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15-M: Spain’s lost generation finds a voice

Unprecedented “anti-political” protests have hogged the headlines around the country during the local election campaign. But can the nascent 15-M movement make a difference to Spain’s exhausted political landscape?


They toughed out heavy rainfall on their flimsy tarpaulin roofs, they defied the electoral authorities’ prohibitions of their demonstrations, they even stole the limelight from Spain’s campaigning politicians, but can the 15-M movement survive and make a difference?

Many – probably most – of the hundreds of protesters camped out at Puerta del Sol, and also those demonstrating in the centres of other Spanish cities, are educated twenty-somethings, a common profile of those who vote for the governing Socialists or the United Left. But radical, or even moderate, politics is not what is fuelling this movement; instead, economics and disenfranchisement are.

What is driving this is the economic crisis, particularly among the young,” political analyst Fernando Vallespín told Iberosphere. “But also the electoral system, which makes it very difficult for Spanish parties to enter parliament. We have a political system based on two parties and it’s difficult for others. To the left of the Socialist there is the Izquierda Unida, but they have only two seats. It’s almost impossible for other parties to enter the parliament, except for the Basque and Catalan nationalists.”

The 15-M movement’s demands are still not formally defined and include a referendum on paying the national debt and the abolition of the Senate, lifetime wages for politicians and calling for politicians under investigation for corruption to be removed from electoral lists. But the movement’s most frequently expressed reason for existing – electoral reform to loosen the Socialist-Popular Party duopoly – is the result of years of understandable frustration. The system, they believe, just doesn’t work.

“There’s two main political parties, they’re always in the power because the electoral law is unfair,” one protester told Iberosphere. “So we want more representative democracy and more participative democracy.”

The right-wing media’s characterisation of the movement as a bunch of lefty agitators is convenient, but it’s wrong. They are “puppets of the left”, according to Libertad Digital, but a wander down to Puerta del Sol during the last week will have disproved that theory, as activists repeatedly asserted their apolitical status.

The two political parties in the sights of this unprecedented protest have been predictably befuddled by it. The Popular Party suspects – or claims to suspect – leftist agitators, with Madrid’s Esperanza Aguirre insisting left-wing organizations are “manipulating” the protest. The Socialists may have made more understanding noises regarding the 15-M movement, despite their discomfort at its existence. But when former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González declared, as the election campaign was winding up, that he hoped “those kids don’t lets themselves be manipulated,” he and his party looked more out of touch then ever.

A problem for the Socialists?

Ironically, it is the Socialists, rather than the PP, who should be more fearful of this movement, electorally speaking. Los 15-M have not yet become widespread enough to infringe on the PP’s typical electoral base; instead they are likely to further bleed an already haemorrhaging Socialist vote.

The question now is what does the future hold for 15-M? Will it fizzle out, like a Latin American cacerolada protest, once the voting has ended? That looks unlikely, given that it has another empty and inane election campaign on the horizon in next year’s general election. But while its reasons for existing are common sense, it also needs to define exactly what it stands for and make electoral reform its banner issue, to avoid being labelled just another bunch of anti-sistema.

“Our dreams don’t fit into your ballot boxes,” reads one of the movement’s hand-written slogans at its Puerta del Sol base. Now it needs to find a place where they do fit.

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Published: May 21 2011
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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