How the indignados motivated Spain

Protestors gather at Puerta del Sol square on May 15, 2012 during an anti-government rally in Madrid.

Story highlights

  • Sandra León: Spain's political landscape has been relatively calm despite the austerity measures
  • But the Spanish indignados movement have gathered support in a country with low civic engagement
  • León says a majority of citizens sympathize with the aims of the indignados
  • Public discontent may shift from the streets to the political stage should this bailout not be enough

Spain has finally asked for a bank bailout from its eurozone peers, to weather the financial crisis that hampered its finances during recent months.

Although Spain's Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has stressed that there are no austerity conditions attached to it, the statement from the Eurogroup made clear that supervision over the country's budget will be strengthened.

The budget deficit aims may mean the Spanish government will implement further structural reforms, such as a reducing the country's unemployment benefits, or raising the retirement age.

As a result, we may see public disaffection shifting from the streets to the political arena.

Sandra León

Unlike other countries -- such as Greece, for example -- in Spain public disaffection with the economic crisis has not yet had a significant impact on the country's traditional political forces.

Instead, Spanish citizens have mainly channeled their anger and frustration over austerity measures through social mobilization, while the political landscape has remained virtually the same.

Although there has been shift in power -- the Popular Party (PP) took over after general elections in November 2011 -- the political arena continues to be dominated by the two largest parties, PP and the Socialist Party, PSOE.

The striking aspect of the emergence of the Spanish indignados movement was that it came about in a country which has, traditionally, had low levels of civic engagement and social participation.

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While the indignados have been discredited by the right-wing mass media as being a marginal force mainly followed by perroflautas (Spanish slang to describe wandering minstrels), the movement -- which had its anniversary on May 15 -- has shown no signs of fading away. Indeed, a majority of Spanish citizens sympathize with its aims and support its goals.

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Recent studies show the indignados are not just a movement of the young and marginalized. Many participants are middle-aged, highly-educated and employed, and a majority of them consider their current financial situation relatively good. At the same time, many share a concern about their future financial situation.

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For a short period the indignados managed to get a reform of the electoral system, that would improve the chances of small parties to be represented in parliament, on the policy agenda. But they have not yet achieved any significant policy goal.

Now, some proposals to improve democracy and control corruption have been pushed aside as focus turns instead to the deteriorating economic situation. The movement's current demands focus on the unbalanced distribution of economic costs due to the austerity measures.

This does not mean that the indignados have failed, as their most important success indicator is the activation of the protest "muscle" in Spanish society, particularly among the network of social organizations at the local level.

But if the bank rescue results in further reductions of social welfare funds, or if it is a prelude to the bailout of the state, the government risks unleashing social protest in a way existing social movements may not be able to channel.

Public discontent may then shift from the streets to the political stage. This could ruin the leverage of the traditional political forces and, in turn, the capacity of the political system to manage the economic crisis.

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