By Tom Gill
Tomorrow Spain’s parliament will hold its traditional ‘state of the nation’ debate. But this year the monopoly of elected politicians over discussing the big questions facing the country has been broken. For less than a mile away from the Cortes, an alternative ‘state of the nation’ debate will be held by ordinary citizens in the landmark Puerta del Sol.
The ‘indignados’ are back. Six weeks after the country’s disaffected, unemployed youth exploded on the scene, occupying the capital’s main square and plazas across the country, the “15-M” movement is once again threatening the established order by refusing to play by rules set by an increasingly discredited political establishment.
On 15 May Spain was thrown into turmoil by scenes all too similar to those in the revolting Arab World. A week later local elections appeared to say that nothing had changed. The right-wing opposition Popular Party thrashed the (now) almost undistinguishable governing Socialists, in a game of political alternancia that has played out ever since the end of the dictatorship 30 odd years ago.
But since then, Spain’s two main political parties have betrayed their fears that perhaps everything may be different from now on. Initially under the radar and the more openly, they have been multiplying contacts with the indignados and making public noises that actually they are listening to the movement’s concerns. But they have budged on nothing of substance, and the debate tomorrow in the Congreso will very likely confirm that this has all just a PR stunt.
Only the Communist-led United Left appears serious about taking up the demands of the so-called 15-M movement. This is in large part because there is much common ground on the economy, political reform and social questions. So, United Left will be putting their demands to parliament on Wednesday. But with just two seats in the congress of deputies, United Left won’t get much of a hearing.
So the confines of the debate will be very narrow. It will mostly be a sparring match between the two main parties who have already commenced a campaign for the general elections due next Spring. In as much as any real policy discussion will take place it will be focussed on how much and how fast the Government’s austerity measures should be to assuage the speculators in the financial markets and their backers in European Central Bank, IMF and financial capitals of Europe – above all Germany.
But less than 10 minutes walk from El Congreso a rather more open a profound debate will taking place around radical alternatives for the economy, the reclaiming of “social rights”, politics and citizenship. It will be “an alternative, critical and constructive debate that tackles the real problems facing the whole population,” according to the organisers.
The two days of discussions promise to be exciting. For what started as a very amorphous anti-political movement is beginning to take shape.
Initially, the key concerns were unemployment, currently at 35% for people aged 16 to 29, a housing crisis caused by the bursting of a massive speculative bubble, and reforms to the political system to tackle corruption, boost transparency and to break the stranglehold of the two parties that have dominated national politics since the Transition to Democracy in the late 1970s.
Since then, detailed work has been going on to flesh out their proposals, via debating fora – subdivided into specialised working groups – in assemblies across the country.
Among the proposals that are gaining wide consensus are: converting the million unsold homes into a public housing stock for rent; a public bank to provide credit to struggling businesses and industries; an end to the ongoing privatization process of the Cajas, the publicly owned savings banks; an end to evictions; a clampdown on the reckless mortgage lending policies of the banks; a reversal of fiscal reforms of the past 10-15 years to make income taxes more progressive and to increase taxation on companies; and a ban on Spanish companies establishing subsidiaries in tax havens.
Perhaps most significant, given how pro—European the Spaniards have been, is the emergence of a real critique of the European project and Euro currency.
Although they have already suffered drastic public spending cuts and attacks to welfare, Spaniards know Greece, default and yet more austerity is their future. The indignados are not calling for Spain to withdraw from the Euro, to be sure. But instead of the IMF-ECB-EU troika’s solution for the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) of more “flexible” labour markets, cuts to pensions and other unpopular measures to cut public deficits and boost “competitiveness” – they are calling for a plan for growth and jobs through an increase in public spending and a shorter working week.
More than anything else though, the 15-M movement is about action. While the encampments in Spain’s public spaces have now gone, and the headlines in the foreign press too, its visibility in Spain is undiminished. Actions are taking place locally almost daily, from efforts to prevent evictions to loud lobbies of regional parliaments during crucial votes on unpopular measures.
On June 19, 200,000 people, according to some – a million according to others – took part in protests in 50 cities across Spain. Various marches on Madrid are being planned. And a global “mobilisation” has been called for October 15. This may involve a general strike, an idea the unions say they are seriously considering.
The Spanish public are very supportive of the movement and its aims, according to polls released this week. 71 per cent say it is a ‘ peaceful movement trying to regenerate Spanish democracy’ and 79 per cent broadly back its policy proposals.
The 15-M movement still has major challenges, not least creating the democratic structures that maintain the high level of activism among Spain’s youth while producing a representative but strong leadership able to push forward its demands and help build the necessary links with political allies and other supporters like the trade unions.
What’s for sure, it is no flash in the pan.
Spaniards have seen their European dream turn into a nightmare and are in desperate need of a positive plan for the future. The indignados could play a leading role in delivering it.