Spain's Indignados: The 'original' Occupy reemerges with force

One year after it burst onto the scene, Spain's youthful protest movement has inspired similar efforts globally – and is being embraced by older crowds. But will it shape policymaking?

Juan Medina/Reuters
People banging on saucepans with spoons shout slogans during a gathering marking the one year anniversary of Spain's Indignados (Indignant) movement in Madrid's Puerta del Sol May 15. The movement which spawned similar protests worldwide, reemerges in a new protest over government austerity measures, banks, politicians, economic recession, and the highest unemployment in the eurozone.

Spain’s 15-M movement, the first to occupy public spaces in peaceful protest against leaders’ handling of the global economic crisis, marks its first anniversary today. It has broad public support, but there is little evidence of growing coherence among its members, who share a desire for reform but differ on what it should look like.

Few thought the Indignados, or the Spanish Revolution, would survive, much less spread from the US and Europe to Israel and Australia. But like all its global offshoots, it has been unable to channel protest into influence on policymaking. Spain’s conservative government has dismissed the group and tried labeling it as a political proxy for the left.

However the Indignados, while still refusing to take up any political agenda, appear to be adopting an increasingly assertive role, with the worst economic crisis in Spain's history as a powerful rallying call. The 15-M came back with force last weekend with more than 100,000 people gathered in dozens of Spanish cities. Smaller daily protests continued through yesterday. There were minor violent clashes and several injuries and arrests as police prevented more tent cities from rising.

In Madrid’s emblematic Puerta del Sol, protesters yelled, “People, wake up, the siesta is over.” Last night, thousands gathered to bang pots.

“We were surprised by its survival and its ability to still fill up plazas,” says Fermín Bouza, sociology professor and public opinion expert in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. “It made a forceful showing.”

“But without a structure, it can’t survive. There’s lots of people, but without any visible leadership or agenda. Their biggest challenge is their self-imposed contradictions,” Dr. Bouza adds. “They need more coordination to survive, but they don’t want to coordinate further. The more they grow, the weaker they are because accountability is harder to manage.”

A mixed anniversary

The movement is named after May 15, when police forcefully removed the first group of protesters who had set up more than a dozen tents in Puerta del Sol under the slogan “They don’t represent us.”

It started off as a youth initiative, but a year later is increasingly backed by older crowds, retirees, labor union members, and a myriad of disenfranchised movements. While the group refuses any political alliances, it mostly espouses left-leaning ideas, albeit ones supported by many in the center.

Spain is already immersed in a painful double-dip recession, one that will last at least for another couple of years, most analysts agree. Unemployment, already at 23 percent, keeps rising; severe austerity keeps crippling the welfare state; and the future is altogether uncertain.

The 15-M movement ultimately understood it could not influence short-term decisions, as it lacked the numbers or organization. It doesn’t even have visible leaders. Everyone has the same vote and voice, in a form of direct democracy that is nonetheless stymied in promoting direct change.

The movement wants more political and financial accountability, but members have failed to agree on any specific demands, other than rejecting banks bailouts while defending the welfare state and demanding more job creation, public housing, and better wages.

More than 35 percent of Spaniards say they feel represented by the 15-M, against almost 58 percent who don’t, although almost half agree the movement has had a positive effect by stirring up debate, according to a poll published this week by the newspaper La Razón.

Its future is entirely uncertain, its own members admit. José Luis Saiz, a 36-year old salesman, was deeply involved last year in publishing a newsletter of the 15-M. In interviews then, he was inspired and optimistic.

“But I got fed up with everyone trying to do their thing. Too many claiming power but no real leadership. I don’t have a lot of time, and things at the national level didn’t really accomplish much. We decentralized as a result, and at the neighborhood level we are getting a lot more done,” says Mr. Saiz.

“The 15-M is like a groundhog, always working under the radar. And it’s becoming more political now. At the beginning, it was a lot of people with ideas, but now we are focusing on specific ideas.”

Analysts largely agree that the 15-M is limited by its own contradictions. “Throughout this year, the movement has moved forward in their process of self-organization, especially in the neighborhoods and squares. It’s hard to predict the future, but taking into account that the economic crisis, I think the movement will survive,” says Jaime Pastor, political science professor at UNED, a university here, and a specialist in mass movements.

“It won’t be alone, either, and its autonomy is not guaranteed. But it will have to improve on decisionmaking and coordination, and still achieve some partial victories,” Dr. Pastor says.

He points to housing evictions, dozens of which have been delayed or cancelled under pressure from peaceful sit-ins. “They haven’t achieved anything concrete on evictions, but the 15-M is responsible for putting the issue on the political agenda.”

Dr. Bouza sees no alternative for the 15-M but to seek a bigger political role. “It’s impossible to deny association to the left and right. That balance is absurd, especially because most of their supporters come from the left.”

“On first glance, their future is not very good,” Bouza adds. “That doesn’t mean they won’t find a way to succeed. The movement has already influenced public opinion and galvanized  opposition against the handling of the crisis, and against corruption. But I can’t see the 15-M changing governments or voter intention.”

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