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.
Remarkably, this combined economic and political crisis did not lead to massive protests until 2011. In contrast to countries like Greece, the protests were not in reaction to adjustment measures, which were adopted in May 2010 by the Socialist government. The protest seemed to await the formation of a variety of groups that became active in early 2011. These groups used social networks to mobilize around different demands: jobs for the unemployed, housing for those who could not pay their mortgages, protests against limits to downloads from the Internet (a restrictive law was being discussed at the time) and the bias of political institutions in favour of the bigger parties.
All these groups came together around a single platform – Real Democracy Now (Democracia Real Ya, DRY) – which was the basis for the demonstration on May 15. The platform called people to “Get Outraged!”, following the title of Stéphane Hessel’s essay Time for Outrage! Eschewing any link to a political party, it denounced the irresponsible way in which the political and economic powers were managing Spain’s economy and sought to make them accountable.
The protest focused on national issues, but many of the demonstrators were also influenced by events in other countries: the protests of Greek youth in December 2008, the Portuguese mobilizations led by so-called Geraçao a Rasca (“precarious generation”) in March 2011 and certainly the Arab Spring revolts in early 2011. For some, the WikiLeaks affair was also a factor contributing to the protests.
If the 15M movement was born on the day of that demonstration, May 15, when people mobilized all over Spain, it was consolidated during the week that followed. On the night after the protest, a group of demonstrators in Madrid decided to stay in Puerta del Sol – the central square where the demonstration ended – as a symbolic act to “take the street.” In reaction, on the third night police tried to force the 3,000 people holding an assembly to leave the square.
But then the unexpected happened. The next day, thousands of people joined them in the square to show their support. By the fourth day a real campsite had been installed, and it was emulated in other cities around Spain. It had several kitchens that fed visitors as well as those encamped, a first-aid section, a library and several committees in charge of logistics (legal issues, communication with the media, translation). In addition, several working groups were created to organize discussions on different topics (environment, education, economy, politics, feminism) in open assemblies in different spots around the square.
Mobilization was enhanced by the fact that these events took place during an election campaign. Local and regional elections were called for Sunday, May 22. According to Spain’s electoral law, no campaign activities are allowed during the 24 hours before election day (this is called “reflection day”). The Central Electoral Committee thus declared the movement’s activities in the square in violation of the law. However, the protesters claimed that their right to meet had priority and stayed. At midnight between Friday and Saturday – when “reflection day” was supposed to start – around 30,000 people, according to the press, participated in a “silent cry” to protest against their freedoms being curtailed. The Minister of the Interior decided not to evacuate the square as long as things proceeded peacefully.
People were invited to reflect on their vote. The idea that the two main parties “do not represent us” was widely shared, but the movement did not give its support to any party, nor did it call for abstention. In fact, turnout in the local and regional elections went up from 64 to 66 per cent.
Many observers thought that the movement would fade away after the elections. But the movement continued although it soon took on a new shape. The following months saw the activity in Puerta del Sol replicated in many neighbourhoods and cities across the country. When the campsite in Sol was evacuated by the police on June 12, hundreds of assemblies were already operating and communicating among themselves all over the country. Many of them still exist today, even if the intensity of their activity has varied since May 2011. According to a December 2011 survey, 12 per cent of the population had participated in actions related to the 15M movement.
One of the most original characteristics of the 15M movement is the speed with which it acquired its own well-functioning organization. Discussions and decisions take place in open assemblies characterized by horizontality (no hierarchies or leaders can be identified) and plurality (anybody can join, regardless of one’s ideology). Before any assembly starts, information is given to the attendants on the signals to be used during the meeting. These signals are based on the sign language used by deaf communities and aim at facilitating dialogue and respect among participants. The most commonly used signs are those for agreement (raising and shaking hands), disagreement (raising and crossing arms) and indicating when one person is being repetitious (raising arms and rolling them around each other).
Decisions are made in local assemblies. In Madrid, where the movement has been especially active, these are coordinated through regular meetings of the chairs (not representatives), each bound by the agreements reached in his or her own assembly. In this meeting each speaker sets out the proposals adopted by his or her assembly so that they can be discussed in all the other assemblies. In the next coordinating meeting the different assemblies report the result of the discussion to see which ones have the support of the movement in the region.
There is great emphasis on achieving consensus. During the first phase this meant that a few people could block a decision even if the vast majority were in favour. With time, assemblies adopted different kinds of qualified majorities to make the decision-making process less cumbersome. There is also broad agreement that action should be peaceful, so that there have been few violent incidents or even insults to politicians.
In this way of organizing and making decisions, we can trace the influence of groups and individuals that had taken part in the squatter movement, of centres concerned with self-management that already existed in Madrid and of students of participatory methodology at one of Madrid’s universities.
The movement was quite concerned about its relationship to the media, which were perceived as belonging to the “powerful.” Websites such as tomalaplaza.net and its international version (takethesquare.net) were immediately established to disseminate information directly and facilitate communication among the different assemblies. Soon each neighbourhood assembly had its own website. Social networks were used to communicate from the very beginning. For example, the hashtag #spanishrevolution soon became a trending topic on Twitter. And a self-managed, noncommercial social network (N-1) was also developed to be secure from government intervention.
The first issue of the newspaper Madrid 15M was published in February 2012; as of October 2012 there have been seven issues. This publication started in part as a reaction to the fact that information was diffuse, and because older people complained about the overreliance on the Internet and the lack of alternative methods of communication – though by the time the newspaper appeared, many older people had already stopped attending the assemblies.
It was a call for politicians and bankers to assume their responsibilities in the management of the crisis that brought the movement together. The DRY platform pointed to the high level of unemployment, corruption scandals, growing poverty and the erosion of social and labour rights as manifestations of the crisis. Demands included an end to the privileges accorded to the political class, the adoption of measures against tax fraud and ending privatization in the public sector. But there was also a call to citizens to assume their civic responsibility to participate in public life regardless of ideological or other differences. Along these lines, the movement asked for a change in the electoral law to facilitate citizens’ real participation in public life.
By the end of May 2011, after the movement had already taken shape and many assemblies were starting to be formed, the General Assembly in Sol submitted four points to all of them to see if they would be adopted by consensus. These were:
- electoral reform aimed at reaching a more representative democracy based on real proportionality, with the additional objective of developing effective mechanisms of citizen participation;
- implementation of rules aimed at total political transparency to fight corruption;
- effective separation of power among political institutions;
- creation of mechanisms of control by citizens aimed at effective political accountability.
Thus, during the movement’s initial stages the emphasis was more on the political crisis than on economics. Ideological heterogeneity made it easier to achieve consensus on political reforms than on economic policies. Other issues were present in the debates, and some gained a high degree of support. But as mentioned before, the movement looked for as much consensus as possible. Still, the stress on political demands and the degree of internal homogeneity have evolved over time.
As noted, the movement had the support of around 70 per cent of the population in June 2011. One of the most striking characteristics of the movement has been the diversity of its support. In June 2011, one month after the initial events, there was little difference according to age (figure 1), and while support was higher among citizens on the left, it was solid among those in the centre and even on the centre-right (figure 2).
When we move beyond opinions into actual participation (demonstrations, campsites, protests, etc.), 12 per cent of Spaniards said they had taken part in movement activities. The group that participated most was young people aged 25 to 34, while those over 65 participated the least (figure 3). Remarkably, those aged between 35 and 54 participated as much as those 18 to 24. Participation was also higher among those with higher levels of education (17 per cent among those who had completed their secondary education and 19 per cent among those with a university degree). One factor showed the effects of the economic crisis: the percentage of participants who had lost their job or suffered a pay cut was higher than in the population at large.
Achievements and reactions
One clear achievement of the 15M movement was the echo it found in the international press. Newspapers such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Le Figaro, Libération, La Repubblica and Il Corriere Della Sera, among others, dedicated front pages to the event in May 2011. Later on, when Occupy Wall Street began, the main newspapers in the United States referred to its origin in the Spanish movement. On October 24, 2011, Arianna Huffington described it as “the granddaddy of the protest movements sweeping most Western democracies, might just offer a look at the future of what’s to come on this side of the Atlantic.”
But the movement also provoked changes in Spanish politics. As noted earlier, the 15M movement began one week before local and regional elections. Since representative institutions, the main parties and the political class in general were among the protests’ central targets, it is not a stretch to imagine that the protests had some effect on the election result. For example, in the Madrid region, 14 per cent of citizens interviewed by the Centre for Sociological Research afterwards said that the movement had encouraged them to vote although they had not intended to do so before, 13 per cent were influenced in the opposite direction, 9 per cent said they had changed their vote and 9 per cent said they had decided to vote blank or invalid. In Barcelona, where only local elections took place, 14 per cent were encouraged to vote, 22 per cent decided to abstain, 8 per cent changed their vote, and 14 per cent decided to vote blank or invalid. According to some studies, protest voting (voting for small parties) increased in those cities where there had been greater mobilization.
The official results showed that, though turnout was not affected by the movement, invalid and blank ballots increased (1.7 and 2.6 per cent respectively, compared to 1.2 and 1.9 per cent in the previous elections). In addition, the two main parties lost support, from a total of 70 per cent to 65 per cent, with losses affecting especially the still ruling Socialist Party. Clearly the movement was not “antisystem” to the point of eschewing the traditional mechanisms of representative democracy.
Six months later came the campaign for the general election of November 20, 2011, with the polls promising a clear defeat for the Socialists. Turnout, as expected (for reasons unrelated to the movement), went down from 74 to 69 per cent, with the proportion voting for the two main parties decreasing from 87 per cent in 2008 to 73 per cent in 2011. The proportion of blank votes went up (1.4 per cent compared to 1.1 per cent in the previous general election) and, more significantly, so did the proportion of invalid votes (1.3 per cent compared to 0.6 per cent in the 2008 election). This time, arguments for invalid voting and against casting a blank ballot were frequently heard both in assemblies and in social networks and blogs related to the movement.
The movement’s proposals also found some echo in politicians’ declarations. Several representatives of the leftist parties (including the ruling Socialist Party) expressed their personal support for 15M and its demands. The movement’s reaction was to accuse them of electoral opportunism. The surging opposition party (centre-right), which was in power in Madrid, criticized the protesters for being irresponsible and not presenting their demands in the elections.
In the general election, 15M’s demands were reflected in some of the party programs put forward during the campaign. For example, as a response to the proposal to make the electoral system more proportional and introduce mechanisms that would bring politicians closer to the citizens, the leader of the Socialist Party proposed adopting the German electoral system. The combination of party and open lists that characterizes this system was presented as a way to introduce greater proportionality and greater proximity between politicians and voters. The centre-right party also proposed open lists.
Evictions were another issue addressed in several party programs. During the second quarter of 2011, 16,500 evictions took place. The 15M movement has demanded that debtors be allowed to hand back the keys to the lender in exchange for being fully discharged of all mortgage debt. This demand, along with proposals to control housing speculation, was to some extent included in the programs of the left and centre-left.
The possibility for citizens to present binding legislative initiatives to Parliament, as well as proposals to increase the transparency of the decisions of public administrations and fight against corruption, were echoed by several left-wing parties, including the Socialists. Other issues often discussed in the assemblies such as fighting tax fraud, eliminating politicians’ privileges and creating a public bank were also present in several party programs, although not always for the first time.
In February 2012, the new centre-right government approved a Code of Good Practices for financial entities, in an effort to soften the impact of evictions on families at risk of social exclusion, an issue on which the movement has concentrated. While only voluntary, it gives tax breaks to banks that follow it.
The movement itself has also taken the initiative on several issues using available legal procedures. For example, a popular legislative initiative (not binding on Parliament, according to the current law) was presented in December 2011 proposing legislation that would make it compulsory for banks to completely discharge mortgage debt after the house is handed back to the bank. This initiative has been followed by collection of the half-million signatures required to set the initiative in motion. In parallel, groups linked to the movement have frozen almost 400 evictions.
But not all consequences have been positive for the movement. A proposal has been presented by the Minister of Justice to make the Penal Code harsher to fight the “spiral of violence” unleashed by “antisystem groups” to include both restrictions of rights and tougher penalties for street violence. The proposal would make major passive or active resistance a crime against authority and treats publicizing calls to violent gatherings that would seriously affect public order on the Internet and social networks as equivalent to membership in a criminal organization. Both could affect participation in peaceful assemblies or gatherings that were not previously publicized, like the ones that have been taking place since May 2011. More recently, the representative of the central government in Madrid has come out in favour of “modulating” the right to demonstrate so as to rationalize use of public space.
As could be expected, the movement has evolved and changed since its inception in May 2011. However, at the beginning of 2012, half the population still expressed support for it.
After the campsite was cleared on June 12, 2011, thousands of people participated in a demonstration against EU demands on responses to the debt crisis. During the summer there were some stirring moments, as when groups from all over Spain arrived in Madrid on July 23 after a month of walking, or in the protest against the celebration of Catholic World Youth Day in Madrid in August. After the summer, activity seemed to slow down, but the movement was rekindled by the appearance of Occupy Wall Street in September and by the international call for a “United for Global Change” demonstration in 85 countries on October 15.
In May 2012 the movement celebrated its first anniversary and it once again attracted the attention of the international press. By that time, the set of political demands included economic issues and questions of social justice. These were:
- not one more euro to rescue the banks;
- quality public education and health;
- secure employment;
- decent housing;
- basic income for all.
Right before the first anniversary, a group split from “Real Democracy Now,” the joint platform of different groups which had called the demonstration that gave birth to the movement. This group decided to become more institutionalized and register as an organization. Assemblies have also become less active. In Madrid, according to the website and minutes of the regional coordinating assembly, the number of chairs who met regularly every two weeks went down from around 100 to around 20 in December 2011 and 10 in April 2012, just before the first anniversary.
But these numbers do not tell the whole story. Assemblies have been amalgamating, which explains the smaller numbers. Also, some assemblies have stopped sending their chairs to the coordinating meetings, as transportation has become more difficult because of winter weather and the size of the districts and distance between them. In response, two other coordinating assemblies were created for the suburban areas, one in the south and one in the north.
In this context of weakened activities in many of the local assemblies, a group called En Pie (Stand Up) proposed an action for September 25, 2012, under the title “Occupy the Congress.” This proposal included reading a document demanding the dismissal of the government, the parliament and the chief of state; abolition of the constitution, regarded as having been imposed by the previous undemocratic regime; and creation of a new political system under the rule of popular sovereignty. After discussions during the summer on the appropriateness of the name and the content of the manifesto, a coordinating group called 25S was created, leading to a final agreement over a new document and a new name, “Surround the Congress,” which sounded less aggressive.
The demands, both political and economic, were clearly more radical than in previous mobilizations. In its manifesto, the 25S coordinating group states that popular sovereignty has been kidnapped by the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the World Monetary Fund, which are supervising the fiscal consolidation arrangements following the bailout of Spanish banks in June 2012) and financial markets with the consent of most political parties. It also states that the only way to liberate popular sovereignty is to fight against capitalism, call people to civil disobedience and propose a new constitutional process involving participatory direct democracy. The manifesto clearly favours a republican form of government instead of a monarchy. Mention of struggle and legitimate defence and a reference to the initiative being peaceful but not pacifist were also new elements.
Many (although not all) of the associations and assemblies that formed the 15M movement ended up supporting this action. But the police started taking measures even before September 25, requiring groups of more than 20 who met in the preparatory assemblies to identify themselves. According to the law that regulates the right to meet, meetings in public places of more than 20 people can be suspended by the authorities only if they are illicit according to the Penal Code or threaten public order.
The action was mainly centred in Madrid (where the Congress is located), but a few other cities also participated. During the protest the police acted brutally and 35 people were arrested. According to a poll carried out in the days that followed, almost 80 per cent of Spanish citizens, including 60 per cent of those who had voted for the ruling party, supported the protest, while 57 per cent believed that the police overreacted. According to the judge who heard the case some days later, those arrested were innocent since their intention was not to occupy the Congress and they did not disrupt its normal functioning.
But the violence clearly deterred many from attending the various protests that took place during October (including the international protest on October 13), again in front of the Congress. One of the most crucial moments will be on November 14, when a general strike has been called by the trade unions along with many other organizations (the “Cumbre Social”). This initiative is supported by the 25S coordinating group, which has become increasingly prominent.
After a year and a half, the Indignados are still alive and kicking. The high levels of support that the movement has received, in combination with the severity of the economic crisis, the meagre results of the protest in terms of policy change and the harsher stand by the government in placing obstacles to the development of the movement have gradually led to a radicalization of the demands. Support has decreased, but not as much as the passage of time would lead us to expect. During the first stages of the movement, efforts were concentrated on democratic regeneration and political institutions. Now the economic aspects and demands for social justice have taken the fore.
There may be fewer participants in assemblies, but smaller and generally more homogeneous groups have probably compensated for early problems in decision-making due to the absence of hierarchy and the great degree of heterogeneity. At the same time, many citizens have a fresh memory of massive mobilizations, and have shown that they are willing to mobilize again, even if the groups behind the organization of the protest have become more radical in their demands. It is fair to say that September 25 represented a new foundation of 15M, and that the followers of 25S are not entirely identical with the followers of 15M, which was more moderate in both its demands and its initiatives.
Still, we should not forget that the main 15M story is one of respect for and use of representative institutions, alongside a search for ways to deepen participatory democracy. The success of future initiatives will depend on the balance achieved between those initial characteristics and the effectiveness of the initiatives in getting politicians to react. The kind of response or lack of response the movement gets from increasingly distrusted political elites will also influence the extent to which it becomes radicalized in how it expresses its demands. Whatever happens, the movement has already created a new political agenda, and it will not easily disappear.
photo courtesy Julien Lagarge/Flickr