages protesters hope to convey are anything but lighthearted.

The main grievance is corruption. Democracia Real Ya’s manifesto states that, although protesters belong to a diverse array of ideological backgrounds, “we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.” Much of the anger is directed at Spain’s two main political parties: the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE in Spanish) which currently controls the government, and the center-right opposition, the People’s Party (Partido Popular). It is felt that citizens’ concerns are not being addressed or even heard by either party, while politicians from across the spectrum are engaging in corrupt behavior at the expense of national wellbeing.

Demonstrators discouraged citizens from voting for either of the two main parties in last Sunday’s elections. While some groups encouraged voting for alternative candidates or casting a blank vote, many officials were worried that the movement would result in a decrease in voter turnout in Sunday’s elections due to the widespread disillusionment. In reality, voter turnout rose by 3% compared to the last such elections four years ago, to a total of 66%, perhaps in some part due to the environment of increased the political engagement the protests have fostered.

Is corruption really that bad in Spain? José M. de Areilza, dean of the IE Law School in Madrid, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “I don’t think that political corruption is necessarily worse in Spain than in other European countries, but I do think that the economic crisis is now generating a lot more anger and resentment here toward politicians.” And Spain has indeed been hit hard by the Great Recession.

Not unlike the United States, Spain had its own real estate bubble which popped in 2008. Before that, the country’s economy was growing at a decent pace (the average GDP growth between 1994 and 2007 was 3.6%) and unemployment experienced an impressive drop (from 24% to 8% during that same period), driven in good part by the booming construction sector. Also, as the economist Paul Krugman puts it, “Spain… was a model European citizen, with a balanced budget” and a comparatively modest level of public debt. However, when construction jobs dried up and economic malaise rippled throughout the economy, suddenly Spain was looking in bad shape.

In 2009 the economy shrunk by 3.7%, and last year only began to show very modest growth rates. Unemployment currently stands at 21%, the highest of any European country. Tax revenue decreased as economic activity constricted and the state had to pay its generous unemployment benefits to a growing number of people. Add to this substantial fiscal stimulus spending, and Spain’s budget surplus quickly turned into a budget deficit. Worse, Spain is “a prisoner of the Euro,” in Krugman’s assessment. As a member of the Eurozone, Spain does not control its own monetary policy, which means it cannot devalue its currency to boost competitiveness and escape recession. Instead, it must conduct what Krugman calls an “internal devaluation” by engaging in slow and painful austerity measures to bring wages and prices down to competitive levels. Making this all the more difficult is Spain’s rigid wage and employment structure, guarded by the politically powerful labor unions.

The recession has been particularly hard on young people. 41.6% of 15 to 25 year olds are unemployed. Spain’s contracting structure plays a role: most Spanish workers have either an indefinite or a temporal contract. Businesses face high indemnity payments and administrative costs when they lay off workers with indefinite contracts, whereas it is much cheaper and simpler to fire temporary workers. Young workers tend to concentrate in temporal employment, and are thus more susceptible to layoffs in economic downturns. What is more, even those young people lucky enough to have a job with an indefinite contract are often laid off before more experienced workers, since the length of indemnity payments is conditioned on the amount of time spent at the company.

To put it simply, unemployment is a major problem for Spanish youth. Next to political corruption, it is one of the 15-M protesters’ main grievances. It would be an understatement to say that young Spaniards are disillusioned about their future prospects. One organization under the Democracia Real Ya umbrella, for example, is called Juventud Sin Futuro – Youth Without a Future.

The movement has expanded to include a wide range of other concerns as well. Democracia Real Ya’s website provides an outline of its main proposals, as summarized below:

  1. Eliminate the privileges of the political class (i.e., greater equality between the salaries of elected officials and average Spaniards, more transparency of politicians’ financial assets, penalties for corruption and dereliction of duties, etc.)
  2. Fight unemployment
  3. Provide accessible and high-quality social services (including health services, education, public transportation, local social resources)
  4. Increase regulation and oversight of banks
  5. Enact tax reforms
  6. Protect civil liberties and increase democratic participation (among other things, they call for judiciary and electoral reform, referendums on a wide range of issues including measures taken by the European Union, and abolition of the controversial Ley Sinde which is intended to control digital piracy)
  7. Reduce military spending

An article in the New York Times calls the 15-M movement “the first to manifest in any meaningful way since austerity began to bite in Europe’s sovereign debt crisis” and claims that it “has caught Spain’s traditional politicians flat-footed.” One protester quoted in the article said, “If you had told me a few months ago that thousands of people would take to the streets to complain about our political system, I would have found it hard to believe, because it looked like we were an apathetic generation that was incapable of responding to a crisis even when it was destroying our jobs like a tsunami.”

Meanwhile, in Sunday’s local elections, voters made it very clear what they thought about the current Socialist-led government’s management of the economic crisis. The opposition People’s Party won in 11 of the 13 regions where elections were held, winning 37.6% of the total votes. In contrast, the Socialist Party won only 27.8% of votes.

President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero “said that his Socialist Party had been understandably punished by voters for overseeing an economic crisis that left Spain with a 21% jobless rate,” according to the New York Times. National elections are to be held next March, but Zapatero is already a lame duck. He announced last month that he would not run again, and even without him at the helm, the Socialist Party remained 16 points behind the People’s Party in last month’s polls.

Unfortunately, while the elections – with their backdrop of widespread political demonstrations – show that Spain’s democracy is thriving, the election results may not spell good news for the country’s economy. Zapatero’s austerity plan and economic reforms boosted confidence and averted fears that Spain would require a bailout from Europe. However, voter repudiation of his party’s policies could unsettle market forces. Also, as the BBC notes, some observers are concerned that when power changes hands, previously undisclosed debts will be revealed. This already occurred after elections in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia. “If that were to happen on a significant scale it would be easy to imagine a crisis. The markets are very sensitive to hidden debts,” the article claims. The last thing Spain’s fragile economy needs is a further blow to market confidence.

It remains to be seen if the People’s Party, which seems slated to seize power in the coming year, will be responsive to protesters’ concerns. Organizers of the demonstrations hope to continue the movement to keep pressure on the government, and as of today, protesters continue to gather in Madrid. So far the 15-M movement has been an impressive display of participatory democracy, but it will require sustained political activism to achieve the goals it has set out. If successful, though, Spanish youth will join the ranks of disgruntled young people across the world who came together in 2011 to demand a change for the better.

By Rebecca Somple, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern