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Spain gets indignant, at last

Por: | 19 de mayo de 2011


Sol demonstrators Samuel Sánchez 

“PP and PSOE, they’re both just as pooey!” (PSOE y PP, la misma caca es.) Apologies for the loosely rhyming translation but this slogan and others like it seem to encapsulate the protests taking place this week in Spain’s major cities ahead of nationwide local elections on Sunday.

Yes, unemployment and the economic crisis have clearly brought people’s anger to the surface, but what is fascinating about the nascent Spanish youth democracy movement is that it is not serving the interests of any established political group. It is, and some would say AT LAST, a political movement of young people; it is inclusive, because the great majority of Spaniards are suffering the effects of dysfunctional political and judicial systems; and it does not line up the left in front of the right, but rather the young in front of the old – the latter in this case meaning those who are benefiting from the status quo and whose paternalistic complacency at a time where around 40 percent of young people are unemployed and most of the rest endure exploitative working conditions is finally under attack. Just when they did not want it to be, in the run-up to an election.  

Unemployment and precarious employment on short-term or nonexistent contracts and low pay has been a norm in Spain in recent decades. When I first moved here I was taken aback by the general acceptance among Spain’s middle-class youth of a kind of social contract whereby a period of exploitation was considered part of the rites of passage, and that before you could really plan your life and do things such as get married and maybe start a family, first a kind of apprenticeship period had to be observed. It was like being an intern – but for a whole decade until you reached your early or mid-thirties. In the meantime, you stayed at home as part of another unwritten social contract, where little was spoken in either direction.

The older generation, the one in power, seemed to be trusted to keep this system of slow renewal in place. Then things began to go wrong. First, market forces, fanned by a neoliberal government, saw a pool of cheap labor as a desirable resource that should be maintained and the numbers of temps and fake self-employed workers grew and grew. Meanwhile, property prices took off, pricing a large chunk of society out of the housing market. Then, under the current Socialist government, the wheels fell off what was shown to be a fragile boom thanks to the global credit crunch. Zapatero is right when he says the crash was not his fault; but he had done little to offset the imbalances built in to an economy based largely on construction and low wages.

So what issues have the PP been clashing over since the crisis started in 2008? Mainly, questions such as which judges (progressives or conservatives) should occupy seats in the top courts; what was said to which terrorist and when during ceasefire negotiations with ETA; excluding religion from the school syllabus… In short, a whole series of interesting topics, but hardly ones which are central to the lives of most Spaniards. It might not be all Zapatero’s fault, but to hear the Socialist leader blame today’s unemployment on the policies of Aznar’s 1996-2004 administration is the kind of sterile two-party game-playing which those in need of genuine leadership are sick of. Then there is the fact that corruption is widespread in Spanish politics, but it is hard to hear a politician of any stripe make so plain a statement. Instead, they point to an honorable majority who must not be tarred with the same brush, or cling to the technicality that few are ever convicted of any crime (thanks to the chronic sclerosis in the courts).           

The tone of the current protests reminds me of the tongue-lashing meted out to parliamentarians by Pilar Manjón, the mother of a March 11 victim, when the two major parties were squabbling over the influence the terrorist bombings had had on general elections three days later. “PSOE y PP, la misma caca es.”

And the decision by Madrid’s electoral board to prohibit Wednesday’ gathering in Sol could only serve to strengthen the conviction that politics in Spain is a stitch-up between the two major parties. From such a decision one can only think that either they fear that the message of rejection will spread before Sunday’s ballots and they will lose votes to a broad abstention campaign, or that the red and blue factions simply cannot bear to cede limelight to a gray mass of indignation. The kids in the squares are stealing primetime coverage and spoiling the parties’ meticulously planned parades of ticker tape and chiming anthems.  

So are there, as the BBC has suggested, echoes of Tahrir Square in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya? Well, there are some superficial similarities. The spark of protest has been spread on social networks and can draw on a large mass of well-educated but disaffected youth. Then there is the desire to display maturity in the autonomous organization of litter-cleaning parties and information points where protestors can get legal and technical advice. We are not here just to shout, sing and befoul the square, is the message. But in Tunis and Cairo, the demonstrators occupied the streets until a dictator was removed. These protests are sensibly planned to continue up to Sunday’s elections. The point is not to challenge democracy but to demand better-quality representation. The issues raised by the Real Democracy Now platform are not leftist utopias, but a reminder of how some basic human rights are being abandoned and a demand for an ethical cleansing of Spain's political system. Nothing to get indignant about.  

Photograph by Samuel Sánchez. 

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Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

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