Throngs of Spanish youth have gathered in more than 150 cities across Spain to protest skyrocketing unemployment, cutbacks to social welfare benefits, and rampant corruption among Spain’s political elite. The massive but mostly peaceful protests (photo galleries here, here, here and here) by disaffected youth represent the first significant manifestations of social unrest since a decades-long housing bubble burst in late 2007 and plunged the Spanish economy into a deep and prolonged recession.
The self-styled May 15th Movement took to the streets of Spanish cities on Sunday, May 15, to demand “real democracy now” and a new economic policy ahead of municipal and regional elections on May 22. United by anger over a youth jobless rate that is hovering at around 45 percent — and the inability of a largely inept political class to do anything about it — the May 15th Movement is a conglomeration of several smaller protest groups, including Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!) and Toma La Plaza (Take the Square).
The Spanish protesters have been inspired by the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world, and are using social media networks to coordinate the demonstrations. (One of Twitter’s most popular conversation topics in recent days has been the hashtag #15m, or May 15, which marks the start of the #SpanishRevolution.)
The largest protests have been in Madrid, where tens of thousands of demonstrators have converged on the city’s emblematic Puerta del Sol square (which protesters have renamed “Plaza SOLución”). Similar protests are under way in other major Spanish cities, including Barcelona, Bilbao, Granada, Palma de Mallorca, Santiago de Compostela, Seville, Valencia, Vigo, and Zaragoza. The protestors have vowed to remain mobilized at least through the May 22 elections, in defiance of a ban that Spanish authorities have placed on the demonstrations.
After forcibly evicting some 150 protesters from the square in Madrid on May 17, police changed their approach and have mostly stood by as the activists vowed to resist peacefully if authorities make any further attempts to dislodge them. A spokesperson for the May 15th Movement has described the protests as a “peace encampment” while youth have been chanting famous slogans of resistance that date back to Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war, when General Francisco Franco laid siege to Madrid. Protesters have also circulated flyers citing a provision of Spain’s post-Franco constitution that gives citizens the right to protest without prior authorization.
Up until now, anti-government protests in Spain have been relatively few and far between, partly because of the strong ties that labor unions have with the ruling Socialists. But Spain’s nascent youth democracy movement is a spontaneous grassroots groundswell that is not left versus right but rather young versus old. The youth movement is highly inclusive and its members — who represent all of Spain’s socio-economic classes — have expressed disgust with both the governing Socialists and the main opposition conservative Popular Party. A ubiquitous protest slogan has been: “PSOE y PP, la misma mierda es,” which loosely translated means “Socialists and Conservatives, they are the same crap.”
The protesters do have a point. For example, corruption in Spain is endemic and politicians from both major parties have been implicated in scandals in all of Spain’s 48 provinces. The Justice Ministry currently is investigating more than 700 cases of high-level corruption, including 264 cases involving Socialists, 200 involving Conservatives, and hundreds more involving smaller regional parties.
Spain’s ailing economy too is a symptom of much broader problem, including the inability of the social welfare economic model to create jobs, as well as a highly paternalistic labor market that benefits an older generation seeking to preserve the status quo. Although Spain’s economic crisis has affected workers in all age groups, youth unemployment is more than double the overall jobless rate of 21.2 percent, the highest in the industrialized world. Around half of Spain’s youth are unemployed and the other half that is working often does so under highly exploitative employment conditions.
Spain’s status quo is preserved by a dysfunctional economic, political, and judicial system as well as an unwritten social contract whereby many college graduates work in poorly paid apprenticeships (often earning the minimum wage of €641 or $900 a month), sometimes for ten years or more, leaving them no other option than to live at home with their parents, sometimes until their mid-thirties. (By way of comparison, 63 percent of all Spanish workers earn less than €1100 per month, creating the neologism mileurista, a one thousand euro earner.)
In its Regional Economic Outlook for Europe, the International Monetary Fund on May 12 warned that youth unemployment in Spain raises the prospect of a “lost generation.” Colloquially, the current generation of Spaniards between the ages of 18 and 34 is known as the “Generación ‘ni-ni’: ni estudia ni trabaja,” roughly translated as “The Neither-Nor Generation: Neither Studying Nor Working.” According to a recent survey, more than half of Spanish youth say they have no purpose in life and nearly all of them believe they are worse off than their parents.
Opinion polls forecast devastating losses for the Socialists on May 22, as voters punish them for the government’s handling of the economic crisis and the painful austerity measures aimed at avoiding a debt default. Polls published in the centre-left El País and the center-right El Mundo newspapers predicted broad losses for the Socialists including in strongholds such as Barcelona, Seville, and the Castilla-La Mancha region. According to El Mundo, the Socialist Party is “on the edge of a catastrophe.”
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced on April 2 that he would not stand for a third term in general elections scheduled for March 2012. Some in the party believe a new leader could halt the fall in the Socialists’ popularity.
Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the conservative Popular Party, stands to make huge gains in the elections on May 22. But after eight years in the opposition and after many months on the campaign trail, he has yet to say how he plans to reverse Spain’s economic fortunes if he finally becomes prime minister in 2012. If anything, Rajoy is emblematic of the mindset that ails contemporary Spain. Although he has lost two general elections to Zapatero (in 2004 and 2008), Rajoy hopes he will be third time lucky, not because he is a superior candidate, but by default because the Socialists have self-destructed. And so the cycle continues.
The BBC has described the protests in Spain as “echoes of the pro-democracy rallies that revolutionized Egypt.” Of course, the pro-democracy rallies in Egypt have not really revolutionized, much less democratized, Egypt. Nor are the protests in Spain likely to usher in very much “real democracy now” or in the future.