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Spain, Beyond the Economic Crisis: The Democratic Crisis
Police hold back protesters as part of the "15-M Movement," in Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Olmovich)

Spain, Beyond the Economic Crisis: The Democratic Crisis

Police hold back protesters as part of the "15-M Movement," in Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Olmovich)

What are Spaniards so angry about?

When José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero became prime minister in 2004, he proudly announced that by 2020, after an investment of 250,000 million euros, all of Spain's capital cities would be connected by highway or AVE, the high-speed train. Of course, those days are long over. On the 1st of July, the recently inaugurated AVE lines between Toledo-Cuenca and Toledo-Albacete were closed, as these only carried an average of seven and nine passengers per day, respectively. Their maintenance were costing the Spaniards 18,000 euros daily. An extreme case? No. There are many others. For example, 150 million euros were invested to build the airport in Castellón (Valencia). To this day, no flights have operated from Castellón. What is most striking about Spain's social and political panorama is the lack of a massive public and press reaction to scandals as these.In the midst of the economic crisis, while the government passes austerity measures, (increasing retirement age and taxes or reducing the salaries of the public service, for example) it is somewhat alarming that no one has been held responsible for the AVE catastrophe. When writing this piece, only the left-wing party IU (Izquierda Unida) and the Catalan organization CatDem (Fundació Catalanista i Demòcrata) had publicly appealed to take to court those in charge. Neither PP nor PSOE (Partido Popular and Partido Socialista Obrero Español), the two main parties, have spoken about investigating the case. Nor has the press pushed for it.

Granting that the economic and financial crisis has been and remain a global one, its consequences and peculiarities are unique to each particular country. In the case of Spain, with the same party in power since 2004 (the Socialist PSOE), it has not been hard for the right to blame the government for all of the country's grievances (especially, for the five million unemployed and, for the youth, an unemployment rate of over 40 percent). However, the real estate bubble was not a Socialist creation: in Aznar's Spain, more houses were being built than in the UK, Germany, Italy and France put together. Today, banks hold 65,000 million euros in real estate, which they are desperately trying to rid themselves from, with no success. Who is to blame? PP or PSOE? For the first time in the history of Spain's young democracy, many people blame both.

The crisis in Spain goes far beyond the economy and the financial system: it is a political crisis to its core and the movement begun in Madrid's Puerta del Sol on May 15 has marked the first real challenge to the political system since democracy was established in 1977.
The now called “15-M Movement” began when the platform Democracia Real YA (DRY, “Real Democracy NOW”) organized a demonstration in Madrid on May 15. It was a protest to demand what they termed a “real” democracy, as opposed to the existing government which they claimed was submitting to the banks and the capital markets. In effect, they wanted a shift of power and decision making from corrupt politicians to the people. Crucially, one of the main issues for the movement was the reformation of the electoral system, in order to make it more representative of everybody's vote. Perhaps, under other circumstances, it would have died off there and then, but people were waiting for the spark: only one week before the regional elections, more than 100 names in the lists of both PP and PSOE (and also some from smaller parties) were in judiciary processes for corruption. The spark lit a forest fire anxious to burn. People all over Spain took to the streets and protested.

The space between what is illegal, according to law, and what is righteous, according to every citizen's common sense, is what democracy and, in effect, liberalism, ought to conquer. If we are to improve, the legality of a certain measure should not be enough to justify it without question. Already in John Stuart Mill, liberal theory (the basis of our modern democracies) holds to the belief that we will never reach the perfect society and that, therefore, we must never abandon self-criticism in order to progress. From there, not only policies but laws and constitutions themselves adapt and develop. Democracy may have infinite flaws, but perhaps its main virtue is its ability to change. The fastest way to corrupt any democracy is to take it as a permanent and fixed system. We move forward because we question, we protest and we fight.

The mileuristas (those who earn 1,000 euros per month) and the Spanish “lost generation” (as those between the ages of 18 and 30 are now termed), had long been criticized for their conformism. Brought up with Playstations; beach houses for the summer; and living at their parent's home through, at least, five years of higher education, they never had anything for which to fight. Now, they are either jobless or unable to pay for their living. They were promised a future that no longer exists. It has taken them three years of economic crisis to react.

Are they now claiming utopian measures? Is it too late to demand reforms in the system? The issue of “representative vs. direct” democracy has been a never-ending debate. However, implicit in the concept of representation is also that of responsibility. When our representatives stop being responsible, that very responsibility goes back to the people: it is their duty, as citizens, to demand it from them. In effect, the 15-M Movement is an exercise in civilian responsibility. Many have discarded it as a neo-hippy protest by jobless youngsters with nothing better to do. Surely, DRY was set up by people under the age of 30 and, as was the case with the Egyptian revolts, these were organized almost entirely through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. However and contrary to what the press have insisted on portraying, the people standing in Puerta del Sol for days were not only youngsters. For many Spaniards, many who are retired or who have stable jobs, the 15-M Movement has voiced concerns that they themselves had. Many celebrated that the youth was, finally, on the streets.

Skeptical commentators argue that they should form a political party if they are so sure about what it is they want. But they insist on remaining a “movement,” a “platform” for debate to exert pressure on politicians. There have been previous cases: in 1968, the revolts were a turning point for Western democracies during the cold war. The year 1968 signaled the moment when the sons and daughters of the WWII heroes told their parents that the world they had created wasn't that perfect at all. In the West, it directed a mirror at itself to destroy the myth of the faultless “Free World” vs. “Totalitarian Communism.” If democracy has advanced in any way since then, it is in part due to the 1968 revolts. Now, it remains to be seen how the 15-M Movement will develop. To this day, they have created 25 specialized commissions, ten work groups and put together more than 12,500 proposals. Among these are proposals to limit the politicians' tax benefits, to reduce retirement age to 65 in favor of youth employment or to create a public bank system.

As was the case in 1968, both the press and the politicians are confused about the 15-M Movement. The PP, ignoring what the protesters were crying (¡PSOE, PP, misma mierda es!, “PSOE, PP, all the same shit!”) was very fast to proclaim that the movement simply showed the country's despair at the government's inability to deal with the crisis. Right-wing media have used it to reassert themselves in their own views, where Socialism equals public discontent.

Even without intending to take a clear political stance regarding the left-right spectrum, many of the reforms demanded by the 15-M Movement do tend toward the left, with a double consequence for Spanish politics: on one hand, the movement has scared off many right-wing spectators, who range from those who view it with skepticism to those who perceive it with horror and outrage, as the step before anarchy. On the other hand, it has greatly hurt the PSOE's image, pointing at all of Zapatero's broken promises of social policies. It has brought to the surface a bitterness that many traditional left-wingers already felt, against a government which calls itself Socialist while kowtowing to the banks.

The question that journalists have insistently asked is, who do they support then? No one. There lies their weakness and their strength. They support an ideal of democracy. What they are trying to change is the very system that provides for government and laws. An ambitious goal, but a very political one as well. Idealism, nevertheless, usually finds it hard to work its way into politics and, when it does, it usually involves the sacrifice of a great part of itself. It is obvious that the 15-M Movement's nonpartisan stance aims to restore democratic ideals. However, they know exactly what it is they want to change and how. Whether they manage or not is another question.

On July 9, 2011, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the former minister of the interior, hinted at the movement in his first speech as the PSOE's candidate for the next general elections. He proposed an internal debate on the reformation of the electoral system. True concern or populism to quiet the masses? In any case, to have worked its way into Rubalcaba's agenda is perceived by many as the movement's first humble victory. In the end, politicians are meant to listen to the people they are representing, whether they voted for them or not.

As does the reformation of the electoral system, the main questions that the 15-M Movement tries to revise go straight to the heart of the power hierarchies in the country. The task they have set for themselves is not an easy one. Still, in any democracy, much worse than corruption itself is people's acceptance of it as a natural part of their system. Spain will never attain a healthier democracy unless Spaniards increasingly continue to protest and question it, as they did during those rare spring days after May 15. If they do and whatever the outcome is, it will be the 15-M Movement's biggest achievement: to have woken up its fellow citizens into the political struggle.