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Europe, Spain

Spanish occupy movement faces electoral test

by Tom Gill

Spain gave the world the ‘indignados’, the movement of ‘indignant ones’ that become a global phenomena October 15 when millions from dozens of countries took to the streets.

Yet less than a month from general elections in the home of this momentous street rebellion, it is as if nothing ever happened. On November 20, one political party of bankers looks certain to be replaced by another.

No nos representan (“They do not represent us”) was one of the central slogans of indignados movement that was born on May 15 when angry and dinsenfranchised youths started their occupation of Plaza de Sol in Madrid and central squares in cities across the country.

If the mainstream politicians heard that shout of anger, today there is no sign they are heeding it.

An out-of-touch parliament continues policies of austerity, privatisations and other measures that benefit the rich and hurt the poor. For example, over the summer the Socialist Government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pressed through reforms to labour law that extend the move away from permanent contracts. And, with the support of the opposition Popular Party, the Socialist administration passed a “balanced budget law’ enshrining austerity – hitherto imposed externally from Brussels -into the Spanish constitution. 

Austerity failing

Unemployment, a prime catalyst of the popular revolt, remains at over 20 percent and 45 per cent with those under the age of 25. And it may well rise further. The Spanish economy, the fifth largest in Europe, has been in recession, or flatlining, since 2008.

In the past 10 days all three main international credit agencies confirmed the failure of the austerity policies by downgrading the country’s sovereign debt on fears of declining growth prospects. Up until September last year, that is before the worst of the cuts had been felt, at least one of the three large agencies still rated Spain at the highest level of triple A. 

Support for the Socialists – who moved sharply right in May 2010 after international financial speculators launched an attack on the country over weakening public finances – has understandably collapsed. But opinion polls also show that the opposition Popular Party is heading for an absolute majority in the Cortes, the lower house, next month.

But this party is offering the same medicine that, rather than reviving the patient, is killing it. If anything the Popular Party is an even more reliable friend of the banks and big business than the Socialists. They have most zealous in cutting health and education budgets, which are controlled by the party in regional and local government. And they threaten to scale this up into an austerity “shock” plan, together with a major attack on employment rights much desired by the IMF, should they win power nationally.

Furthermore, betraying not-too-distant political roots close to dictator Franco, the Popular Party view the rebellious indignados almost exclusively as a security problem.  

So what has gone wrong?

The May local elections were instructive in answering that question.

This offered an opportunity to be rid of politicians seen as unresponsive and corrupt and replace them with people who more closely reflected the concerns of the movement. Instead, the simplistic message from the indignados was that the entire political class was rotten.

The result in practice was simply to replace one set of rotten politicians with another. The Popular Party swept the board as the Left vote evaporated amid disillusionment with the Socialists’ sharp right turn. This is now set to be repeated in national elections next month, unless the indignados wake up and smells the coffee.

For Cayo Lara, who is leading the radical United Left party into the elections, those who spoil or leave their ballot papers blank are simply “allowing the bankers to carry on doing what they want.” For his small radical party, which has thousands of councillors across the country but just two MPs, the extra-parliamentary rebellion has and will continue to play a crucial role for social change. But it “must be converted into power with the country’s institutions to change the reality that the rebels don’t like”, and this means “channelling their proposals” into parliament.

Over the past six months, it has already given the movement a parliamentary voice, for example, by reading out to MPs statements with its key demands. Now, Lara is calling on those involved in the May 15 movement – as well as disaffected Socialist voters – to vote for United Left.

In some respects this shouldn’t be such an ask. After all, they are the only national party promising to challenge the “system”, the casino-style financial capitalism so hated by the May 15 movement. Its policies are very similar to those advanced by the indignados, from a public and democratic control of the banks and the protection of public services from cuts and privatisation to a more pluralistic and popular democratic political system that breaks the stranglehold of the two big parties.

But the United Left doesn’t see the indignados simply as a potential electorate for next month’s poll. As an organisation with clandestine roots and long, close connections to organised labour, it recognises the movement as the most significant mass radicalisation of the Spanish people since the battles the Spanish Communist Party led to restore democracy in the 1970s: its appetite for direct action from the take-over of public spaces to home foreclosures; its hunger for radical solutions to society’s ills; above all, its capacity for organising and politicising people in very large numbers, particularly the youth.

Lara has stated that United Left members are active in the movement but the party has no ambition to lead it. However, United Left has kicked start an effort to engage United Left in a structured fashion with the new breed of activists born out of the town square occupations.

Convocatoria Social

To this end, in July United Left launched a “Convocatoria Social”, what it describes as a “participative process for a new political programme for the left,” and a “contribution to the struggle and mobilisation for a social alternative to exit the crisis and achieve real democracy”.

Tapping into an explosion of political debating since May 15, the United Left has been holding some lively meetings of its own: 500 odd local assemblies in total these past three months. Decisions were then brough to regional fora for decision and finally a national assembly on 8-9 October. The results are seven proposed “revolutions”: on the economy, democracy, public services, environment, equality, culture and peace.

Some 15,000 people have taken part in the process with the majority not United Left party members. Of the 650 delegates who agreed the programme earlier this month, a third were drawn from outside the party.

United Left’s ‘opening’ has also extended to candidates for the Spanish Congress and Senate, and a number of figures from the May 15 movement have emerged to stand.


Despite early positive results from the exercise, United Left knows the challenges are huge. At 6%, it is starting from a very low base, and it is quite clear that its bid to “break with the neoliberal hegemony” will not happen overnight.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly the domination of the mass media exercised by the two main parties: last week it was announced that there will be a Presidential style televised dual between the leading candidates, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba and Mariano Rajoy, on November 7, reinforcing the idea that this is a two-horse race.

United Left is trying to make up for this lack of visibility for the party and its policies by a clever use of social media which has been used so successfully by the indignados in Spain and worldwide.

And it still has to tackle suspicions – wide of the mark – that because it has held power locally alongside the Socialists and at different times in the past sealed national electoral pacts with the Socialists, it is somehow part of what is seen as a corrupt self-serving political elite. 

Finally, Spain’s Communists have sought to broaden their base before, leading to the creation of United Left in 1986, but this only had temporary success. However, Spain, like the rest of Europe, is living exceptional times, times that make United Left’s radical message resonate like never before.

On October 15, the continued vibrancy of the indignados was confirmed when hundreds of thousands in over 80 towns across the country mobilised once again in support of a new order. For United Left, if Spain’s new rebels, for one day on November 20, make the decision to back them, that new order will inch a bit closer.

United Left’s Economic Revolution – Key Points

  •  Cut taxes on incomes below Euros 21,000, increase taxes on profits by banks, big companies and financial transactions, reinstate tax on assets (impuesto de patrimonio) and introduce tax penalties / incentives for green business activities
  • Push back plans to cut deficit to 3% to 2016 as intermediate demand, with ultimate aim to reject the Euro Pact public deficit ceiling
  • Reject bail-out of failing private banks and nationalise failing banks as part of plan to create a public banking system that directly funds small businesses
  • Create a public banking system with social and economic development objectives. This will be banned from speculative activities or use of tax havens and will be controlled democratically
  • End the black economy by boosting resources for the tax inspectorate, banning use of tax havens backed up by prosecution for infringers, removal of Euros 500 notes and introduce controls by the tax authorities of all cash transactions above Euros 1000
  • Boost the real economy by better public administration payment terms for small and medium size businesses, upgrading dwellings, investing in reforestation and other parts of the natural environment, invest in labour intensive infrastructure projects and  job creation schemes, particularly for the young, funded by discounts on social security contributions linked to employment with permanent contracts
  •  State must increase its role in the economy, not just to save failing private enterprise, and “correct” market failures, but on a permanent basis, in order to renationalise privatised companies, boost welfare and the efficiency and capacity of public services
  • Change the model of labour relations including reversal of recent hire and fire labour reforms, reintroduce the primacy of collective bargaining, regularise all types of employment contract, cut the working week (to 35 hours) and impose limits on overtime, reduce the retirement age, boost the minimum wage and introduce a maximum wage
  • Democratise the economy, including empowering workers to participate democratically in the economic planning and management of companies
  • As part of changing the new productive model, green the construction and tourism sectors, and focus on agriculture as a strategic sector that is ‘productive, sustainable and social’
  • Boost domestic public and private consumption, reinstating the role of the public sector in the economy
  • As well as prioritising the creation of jobs, protect the unemployed, by offering free public transport and ending cuts to essential services such as heating, electricity, water   
  • Put in practice constitutional rights to a “dignified dwelling” including by stopping home repossessions/evictions

For Spanish speakers here’s more on the Convocatoria Social and the proposed Seven Revolutions: http://www.convocatoriasocial.org/

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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