Spain’s Socialist Utopia Mugged by Reality

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.”