Inspired by Arab Spring, Spain's youthful 15-M movement spreads in Europe

Young Spaniards railing against political stagnation and high unemployment are protesting in 166 cities across the country and have sparked other protests in Europe.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Demonstrators in tents spend the night at Sol square during a protest in Madrid, on Friday, May 20. Spanish university students and youth groups are protesting in 166 cities across the country against the high unemployment rate.

Tens of thousands of disenchanted and unemployed young Spaniards refused to leave tent cities they raised over the week in plazas throughout the country, defying an official ban on gatherings ahead of this Sunday’s municipal elections.

Some are calling the growing youth movement a "Spanish Revolution" – spread via Twitter and Facebook – that's reminiscent of the 1968 French student movement that catalyzed an unprecedented social and moral overhaul in Europe and throughout the world. Some commentators say the Arab Spring has arrived in Spain. Critics, meanwhile, call it an excuse for a big party.

Regardless, the so-called 15-M movement, a reference to the day protesters occupied Plaza del Sol in Madrid, is calling for political and economic reform in Spain and has spread to 166 Spanish cities and to other parts of Europe. Similar plaza takeovers have been organized through online social networks for Friday in at least 10 Italian cities.

“I’m here against the system, against everything, the banks, the government, the Popular Party, unemployment. You name it. Nothing works,” says Sabina Ortega, a journalism student. “It’s against a two-party system. And my goal is to feel represented. I want politicians to know they are not listening,” she says. “I’ll stay here as long as I have to.”

Unemployed youth

At more than 21 percent, Spain has Europe’s highest unemployment rate and is also suffering from its worst economic crisis in decades, compounded by a series of draconian austerity measures.

One of every two people of working age under 25 is jobless in Spain. They are dubbed “the lost generation.” Young Spaniards are fleeing to other European capitals to find work. Experts, though, say this movement is not just about work, but about feeling alienated and misrepresented.

“This is an expression of discontent and it’s understandable. Spain had a generational shift 35 years ago with the transition to democracy, but it hasn’t had any mobility since,” said José Álvarez Junco, a respected writer, historian, professor in Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and an expert in social movements. “They are facing a wall in their professional and personal expectations.”

Sunday's election

Leaders of the Popular Party, who see Sunday’s elections as leading to the ouster of the governing party in the 2012 general elections, have criticized the movement, while the government and Socialist Party have tried to capitalize on the resentment – although apparently without much success.

“There is a certain arrogance from the country’s leaders. They forgot what happened 35 years ago when we, because I’m one of them, came to positions of power at a very early age. We should recognize that, but I doubt it will happen because they dismiss them as a rowdy group of youngsters,” says Mr. Junco.

“But logically, the Popular Party will benefit from this. More people will decide to skip this election and that benefits the right."

Polls even before the plaza takeovers already forecasted the ruling Socialist Party suffering a serious defeat, losing towns and provinces it has controlled for decades to the opposition right-leaning Popular Party.

Reminiscent of 1968 France

But the movement's ability to achieve concrete change is unlikely, at least not through plaza takeovers. The protests are heterogeneous and lack leadership and clear demands, aside from a complete overhaul of the political system.

“It’s impossible for a movement without demands to succeed,” Junco says. “It reminds me of May 1968 in France. There is a component of spectacle, but also a great moral expression, a revolution, shaking of the moral conscience, that nonetheless lacks any political achievement.”

The protests began last weekend when police forcefully removed about a dozen tents in Madrid’s main square Puerta del Sol. Inflamed, young people thronged to the square, swelling in number every day, in what is now a tent city the thrives on donations – from food and blankets to power generators – to keep the movement alive.

United in frustrations, divided in message

It has attracted people of all ages and social groups united only by their frustration with the leadership of what many believe is a corrupt elite deaf to the demands for change from the masses.

On the main square, there was an image of a Nazi officer with the swastika replaced by a euro symbol. Slogans were numerous: “This is not a crisis. It’s fraud,” “Don’t vote for them,” “You are all enemies,” “We are not anti-system, the system is anti-us,” and “We will not pay for this crisis.”

There are also posters written in English: “Stop the new world order” and “Democracy is our fight.”

The crowds rose their hands, palms facing forward, chanting: “They don’t represent us. These are our weapons.” Other banged on pots. There was guitar playing, drinking, dancing, and anti-system bashing aplenty.

Just about everyone has a different motive or reason to be there and a different goal. Some want an overhaul of the electoral system, others an all-out revolution, others a reform of the financial system. Some plan to vote, others will cast a no-vote, and most say they will stay away in protest.

“I’m tired of being governed by people who don’t represent me,” says Denis, a political science student who refused to give his last name. "We are all fed up and that is the only thing we have in common. We want our rights back.”

The Electoral Board on Thursday banned a march that protesters planned for Saturday, saying political gatherings are not allowed during the week before the elections. Organizers, however, say they have no political agenda and indeed they are calling for no-vote and criticizing all of Spain’s mainstream parties.

On late Friday, the group voted in favor of extending their plaza takeovers but to avoid clashes voted against a march.

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