May 19, 2011 11:10 pm

Pain in Spain drives young people’s protest

Until the first street protests , Spanish politicians hoping to be elected in this weekend’s regional and municipal polls were following a well-thumbed script.

Socialist party leaders accuse the rightwing Popular party of seeking to privatise public assets to reward cronies. The PP charges the Socialists, who have governed nationally since 2004, with mismanaging the economy.

PP candidates were expected to make big gains across the country at the expense of the Socialists, if only because the left – under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister – has been in power throughout the Europe-wide financial and economic crisis of the past three years.

But politicians of both left and right have struggled to come to terms with the unscheduled eruption of a wave of protests – co-ordinated via Facebook and Twitter – into the election campaign. The gatherings, which started on Sunday when a loose group of dissatisfied young Spaniards calling themselves “Real Democracy Now” staged demonstrations across Spain, have since swelled into an amorphous proto-revolution known as the “May 15 movement”. Condemning domination of the political system by the two main parties and calling for electoral reform, their message is, in effect, “a plague on both your houses”.

A common theme among the various groups of protesters now camped out at Puerta del Sol, a square in the heart of Madrid, is indignation at the level of unemployment – which averages nearly 45 per cent among 16- to 29-year-olds, according to the National Statistics Institute and 35 per cent according to the government. Other causes espoused in the carnival atmosphere of the square on Thursday include feminism, anarchism and hatred of bankers. But a lack of jobs for graduates and disgust at bipartisan politics remain the most prominent grievances.

For many Spaniards, it is not the youth demonstrations that have come as a surprise but the fact they took so long to materialise.

“It was incomprehensible that with youth unemployment at these levels nothing had happened,” says Josep Ramoneda, a political columnist. “And bipartisanship is a problem because people’s options are limited. We’ll see a terrible thing on Sunday [election day]. Many candidates accused of corruption will not only win but will win with more votes than before.”

It is unclear whether the fledgling popular movement will have any significant effect on the polls, although first indications are that the Socialists may suffer if left-leaning younger voters switch their loyalty to fringe parties, abstain or spoil their ballots.

The last time Spanish youths demonstrated with such commitment was to oppose the country’s support for the US-led war in Iraq in 2003, when the PP government under José María Aznar lent its support to George W. Bush, then US president.

Mr Zapatero, who was elected the next year and immediately withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq, was the beneficiary of those passions. But his austerity plans aimed at fighting Spain’s fiscal crisis have long since eroded the advantage. “Zapatero seemed then like a different kind of politician,” says Mr Ramoneda. “But all that has collapsed now.”

Spanish politicians, unsure of how to respond to the movement, have resorted to bland declarations of sympathy. Their problem is that some prominent protesters do not want to destroy the system but simply reform it to give more representation to citizens and small parties.

Felipe González, a former Socialist prime minister, has compared the phenomenon with the uprisings in the Middle East. “In the Arab world, they are demanding the vote,” Mr González says on Spanish television. “Here they say there is no point in voting.”

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