Spanish youth in revolt against unemployment and austerity
Angered by rising unemployment and a deepening social crisis, and inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, tens of thousands of Spanish youth have taken to the streets, occupying city squares throughout Spain. Solidarity protests have taken place throughout Europe.
The movement of los ignados (the indignant ones), as they have become known, took shape on May 15. A protest call, circulated on Facebook, demanded, “Real democracy now! We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers.” Fifty thousand people mobilised in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, 30,000 in Barcelona’s Plaza de Cataluna and tens of thousands more in at least 40 other Spanish cities. Protesters demanded more housing and jobs, genuine democracy and an end to the dictatorship of the markets and the corruption of politicians.
On the evening of May 15, after marching to the Puerta del Sol, hundreds of protesters in Madrid established a protest camp. When police attempted to violently evict the camp, in the early hours of May 17, their heavy-handed tactics failed. Tens of thousands of protesters responded to the call to mobilise again that evening, and the protest camp was re-established.
On May 18, Madrid’s elections board banned the planned demonstration at 8pm at Puerta del Sol, claiming that the protest “could affect the right of citizens to vote freely”. Under Spanish electoral law, political rallies are banned on the day before elections to allow for “reflection”, and, according to the board, there were no “extraordinary and serious reasons” to allow the demonstration to proceed. The daily newspaper El Pais reported that authorities planned to have sufficient police on hand to prevent the demonstration. The Madrid metro system warned passengers not to go to Puerta del Sol “as the rally has not been allowed”.
But protest organisers refused to back down. As the deadline approached, Vice President Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba displayed growing indecision about how to deal with the protesters. Initially he said the government would “enforce the law”,’ but he then backtracked, saying, “The police are not going to resolve one problem by creating another”.
Fearful that any attempt to break up the protest by force could provoke a social explosion, the regional government kept police officers at a distance. The BBC reported there was a moment’s silence as the ban came into effect, on May 21, before the square erupted in chanting. Protesters, expressing solidarity with their counterparts who had faced eviction in Barcelona, chanted “Barcelona - you are not alone!”, “The people united will never be defeated!” and “We are not afraid”. Many carried flowers to symbolise the peaceful nature of the protest.
After successfully defying the ban, protesters resolved to stay in the square another week. Committees were established to organise cleaning, child care, food distribution, first aid and even a library. Popular assemblies were established in local squares throughout Madrid, as well as Barcelona, Seville, Valencia and other major cities. Spanish citizens abroad heeded the call to initiate solidarity protests outside Spanish embassies in Buenos Aires, Vienna, London, Dublin and Brussels.
The day after regional elections, on May 23, the “May 15” (M-15) movement adopted a manifesto, declaring, “This situation has become normal, a daily suffering, without hope. But if we join forces, we can change it. It’s time to change things, time to build a better society together.” The manifesto concluded, “We need an ethical revolution. Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.”
While the protesters’ demands are numerous and wide ranging, protesters are united in rejecting the austerity measures imposed by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The PSOE and the opposition Popular Party (PP) have both, despite rhetorical differences, slavishly supported austerity measures proposed by the European Union.
The collapse of Spain’s economy has been sudden and dramatic, driving down living standards for the vast majority of working people. Between 2000 and 2005, half of all new jobs created in Europe were created in Spain. The Spanish economy was regarded as one of Europe’s “tigers”, and immigration was encouraged to meet the needs of a growing labour market.
With the deflation of an enormous housing bubble, following the 2008 global financial crisis, gross domestic product shrank by almost 4% in 2009. The construction and real estate industries, which accounted for a fifth of all growth in 2007, quickly shed 2 million jobs. Between 2008 and 2010, unemployment doubled.
Today Spain’s official unemployment rate is 21% (4.9 million). The youth unemployment rate is even higher, at 43%. Most young people lucky enough to have a job are living in poverty, earning an average wage of 1000 euros (A$1340) per month.
The Zapatero government spared no expense in propping up the financial sector, bailing out multiple regional banks at a cost of tens of billions of euros. Following in the footsteps of other, smaller European economies, the Spanish state has been granted loans on the condition that its government impose a harsh austerity program that will force the Spanish working class to foot the bill.
But whereas the EU and International Monetary Fund stepped in with bailout packages for Greece, Ireland and Portugal, Europe’s capitalist bankers and political leaders are fearful that a bailout of Spain’s economy would have disastrous consequences for the entire European banking sector. Spain is Europe’s fifth largest economy (twice as big as the economies of Ireland, Portugal and Greece combined). Consequently, the Spanish and other European capitalist ruling classes are demanding one of the most severe austerity programs on the continent, worth €15 billion.
Zapatero’s austerity measures, aimed at reducing the government deficit to 3% of GDP by 2013, have so far: made it easier and cheaper to sack workers; cut public-sector workers’ pay by 5 to 15%; frozen pensions for government workers; raised the retirement age from 65 to 67; and downsized the government workforce by not replacing retirees. In addition, public funding for education, housing, unemployment and maternity programs have all been cut.
Airports and a share of the national lottery business have been among the state assets sold off at the fire-sale prices. While passing a minimal, token tax increase on to the wealthy, the government cut taxes for medium-sized businesses.
Under pressure from below, the leaders of the UGT and the Comisiones Obreros (CCOO) trade union federations called a general strike on September 29 last year. But this general strike was used by the union officials only as a means of putting pressure on Zapatero to give some concessions. In February this year, both union federations capitulated, signing a deal with the government on pension “reform”.
Combined with economic grievances is a widespread sentiment of disgust towards Spain’s corrupt two-party system. Both parties are facing major scandals, with more than 100 candidates, who ran in the 22 May regional and local elections, currently under investigation for corruption or fraud.
On May 22, Zapatero’s PSOE received a drubbing. Its share of the vote plummeted to 28%, from 35% at the 2007 elections. The PSOE lost control of nine of the 10 regional governments and all of the main cities that were under its control: Seville, San Sebastian and Barcelona. It was the PSOE’s worst result since 1979, at the end of the Franco era.
The right-wing PP was the main beneficiary. But, with 37% of the vote, it gained just two percentage points - or 400,000 votes - on its 2007 result, indicating that most voters were unwilling to endorse a party that is similarly committed to making working people pay for Spain’s economic crisis.
Some of the protest vote was reflected in support for smaller parties on both the right and left. After a decade of decline, the United Left increased its share of the vote from 5.4 to 6.3% cent, a gain of 200,000 votes.
Popular Unity candidates, a left-nationalist force in the autonomous region of Catalonia, increased their vote from 18,000 to 62,000 votes. And with 25% of the vote, the new pro-Basque independence party Bildu received the second highest vote, after the Basque Nationalist Party. Both the PSOE and PP campaigned unsuccessfully to ban the party, alleging that it was linked to the banned Basque separatist movement ETA.
The elections also delivered gains for the extreme right, the Spanish Falange and Spanish Alternative gaining 11,000 votes and Spain 2000 gaining 14,000 votes, allowing it to enter the Valencia parliament for the first time.
Opposition to the two mainstream parties was also reflected in a call to vote informally. The percentage of spoiled or blank votes increased from 3.1 to 4.3%.
These results are widely expected to be repeated in next year’s parliamentary elections. With Zapatero having previously announced that he won’t seek re-election, the PP is already sensing victory. But the PP will come to power representing the same economic policies as the PSOE, and with an even harder line against any trade union resistance. After the election, the British Guardian reported, “Politicians have rarely been held in such disregard, with the prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and opposition leader, Mariano Rajoy ... rating lowest.”
While United Left leader Cayo Lara has welcomed the M-15 movement, characterising it as a “peaceful rebellion that has identified the oppressors”, the CCOO’s failure to mount an ongoing campaign against the austerity measures, and its support for a deal with Zapatero on pensions last February, have no doubt eroded support for the union movement and the traditional left among Spanish youth. Banners and flags of political parties have not been permitted in Puerta del Sol, and movement spokespeople have declared that the M-15 movement will not be establishing political ties or a party of its own.
Visiting central Malaga on the eve of the elections, Lara told protesters, “Today popular sovereignty is in the hands of the bankers, people who are not elected by the people. They have stolen democracy from us because we have had servile governments who have weakened the state.”
But for the thousands of protesters who resisted police repression in Barcelona’s Plaza de Cataluna, and tens of thousands more who have stood down the PSOE’s and PP’s attempts to silence them, it is clear that the problem they confront is not a “weakened” capitalist state. Thirty years of “democracy”, since the end of the Franco dictatorship, have produced nothing but “servile governments” that have worked to defend the capitalist system. Today that system has generated a profound social and economic crisis that crosses borders, afflicting all of the increasingly integrated capitalist economies of the eurozone.
As one protester told the Guardian, “I never thought that Madrid or Spain could become the benchmark for a social movement capable of shaking the institutions of the state. We are creating a social conscience that is incredible. I have never seen anything like it. I had to be here, because we are creating history.”
The M-15 movement called for a Europe-wide day of action to “retake the street” on June 19 in protest against austerity measures being implemented across the continent.