On 25 September, thousands of Spanish citizens from students to pensioners set out to surround the parliament building in Madrid, demanding an end to the current political system and the establishment of a new Constituent Assembly. The deputy prime minister dared to compare it to 23-F, the failed coup in 1981 when pistol-popping Civil Guards took the parliamentary chamber hostage. Days before last week’s action, the national police fenced off the whole area. I was in a bar nearby when three cops wandered in for a drink the night before the demonstration. What did they think about it? ‘As police officers, we’ll do our job,’ said one. ‘But we are also individuals in society. I’d be out there with them.’ ‘Yup, 90 per cent of us would be there,’ said another. Maybe the other 10 per cent included the riot police, who in the event did their job with convincing enthusiasm.
25-S, as it’s inevitably known, was a smaller and more radical action than the march I attended on 15 September, which was convoked by social organisations and trade unions. And 15-S – around 65,000 people from all over the country – was in turn smaller and more discouraged than the mass gathering and sit-in of indignados in May last year. The 15-M movement became a network of neighbourhood assemblies, advising local people over the loss of their homes or jobs, and training for participatory democracy via endless meetings. ‘Even after the authoritarian period, we never learned not to be dictators, how to behave with respect, to listen to each other,’ an activist shouted in my ear as we trudged through the heat among colour-coded ‘tides’ of sectors. ‘As there’s no democracy in Spain, we have to build it between ourselves first. It’s a long-term thing.’ The future is vague but the past is never far away; one chant went: ‘Rajoy! Shame your mother couldn’t abort!’ Actually the past is being repeated here, as abortion rights get pared back to what some call Francoist levels.
But democracy is the big issue. Elena, a young lawyer working with the Platform for a Citizens’ Audit of the Debt, articulated the opinion of just about everyone I met – even the Catholic right disapproves of financial speculation – that ‘the banks and the corporate elite’ engineered the transfer of private debt to the public purse. This transfer was effected ‘totally undemocratically, most recently in July’s EU bank bailout; it was never put before the citizens.’
The prime minister has made the most of the Popular Party’s absolute majority to discuss nothing with parliament, let alone with the people. The main reason Mariano Rajoy has been postponing any formal request for a second, ECB bailout seems to be concern for the PP’s performance in the upcoming Galician election; he’s essentially a party man. He governs by decree, 27 of them to date. He has never addressed the nation directly. He talks as if Spain wasn’t part of Europe: I feel your pain but it’s not my decision, we have to do ‘what Europe says’. The day after 25-S, the 2013 Budget promising further cuts was presented by a trio of ministers including Luis de Guindos, formerly of Lehman Brothers. These savings will barely cover the rise in interest on sovereign debt.
Spanish people feel overwhelmed by the institutional and political crises provoked, or exposed, by the economic crisis. The Socialist Party and the unions, having collaborated over the first great bonfire of jobs, salaries and services in 2010, are pretty well discredited. The transition settlement of 1978 has run its course, I was repeatedly told. (Catalan discontent is one symptom, exploited by the regional government to distract from its embrace of PP cuts.) But how can the process of drafting a new constitution be launched from a position of powerlessness? People only know that the system can’t be patched up. A huge banner carried on 25-S, borrowed from the Argentine experience ten years ago, sums it up: ‘¡Que se vayan todos!’ Out with the lot of them!