People are calling it the “Fall of Rage,” pouring into the streets of Madrid and other Spanish cities to tell their leaders that budget cuts and austerity measures are not working — that with unemployment skyrocketing amid the second recession in four years, “enough is enough.”
On Saturday, thousands rallied in front of key buildings including the Madrid stock exchange, the Bank of Spain and several ministries. The protest, organized by the M-15 platform and composed of indignados and others under the slogan “Deconstructing Lies, Building Alternatives,” served as a preview for the rally to be held Tuesday, Sept. 25, when thousands are expected to surround the Spanish Congress during a plenary session and demand that the government, lawmakers and the king resign.
“We want to go a step beyond the other protests because after many marches, rallies, strikes and even campsites, nothing has changed,” said Mercedes Garcia, a spokesperson for the Occupy Congress action. “Our final goal is to show that democracy is outside Congress, not inside.”
The public’s disgust with politics is at its peak since the Franco’ dictatorship fell in 1975. In polls, Spaniards rate the political class as their third highest concern, only after unemployment and the economic crisis. Data released by the Center for Sociological Research showed that 79 percent of the country does not believe politicians will meet the current challenges.
“We feel our democracy has been stolen and we have no power anymore over the decisions that affect [us],” added Garcia. The Sept. 25 action is different from past ones, organizers say, because of its blunt demand for resignations — an ambition that led politicians on both the right and the left to brand it a potential “coup d’Etat.”
Garcia stressed that Tuesday will be a “democratic and peaceful protest.” Nevertheless, government has assigned 1,350 anti-riot police to prevent the activities from hampering legislative business. A similar protest in Portugal on Sept. 16 forced the country’s government to back out on some of its planned austerity cuts.
For Manuel Nolla, an M-15 spokesperson, the “government lies” when it presents cuts as the only way to overcome Spain’s double recession in four years, by falsely using “the current situation to cut rights and diminish the public sector.”
Spain has become the leading concern of the European Union; if the country collapses or exits the euro currency, as Greece has threatened to do, one-fifth of the EU’s GDP is forecast to disappear. Concerned by the fast and rising pace of the country’s debt, the EU has forced Spain to cut its public debt from 8.9 percent of GDP in 2011 to 6.3 percent this year; 4.5 percent in 2013, and 2.8 percent in 2014.
To eliminate at least $82 billion in debt by 2014, the conservative government led by President Mariano Rajoy is raising the country’s sales taxes from 18 to 21 percent while making significant cuts to healthcare, education and other public services, as well as public sector salaries.
But such macroeconomic figures mean little to Spain’s 5 million people who remain without jobs as unemployment tops 25 percent nationally and 50 percent for those under the age of 30.
When 30-year-old Veronica Navarrete was a teenager, she was told how crucial it was to go to university and study hard. So she earned a degree in business administration and completed postgraduate studies in human resources management, earning top grades.
“And what was that good for?” she wonders now in desperation, having been unemployed for most of the past three years. Navarrete worked for five years as a recruiter in Barcelona, but with the deepening of the crisis she lost her job in 2009. She’s been unemployed or working in low qualified jobs as a saleswoman, cashier or babysitter ever since.
None of the current measures taken by Spain’s government will help Navarrete find a job, said economist Jose Moises Martin of the Madrid lobbying group Economists Against the Crisis, which presents alternatives to Rajoy’s policies.
“What we need is more time to cut the deficit so that the government can invest in reactivating the economy,” said Moises, who advocates refocusing the economy on research and development rather than the real state and services sectors, which plunged Spain into its current mess. Revamping investments in renewable energy, high-end tourism and the arts could be key, he added.
But for Rajoy and the many companies and investors influential in his government’s decisions, Spain’s unemployment crisis is rooted in the country’s rigid labor laws — which is why in June, Madrid passed the nation’s most significant labor market reform since 1980.
The new labor law makes layoffs easier and cheaper for companies. It also gives employers the power to unilaterally modify working conditions — including hours, shifts and salaries—without having to negotiate with employees.
However, Moises Martin claimed that the Spanish labor market is not as rigid as it is perceived to be by other countries. “If it was so difficult to fire people, there would not be more than 5 million people jobless,” he said.
For clarity, the M-15 spokesperson Nolla added: “With the old law, thousands of jobs were also created before the crisis.” Sure enough, with a highly regularized and unionized job market, Spain managed to almost reach full employment (considered between 7-8% in Europe) during the real estate boom years in the last decade. However, since the new labor market reform came into effect, no jobs have been created — quite the opposite.
Which is why, facing minimal future prospects, Spain’s most educated generation is now leaving the country en masse to develop careers and fill their bank accounts elsewhere. According to the National Institute of Statistics, between January and June of this year more than 40,000 Spaniards moved abroad — 44 percent more than last year in the same period.
One of them is Xiker Leoz, 28, an architect from Pamplona who left in 2010 to work in Switzerland and later in the United Kingdom. “I’d like to go back eventually to Spain but that possibility seems more and more remote every day because there is no future there,” said Leoz, speaking from London.
But for those at home facing increased costs of living, diminishing salaries and slashed public services, the streets are anticipated to be full of angry Spaniards for months — most immediately this Tuesday, when citizens gather from across the capital, and the country, to demand that their legislators step down.