Since the 15th of May, thousands of Spaniards have taken over plazas all over the country. Mainly composed of young citizens, the 15-M -as this movement has been called- has emerged in a context of economic distress in which more than 40% of youth is unemployed and government is making drastic cuts to face the financial and economic crisis. Even though the roots of the problem might seem economic, their criticisms are profoundly political.
Their slogan “Democracia real ya” (real democracy now) and “No les votes” (don’t vote for them) denounce a sterile bipartidism, consequence of an unrepresentative electoral system, in which citizens involved in 15-M do not feel represented and think decisions are made for the benefits of wealthier members of society. 15-M is not an organization per se; we could label it a protest community: there is no leader or spokesperson, nor do they have a detailed program. Essentially, 15-M refers to a loose red of organizations and individuals sharing similar demands. Decisions are taken in asambleas following opened and free discussions. These assemblies allow any one to participate and usually seek consensus or at least overwhelming majorities to approve resolutions or decisions. This combination of heterogeneity (unions, unemployed, students, retirees, etc.) and “horizontalism” makes it very difficult for authorities or political parties to control or co-opt the movement. Most people involved have abandoned traditional canals of representations, such as political parties, to reject an economic and political system they feel excludes them.
In front of this innovative protest community, a few questions emerge. Can this engender long lasting changes? Does it represent a new way of making politics? Will 15-M disappear as fast as it emerged or will it become an active actor in Spanish politics? Forecasting the future is beyond my capacity, however looking at the 2001-2002 Argentinean experience might give us a few hints of what could happen next. In 2001, after a decade of neoliberal reforms, Argentina’s financial system collapsed. The economy already in a bad shape did the same. In reactions, people took the streets. On one side, piqueteros –unemployed groups who had appeared in the 90s- blocked streets to demand direct help (jobs, food, housing). On the other, upper and middle classes performed cacerolazos; basically going in the streets with kitchen pots making as much noise as one can. They chanted “Que se vayan todos” (they must all leave), directed at Argentina’s “political class”. Middle class neighborhood also saw the apparition of asambleas, horizontal and usually independent from political parties. Just as in Spain now, Argentineans rejected their political parties and perceived economic reforms as deeply unjust. At the end of it, they saw 5 presidents swear oath in a month…
A decade after the events, most of this intense mobilization has disappeared from Argentinean politics. Some piqueteros organizations still exist, but they have lost legitimacy in the public eye. Others have been integrated in the political structure, receiving government aid and unconditionally backing the actual center-left government. For their part, asambleas have almost completely vanished. People lost interest or could not keep up with a form of mobilization entirely dependent on individual involvement. Those that have managed to survive are marginalized and radical in their positions, pushing “moderates” citizens out. Sure these events and collective actions have inspired other groups, but as political actors, both asambleas and piqueteros could not maintain their presence and influence in national politics.
Who knows what will happen to 15-M. They might obtain some kind of electoral reforms, which would open the door to new political forces. However, their window of opportunity can close quickly. As the Argentinean experience shows, it is very difficult to keep mobilizing thousands of people without formal leadership and some sort of centralized structure.