Why Spaniards are protesting, Arab-style


A man stands among tents as protesters camp at the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid on May 27, 2011.


Pedro Armestre

MADRID, Spain — Ismael Molino may have a mild manner, but his words bristle with outrage as he hands out pamphlets in central Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the hub of a protest movement that has bewildered the country’s politicians, shaken Spanish society and grabbed the attention of the world.

“We’re angry at the political class and the political system — the Spanish political class disgusts me,” says the 26-year-old physicist. “This movement is a way of calling for more democracy.”

The protests began in Madrid the week before Spain’s May 22 local elections — thus the movement’s name: “15-M,” or May 15. Those taking part sought to highlight what they saw as the emptiness and aloofness of the official political campaign. With help from social networks, support quickly snowballed, as thousands occupied Puerta del Sol and then other squares across Spain, many of them sleeping at the protest sites and defying the authorities. "Los indignados" — the outraged — as they are informally known, soon had the attention of the entire country.

The sit-ins in have been painstakingly organized. Despite the makeshift appearance of the Madrid protest, with its leaky tarpaulin roof and tents and sleeping bags scattered around, it has had a childcare center, a group of lawyers to represent its participants, and volunteer osteopaths to soothe aches caused by sleeping outside.

“It was young people that started all this, but then lots of others joined in — people who felt that something had to happen,” explained Molino.

The outrage stems largely from a deep economic crisis that has left Spain struggling to emerge from recession and with an unemployment rate of 21 percent, the highest in the European Union.

Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has sought to fend off fears that Spain will not be able to finance its deficit with a series of deeply unpopular reforms, such as cutting subsidies for the jobless, raising taxes and increasing the retirement age. Young people have been particularly hard hit by Spain’s crisis, with youth unemployment soaring to more than 40 percent. Unable to afford housing, political analyst Fernando Vallespin said young Spaniards see a desperate future.

“There’s a huge problem for young people in Spain economically,” he said. “They are mainly protected not so much by the state as by their families — many of them have to live at home with their parents. There are no opportunities for them.”

This predicament is echoed in many European nations, Vallespin said, although in Spain it is particularly acute: "This might be the first European generation in which the young will not have the same social protection as their parents, they will not have the same income, nor the same security in their jobs.”

But the 15-M movement is not exclusively about economics, nor is it merely a protest against the current government. Its supporters are equally angry about the entire political system that allowed this economic crisis to take root.

A complaint voiced by demonstrators throughout the recent local election campaign was the grip that two parties — the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party — have on Spain’s institutions.

“We believe that the system favors two groups that don’t represent the country,” said Jesus Rodriguez, a 25-year-old student at the Madrid gathering. “We want a system that represents us, not one that is thrown upon us.”

Impunity is another grievance. About 100 candidates for office, mostly from the two main parties, were under investigation for corruption when the recent campaign began, according to El Pais newspaper.

“The current situation is unsustainable. We believe the best way forward is to offer alternatives and ideas — to be active participants, rather than simply restricted to listening and not acting,” said Marcos, a spokesman for 15-M.

In accordance with 15-M policy, Marcos, a 37-year-old graphic designer, does not give his full name, due to a wariness of the personality cult of traditional Spanish politics.

“Since the beginning of this movement, we have made sure there’s no leadership,” he said. “This movement is led by popular means, by assemblies, through consensus. It’s the people who decide where this is going; it’s not one person who drags all the others with him — that’s exactly what we want to avoid.”

Those assemblies in Madrid have approved a raft of broad resolutions, amounting to a manifesto-in-progress that focuses mainly on overhauling the political system. It includes electoral reform, increasing separation of state powers and increased transparency to fight corruption. Other issues that have been debated have a more social flavor, including banning bullfights and ensuring restaurants serve vegan food.

The youth-driven nature of this nascent movement and its determination to overthrow a traditional political model have led many to see it as an extension of the Arab Spring across the Mediterranean. But given that Spain is a democracy with a Socialist government, a more apt comparison might be with Iceland, whose people have rejected, via referendums, paying compensation to other nations following a financial collapse.

With the local elections now over, and 15-M’s emblematic sit-ins gradually dispersing, the movement is trying to maintain its momentum by creating neighborhood assemblies that discuss issues of concern for residents. An obvious difficulty is to find a permanent place in Spanish society without getting too close to the system the movement seeks to revolutionize. But while its future is uncertain, the outrage that gave birth to 15-M is still all too clear.

“It’s not just the fact that there’s no work,” said Ismael Molino. “For years we’ve been putting up with things we shouldn’t have to put up with.”

Read more: The Spanish economy is in such dire straits that immigrants are returning home.