What has become known as the “Spanish youth revolution” began on May 15, when thousands of people took to the streets in cities throughout Spain, demanding “real democracy now.” The rallies were organized mostly through social networks like Facebook; no union or political party was involved. Organizers issued a manifesto: “We are ordinary people. People who work hard to provide a better future for those around us.” This “we” was emphatically broad: “Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some aren’t. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical.” The manifesto declared that Spain was in deep trouble, much deeper than the country’s politicians understood, and it was time for the people to let them know: “We are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers that leaves us helpless, without a voice.”
The rallies turned out to be only the beginning of a movement still taking shape. Spain is currently facing a serious economic and political crisis. Along with Greece, Portugal, and Ireland, Spain has been hit especially hard by the global recession. Having enjoyed a huge economic boom in the years just before the 2008 financial crisis, Spaniards had begun to feel as rich as the French and the Germans. A sleepy Mediterranean economy, based largely on agriculture, had rapidly given way to an economy based on tourism and real estate. But the growth wasn’t sustainable. Spain has learned (painfully) that housing and tourism aren’t enough to support a major economy. Unemployment—which had remained too high even during the boom—started to rise again at an alarming rate. In 2006, the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent, one of the lowest rates in the country’s history. Now it’s 21 percent, near the highest in its history. As in other countries that experienced a housing bubble, construction workers were the first to be laid off when the bubble collapsed. Then it was service workers. Now, even engineers, architects, and computer scientists fear for their jobs.
A generation of Spaniards has grown up since the country became a democracy with the death of Franco in 1975. Spaniards in their twenties and thirties have seen their share of national crises, but they have also gotten used to thinking of their country as ever on the rise. The Spanish economy grew constantly between 1994 and the third quarter of 2008. Now the tide has clearly begun to recede, and those left stranded are losing patience with the country’s political leadership. In the May 22 regional elections, the governing Socialist Party did badly. Meanwhile, across the Meditteranean, several Arab countries were in turmoil, and some wondered if the revolutionary fervor on the streets of Cairo and Tunis might be on the way to the Iberian Peninsula. In May a bestselling French political polemic was published in Spain to great fanfare. The title of the thirty-page book seemed made to order: Indignez-vous (“Get Angry”). The author, Stephane Hessel, is a ninety-three-year-old retired diplomat and former French resistance fighter who once escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. According to Hessel, his essay is “an appeal to citizens, young and old, to take responsibility for the things in our society that don’t work.” In honor of Hessel’s book, members of the new youth movement have taken to calling themselves indignados.
The decline of the European welfare state is the whole continent’s biggest worry right now. The question for many EU countries is no longer whether or not to cut government programs, but which programs to cut. In this regard, Spain’s choices may be less constrained than Greece’s, but they are getting harder by the day. Not surprisingly, young Spaniards are not optimistic about their country’s future—or their own. The Spanish labor market is especially hard on young adults. Government policy makes it more expensive to fire a forty-five-year-old who’s been at a job for twenty years than to get rid of two twenty-somethings who have only just started. The unemployment rate for Spaniards under the age of thirty is around 40 percent—about twice as high as the overall rate. This fact alone explains much of the indignation behind the indignados.
After the big rallies in May, some indignados decided to stay in the main squares until their voices had been heard. A photograph of the crowd at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid appeared on the frontpage of the Washington Post, and other international news outlets began to pay attention. From the beginning, the big question for this diverse and informal uprising has been: What should the protesters ask for? In Egypt, the answer was clear: Mubarak’s resignation. In Spain, it would not be so simple: new grassroots assemblies struggled to translate general grievances into specific proposals. So far at least, these have been disappointingly vague. The indignados have no clear leader and no leading organization. There have been various lists of demands but no common program for protestors to rally behind. Here and there in the press and on the Web sites of groups that have participated in the protests one finds a few broad recommendations for reform: a new electoral system, a tougher fight against corruption in politics, and a better welfare state.
But it is not clear how exactly the protesters could get politicians to sign on to their program even if they had one. In Spain, candidates for political office are chosen by party leaders. Some parties have experimented with primaries, but these remain uncommon. Thus, voters have only one choice to make every four years, and the choice is among two main options—the Socialists and the right-wing Popular Party—and some other smaller regional groups. Effectively, voters get to choose between parties, but not between candidates within parties. (Referendums are also rare.) The paradox is that the electoral system seems to be standing in the way of all serious political reform—including electoral reform. Needless to say, both major parties are content with the current system.
In addition to this structural problem, the Spanish government is also compromised by corruption—and by the public perception of corruption. In a July poll, 85 percent of Spaniards said they believed corruption is widespread in the country and that it was worst among politicians, businessmen, and judges. In the May elections, there were more than a hundred candidates who had cases for corruption pending in the courts. The May 15 demonstrations were just one sign that Spaniards are becoming less tolerant of this chronic problem than they were before the recession began.
For the most part, the Spanish church has reserved judgment, although Cardinal Rouco Varela, the conservative archbishop of Madrid, has written that the indignados are “young people who don’t know God, don’t know Christ” and “see their lives as broken.” The church’s best response to Spain’s economic crisis has come from the Basque bishops, who tend to be fairly progressive. In April they issued a letter whose title could have been lifted from an indignado Web site: “An Economy to Serve the People.” But despite this rhetorical similarity, it’s probably too soon to associate even the Basque bishops with the protesters.
The Spanish revolution is now on holiday. In a country where most people can take four weeks off in the summer, even a social movement has to think of ways to keep moving when its members are at the beach. Some indignados have talked about taking the demonstrations from the “squares to beaches” (the words are similar in Spanish: plazas and playas). But the main project now is to prepare for events in October. There is talk of another big rally or even a general strike, which would be more difficult to pull off, but also perhaps more effective.
Whatever it achieves in the future, the new movement has already succeeded in getting politicians to talk more about the urgent everyday problems of the people they are supposed to represent. The demands of the indignados may be too nebulous to provide a basis for new policy, but they are already having an effect on the political class’s priorities: the signals coming from the plazas are mixed but undeniably urgent, and the government cannot afford to ignore them.
About the Author
Jordi Pérez Colomé is deputy editor of the Spanish magazine El Ciervo.