‘Down with the regime! Long live the people!’

Gareth King reports from the colourful, often eccentric protests that have taken over Madrid’s main square.

Gareth King

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Topics Politics

¡Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!) is an umbrella organisation formed just three months ago at national level in Spain. Its members include at least 400 civil associations ranging from Ecologists in Action and Youth Without a Future to the National Unemployed Association, who decided to move from the confines of the internet out on to the street.

The organisation’s baptism of fire took place in Madrid’s central square, Puerta del Sol, on Sunday 15 May, with the arrest of 19 demonstrators. The protestors initially had the aim of occupying the square at least until local-election day on 22 May. However, since Saturday, at least 60,000 people have voted, in assemblies held in the square and in the surrounding streets, to continue their debates and remain until at least 28 May.

Since 20 May, the Electoral Council has banned the protests, which are considered ‘political acts [that] slow down and interfere with the democratic process of voting’. But political hard-nut, acting vice-president and home secretary, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, has, for the moment, not given the order to clear the Spanish capital’s most emblematic square, which houses the Madrid regional government.

If you’ve ever been to Madrid, you couldn’t have failed to have missed the sign that says ‘Tío Pepe’ ‘Bottled Sun from Andalusia’. Up there on his pedestal, perhaps unintentionally replacing him, there’s now a banner that reads ‘¡Abajo el regimen! ¡Viva la lucha del pueblo sin miedo!’: ‘Down with the regime! Long live the people, but fearlessly!’ alongside ‘¡Sin luchar, ni pan, ni libertad!: ‘Without struggle, there’s no bread, or liberty either!’ Every inch of every façade of every building that lines Sol has been plastered by seemingly impossible demands; ‘washing lines’ criss-cross the square from which hang further banners on which are hastily scribbled: ‘Your vote is my prison cell’, ‘Only the people can save the people! Civil disobedience now!’, ‘Don’t decide who’ll decide for you!’, ‘This is no crisis! This is a swindle!’


A banner being unfurled in Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol

Meanwhile, Real Democracy Now! has a general meeting in full swing; now they’re debating contemporary working conditions here in Spain and the situation of grant-holders. The demands are certainly optimistic. The proposal to reinstate the Third Republic was already voted in days ago!

But how much of this is ‘theatre’? Is there really an upsurge in political thinking-cum-activism in Spain? Much of what I saw was pure symbolism. For example, if a speaker said something you agreed with, instead of applauding, you raised both hands and shook them about a bit. This gave the impression of being in the presence of some kind of sect, but I won’t quibble. Also, the insistence on inclusive, gender-free speech was a little wearisome, but that’s not something unique to Spain.

I spoke to Nicolás, a 19-year-old student of Journalism at the Complutense University Madrid who’d just contributed on the platform about the iniquities of media bias. He told me that one of the changes he wanted to see was a change in electoral law so that the small regional parties didn’t influence at a national level, such influence being out of all proportion to the percentage of votes that they garner. We also talked about immigration; he thought that if immigrants didn’t accept poorly-paid jobs then there wouldn’t be so much downward pressure on wages. I put it to him that low wages and miserable jobs exist whether immigrants wanted them or not.

Belén, a 36-year-old administrator, told me she had come because she was ‘fed up’ with politicians and with ‘corruption’, and just thought it was a ‘good idea to come along and join in’. When I asked her about the PSOE (Socialist Party) leadership contest between Rubalcaba and current defence minister, Carme Chacón, she said she’d go for the latter. Yet when I reminded her that Chacón – despite being a declared pacifist and feminist – was in favour of the presence of Spanish troops in Afghanistan and almost gung-ho about ‘protecting civilians in Libya’, Belén wondered why the military hadn’t gone in to Libya before, at the outset of the uprising in mid-February.

Carlos, a 31-year-old computing engineer, was manning the ‘Immigration Commission’ tent, one of several ‘commissions’ and ‘sub-commissions’ whose function was to put forward proposals so that they could be debated in ‘street assemblies’, either in Sol itself, or on one of the adjoining streets. One of the ideas of this particular ‘commission’ was to give physical shelter to immigrants who are sin papeles and prevent their presumed expulsion from Spain. I went along with him after our informal interview to debate some of their ideas. So, at 11 o’clock on 22 May, on the steps of the nineteenth-century church Nuestra Señora del Carmen, a meeting was held of the aforementioned Immigration Commission. It was divided into working groups to cover ‘free circulation’, ‘legal rights’ and ‘mental health’ of immigrants in Spain. It was a far cry from local-election day in Britain.

Meanwhile, the votes rolled in, giving a sound victory to the conservative People’s Party who enjoyed 37.6 per cent of the national vote, with the still-ruling PSOE attracting 28.8 per cent, and an abstention rate at 33.8 per cent (the abstention rate was actually a little higher in 2007). But the mood in the square, or more specifically, at the meeting just mentioned, was one of complete estrangement from the electoral process. While the people at the square were clearly interested in politics, there was a complete lack of enthusiasm for either of the two main parties. Even the third party at a national level, United Left, made up of the old Spanish Communist Party and a few others, including Ecologists, held no sway here.

The descriptions in the press suggest a movement of ‘indignant malcontents’, as ephemeral in their protests as the supposed anti-war-movement-that-never-was in March 2003, or the marches against terrorism in July 1997 when a People’s Party councillor was assassinated by ETA. However, the intention of the protesters is to take their ‘democratic regeneration call’ to other city districts, as well as to other parts of the region. In any case, important protests have already taken place especially in Barcelona and in Granada.

Gareth King is a researcher in biology at the Autónoma University, Madrid.

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