The view from the ground.

Sí, Se Puede

Spain's lost generation has taken to the streets -- and they're no longer just looking for work.


MADRID — The famous statue of King Carlos III in the Spanish capital’s central square, Puerta del Sol, has recently been gazing over a round-the-clock makeshift protest camp. Hundreds of young Spaniards have been camping out in sleeping bags and tents in the run-up to nationwide municipal elections on May 22: the country’s lost generation occupying the space normally roamed by tourists. They claim to be "apolitical," but there is no doubting that they have seized the political initiative from the country’s old-school politicians.

Of all the dozens of slogans pasted onto the subway entrance at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol by members of Spain’s 15-M protest movement, so named because its activists started their campaign on May 15,  the one that speaks loudest happens to be the simplest: "United by common sense."

Myriad different motives are being pinned to 15-M: "anarchist," "Marxist," "anti-capitalist," even "hooligan" are all words that have been used to describe the array of groups that have been occupying public squares across the country for the past week.

It’s a movement largely generated by the country’s youth. They are the best educated, best informed, most international, and most multilingual the country has ever seen — and with a 45 percent unemployment rate, also one of the most embittered in the country’s history.

Spain’s economic woes have been well documented. The global recession popped the country’s decade-long property bubble, leaving it with a cripplingly high deficit and an overall unemployment rate that has crept up to 21 percent, Europe’s highest. But it’s even worse for young people. A combination of rigid labor market laws, a still-inflated housing market, and years of shortsighted economic policy have together created a perfect storm.

Those Spaniards under the age of 40 who manage to hold a job usually earn less than 1,000 euros per month. The expression "mileurista" — literally, "thousand euro-er" — is now a standard part of the Spanish vocabulary. A two-tier labor system ensures that most young people with jobs have low-paying and unstable temporary contracts, while the lucrative permanent contracts are mainly in the hands of older, white-collar Spaniards.

Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been implementing a hurried and unpopular reform program as he attempts to fend off market jitters. A lukewarm labor reform angered the traditional left by challenging labor unions’ traditional bargaining rights, while leaving businesses dissatisfied. The changes also did little to help the low earners or the youth. The government has also introduced a reform to raise the retirement age and cut back on unemployment subsidies to help trim the deficit. The perception has grown among many Spaniards that Zapatero has abandoned the ideals that got him voted in and is simply obeying the orders of the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

"Is it really necessary to explain the causes?" asked Público newspaper’s columnist Ignacio Escolar. "Is anyone really surprised that in a country that claims to be European, that presumes to sit at the table with the G-20, that only recently claimed to be the seventh largest economic power on the planet, protests erupt when youth unemployment is at 45 percent?" And Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, recently warned that Spain’s youth unemployment rate could have serious consequences.

The popular uprising has inspired sympathy among many Spaniards. Ramon Gonzalez is not part of the 15-M movement and at the age of 68 is much older than most of its members, but he was intrigued enough to visit the protest camp in Madrid. "Young people don’t have work; they don’t have access to housing — it’s unforgivable what is happening," he said as he watched the activists. "I think that young people are realizing that they don’t have access to anything."

But the other side of the political spectrum has a different view. "It’s the typical Socialist get-up in which four people start a supposed revolution on the evening news," sighed right-wing radio shock jock Federico Jimenez Losantos, while the Libertad Digital website headlined an article about the protest, "15-M: Puppets of the left."

But the activists themselves claim that they aren’t motivated by any particular political ideology at all.

"We’re just fed up with the system," Violeta Castelo, a 24-year-old protester told me in Madrid. "It doesn’t matter what the name is, or the political party — it’s always the same." The sentiment was reiterated again and again by those who have been camping out under sagging tarpaulin roofs and depending on food donated by strangers to keep the campaign going.

But the 15-M movement’s most frequently expressed raison d’être is electoral reform to loosen the duopoly of the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the opposition conservative Partido Popular (PP), which have dominated Spain’s politics for the last three decades. This ambition stems not from some ideal of an anarchist state or a primal desire that conservatives be lined up against a wall and shot; it’s the result of years of frustration. The system, they believe, just doesn’t work and these parties do not represent them. It’s not just that the youth are out of work; they also feel politically disenfranchised.

The two political parties in the sights of this unprecedented protest have been predictably baffled. The PP suspects — or claims to suspect — that leftist agitators are at work. And when the Socialists look at the 15-M movement they see people who once upon a time might have voted for them, but who have been driven away by the feeling that the party is now guided by circumstance, not ideas. "I hope those kids don’t let themselves get manipulated," said former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. He could barely have made more apparent how distant he and his party now are from "those kids."

But the demands of protest leaders — if there are any — are still not formally defined and have a somewhat woolly, unrealistic sound to them, such as holding an Iceland-style referendum on paying the national debt, or abolishing the Spanish Senate. But other demands, such as calling for politicians under investigation for corruption to be removed from electoral lists, surely makes sense to anyone — except the corrupt and incumbent. El País newspaper asserted, as the current local election campaign was getting under way, that over 100 candidates on electoral lists were being investigated.

It’s too early to know where the 15-M movement is heading. Perhaps it will fizzle out once the May 22 election campaign has ended — though with a general election on the horizon next year, don’t bet on it. Its activists hope it will become something akin to America’s Tea Party, but without that organization’s right-wing associations.

What’s clear, however, is that mainstream Spanish politics is running out of steam, as the bitterness and banality of the ongoing local election campaign is making abundantly clear. The country’s battered economy and growing jobless lines are equally dispiriting. But if the potential of this lost generation, embodied by the 15-M movement, can be unleashed, there might be room for optimism.

Guy Hedgecoe is co-editor of Iberosphere.com, a website that offers news, comment, and analysis on Spain and Portugal.
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