Created: Monday, 19 December 2011 14:25
Written by Juanjo Rivas
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 224 December 2011/January 2012
On 20 November, exactly 36 years after the death of the fascist General Franco, the conservative People’s Party (PP) won a landslide victory in the Spanish general election. This was expected: there was massive disaffection with the previous Socialist Party (PSOE) government because of the austerity measures it adopted in the face of Spain’s economic crisis. Throughout the electoral campaign, the PP and its leader Mariano Rajoy were intentionally vague about what they intended to do that would be different; however, Rajoy has said that the key to recovery is ‘increasing trust and confidence’, reducing public debt via cuts in social expenditure and ‘fulfilling demands from the EU’. Juanjo Rivas reports.
A system where two parties alternate in government, both more concerned about market expectations than about the welfare of the people, has been rejected by many of those Spaniards who have witnessed an example of real participation and political involvement in the mass assemblies of the 15 May. This was reflected in the general election: abstentions and spoiled votes accounted for 30% of the electorate, over 11 million people – more than the votes gained by the victorious PP. Despite the unjust voting system, left-wing parties have significantly increased their share in Parliament, the United Left gaining nine seats.
That the conservatives won was no surprise. Every poll pointed to people wanting to punish the PSOE because of the regressive reforms it carried out at the behest of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the Merkel-Sarkozy duo. In the last year, the Spanish working class has seen the wages of public sector workers fall, thousands of state school teachers dismissed, primary care centres closed, numbers of ambulances reduced, benefits slashed, pension schemes put at risk and a reform of the labour market that has led to record figures for unemployment and unskilled jobs. Youth unemployment stands at 42%; overall unemployment at 23%. As a consequence, the PSOE lost almost four million votes.
Aware that the ruling PSOE was unpopular and riven by internal crises, the conservatives decided not to reveal their hidden agenda, which would have scared many voters away and frustrated their bid for electoral victory. In reality their plans include wholesale privatisation, reduced redundancy payments and forcing people to pay 50% of the costs of health care, as well as abolishing gay marriage.
Important sections of society feel that they have been left behind, while the interests of speculative capital and the corrupt political class are protected. When the PSOE government turned a blind eye to the harsh conditions imposed by the crisis, the 15 May social movement tried to strengthen solidarity with the poor. Over the last few months about 200 evictions have been ordered every day, half of them in Madrid. Activists squatted an abandoned hotel building in October, gathering hundreds of willing helpers to make it habitable to host families evicted from their homes.
The 15 May movement was born out of a massive protest where hundreds of thousands of outraged people took to the streets and camped for weeks in the squares of Spain’s towns and cities. Open political discussions and huge assemblies took place all the time, where people raised their main concerns and expressed their anger, disgust and hope. In June, the 15 May movement went through a process of decentralisation, setting up weekly assemblies in hundreds of neighbourhoods and municipalities. Each developed commissions to work on specific subjects regarding work, housing, public services and women’s rights, and to identify local problems, discuss alternatives and agitate to put pressure on politicians at all levels.
Over the summer, low-paid workers and the unemployed involved in the 15 May movement marched on the capital. Contingents joined the march from all over the country, including Galicia in the northwest, Catalunya in the northeast, and Andalucia in the south. Protesters walked hundreds of miles, gathering support in every village and town, organising assemblies where they stopped and growing in numbers as more joined them on their way. On 23 July they reached Madrid, where there were breathtaking scenes of massive columns of workers from all over Spain embracing each other. Next day half a million people took to the streets and stopped the city. A revolutionary camp was set up near the Home Office and the central Sol square was occupied once again. Police forces brutally attacked and dismantled the camp, arresting several marchers. Some protesters joined a 50-year-old community threatened with eviction following a speculative land agreement between the conservative mayor and multimillionaire owner of Real Madrid. There, resistance has proved an invaluable experience for marginalised Gypsy and non-Gypsy inhabitants.
In mid-August, Pope Benedict XVI visited Madrid to attend the Catholic Youth Festival; he was offered overwhelming state funding and resources. Banks and electricity companies sponsored pilgrims’ bags, caps and shirts. While the Council of Madrid rejected a demand for reduced fares on public transport for the unemployed, it provided international pilgrims with heavily subsidised travel cards. Governments and banks, who claim not to have the funds to implement social policies for the poor, manage to cough up plenty for religious events. Protests against state funding of one particular religion ended in senseless police aggression against peaceful protesters and left several wounded and others detained in police stations.
Throughout September and October, the 15 May movement has slowly consolidated its network in some parts of Spain and slightly drifted in others. Overall, it has deepened its roots in collective struggles such as those for public health care and education. Secondary school teachers have been on strike seven times against education cuts since the beginning of the struggle. The movement has also joined the struggle of Catalonians against the dismantling of clinics and severe cuts to hospitals. On a regular basis, the movement gathers people to block the way when judges and the police go to evict a family from their home. On 15 October, the movement brought one million Spaniards out on to the streets under the banner of the international day of struggle ‘for a global change’.
The day before the November elections, hundreds gathered in city squares, holding placards and speaking at open microphone sessions, and more buildings were squatted to host those evicted and to hold new assemblies during the winter. On 27 November, a five-column march from neighbouring towns to Madrid was held to defend public services and mobilise for the first general strike not directly organised by the two main trade unions.
Angela Merkel has already met Mariano Rajoy to urge him to deepen reforms without delay. Before the elections, some voices from the PP admitted that they expected social reaction against some ‘necessary measures’ they would have to take, but said that they were ‘ready for that, too’. We therefore expect a whole raft of reforms directed against the working class and, when confronted, a tougher display of state violence. The question now is what kind of reaction can we expect from a movement that involves young and old, and so far has been based on peaceful resistance and civil disobedience?