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Spain’s Indignados: For a better representative democracy, and more

by Irene Martín Cortés.

On Sunday, May 15, 2011, about 20,000 people attended demonstrations in more than 50 Spanish cities to protest politicians’ performance in the economic crisis. The slogan that mobilized them was “Real Democracy Now! We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers!” During the week that followed a campsite was established in a central square in Madrid. Five days later the camp had acquired a highly organized structure and hummed with activity. The square was alive with assemblies discussing different issues, in which any citizen could actively participate. Thousands joined as participants or just as sympathizers with these initiatives.

The movement received the support of the vast majority of Spaniards (around 70 per cent in the polls) and created a model of protest that was almost immediately exported to Athens (Aganaktismenoi), some months later to New York (Occupy Wall Street) and a year later to Mexico (Yo soy 132). The movement known as 15M – or as the Indignados (Outraged) – grew unexpectedly in a country known for its high level of political disaffection (lack of interest in politics, much distrust of politicians). It spread to numerous cities where assemblies also operated in a self-organized manner. Its influence has been felt in ways that range from affecting election results to preventing evictions of citizens who cannot meet their mortgage payments in the current economic circumstances.

These activities slowed down after the summer of 2011, but at the time of writing (early November 2012) the new economic cutbacks in Spain have led to a renewal of the movement, even if it now has a somewhat different shape. It has increasingly addressed the economic situation and its actions have been more directly addressed to the political elite and representative political institutions. At the same time, the centre-right government elected in November 2011 has taken a tougher stand against recent protests. Whether or not the movement will play a central role in organizing protests will become clear over the coming months, and will depend on people’s willingness to keep participating with the same intensity at the same time as they have to deal with the devastating effects of the crisis.


The 15M movement is a response to an economic and political crisis. The economic crisis has both external and internal causes. During the second half of 2008 the Spanish economy entered a recession caused both by the subprime loan crisis in the United States and by the so-called “real-estate bubble” in Spain. Housing prices had been going up by more than 10 per cent annually since 1997. When the crisis hit, demand fell and unemployment mounted, especially in the construction sector, on which the Spanish economy relies heavily. By 2011, unemployment had reached 22 per cent, and young people were the hardest hit. Paradoxically, Spaniards under 25, the best-educated Spanish generation, suffer 49 per cent unemployment. Household indebtedness climbed rapidly to become the highest in the European Union, with the ratio of credit to total disposable income reaching 84 per cent in 2009. But the crisis is not just economic: there has been a loss of faith in the political process. In polls since 2009, politicians, political parties and politics have been identified as the third biggest problem facing the country, displacing terrorism, housing and immigration. Only unemployment and economic problems are regarded as more serious.

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About the Author

Irene Martin
Irene Martín Cortés teaches in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain.


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