Spain: Elections stir debate in 15-M

An Indignado protest in Madrid on May 15, the date of national protests that sparked the ongoing 15-M movement.

At a Madrid media conference called by the 15-M movement to announce Spanish actions for the October 15 global day of occupations, the media showed little interest in the international solidarity plans of the world’s founding indignado movement.

The journos wanted to talk about one thing: what would be 15-M’s attitude to the November 20 Spanish general elections? Abstention? Spoiling the ballot? A vote against the parties of “the political class”? A vote for parties closest to 15-M’s positions? And, if so, which parties?

One could sympathise a bit with the fourth estate. Media conferences by the 15-M, as the movement that broke out across in May with occupations of the central plazas of cities and towns across Spain is known, are infrequent and spokespeople are rotated.

The sleuths have little chance to establish stable ties with “insiders” who might give them the dope “on a strict non-attribution basis”.

At the same time, everyone interested in 15-M knows that its very open networks have been running hot with debate over how the movement should approach the coming national poll. This discussion has overflowed into a broader exchange about whether 15-M should set itself up as a political force or at least try to contribute to refounding a progressive political space.

An electoral role?

But 15-M as an organisation is not supporting any of these approaches.

“The only thing that we are going to ask of people is that they make an informed and judicious choice,” Klaudia Alvarez, spokesperson for 15-M member group Real Democracy  Now (DRY), told the media. “Each and every citizen must make those decisions according to conscience.”

Alvarez went on to denounce opportunist attempts by groups such as the “15-M Party” and “More Democracy” to cash in on 15-M’s social support at the ballot box. “We are a non-partisan citizen’s platform ― that’s set in stone,” she said.

Marta, another DRY spokesperson, added: “We want to promote the participation of citizens in politics on a daily basis, not once every X years.”

The position reached is clearly the only tenable one ― any other stance would alienate broad sections of 15-M’s support.

The decision will also frustrate a lot of progressive-minded people. These include: those who have placed their hopes in 15-M somehow leading a campaign to prevent a likely conservative landslide on November 20; existing left parties such as the United Left, which have developed their election platform through “citizen’s assemblies” ;and included leading 15-M activists as candidates (on a personal basis), and the Anti-capitalist Left, which is running an “anti-capitalist and disobedient” campaign.

The feeling of frustration that 15-M is not able to play a direct role in mobilising an alternative to the nightmare of a win for the right-wing Popular Party over the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) came through sharply in the October 2 column of Nazanin Amanian, columnist in the progressive daily Publico.

“With a few weeks to go before the seemingly inevitable ascent into power of the barbarian right and when it is a matter of urgency to form a united and democratic electoral alternative,” Amanian wrote, “15-M carries on debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin”.

“Those who demand that popular indignation just spoil the ballot paper don’t understand that this phase is over. Phobia towards institutions and fantasies about 'real democracy now' ― free from politicians and organisms 'per se' corrupt ― threaten to see the indignados succumb to the two old disorders of passionate activism: 'childishness', which sucks all energy into a vicious circle of protest activity, and 'voluntarism', which denies social laws and ascribes the complex reality of the interdependent world in which we live to the free decision-making and noble intentions of political leaders.

“Does anyone think that the brutal attack on our social gains by the right ― political, economic, religious and military ― can be withstood by camps and mass meetings? No change will be possible without seizing institutional power.

“And again, a country is not a neighbourhood, where daily protests and strikes are sustainable. Political action requires creative and dynamic methods, counting on 'management from above' as well as 'pressure from below' ...

“The construction of a 'broad front' of all progressive forces is a matter of urgency to stop it ... 15-M can show its maturity in the face of this challenge. ‘Democracy now’ needs a road map, with worked out stages and strategies, one that must start with stopping cutbacks and recovering stolen rights.

“The fruit sown in the plazas during the Spanish spring must be harvested at the ballot box this autumn.”

Sharp responses

The sharp blog responses to Amanian’s piece confirmed just why 15-M has had no choice but to adopt the position it has: despite the threat of a PP win and its own growth, the movement has had too little of the shared experience of struggle essential to feed the sort of discussion that create a broad consensus in this debate.

For example, “Albanio” commented: “These paras only repeat what a lot of nervous types say ― 15-M is useless, and that we’ve all got to vote together for … well, for whatever, but vote for what 15-M is talking about. These nervous types are fed up with mass meetings, of 'going nowhere' …

“Don’t tell me ― it’s a story heard time and again ― about having to change things from within, like Jonah in the belly of the whale ― it doesn’t wash. Have a look at the United Left, at what it has become after 'achieving' so much with, yes that!, backsides on seats in parliament ― a grouplet of  colourful little reds, office- and corridor-bound.

“But, let’s see: what would we achieve with, say, five MPs and five senators? 1) Politically, nothing or a crumb or two 2) It would stop us from denouncing the System, because we would already be inside it, 3) We would legitimise the present state of affairs.

“15-M’s goal is for the long-run, it can’t be done in two days: it’s about raising consciousness, protesting, denouncing, mobilising, realising a social fabric that’s critical and conscious of its power to change things.

“So just stop repeating the same old stuff: and let those of us who want to change this system be coherent.”

Generational split?

“Eduardo Garcia” replied: “I do not know whether it’s question of age or because of the experience accumulated by those of us who in our youth had to fight the dictatorship and who also took on Marxist-Leninist viewpoints, but we don’t see that this revolution ― which I and so many others experience as a breath of fresh air in Spanish politics ― can go ahead without organisation.

“The same happened with the anti-globalisation movement: a lot of people mobilised, some ideas remain (some or most of which are in 15-M) but, I believe, with few clear results.

“In my opinion it i urgent today that things change in Spain and in the world over, but I do not think that things can be advanced as quickly without taking part in the institutions …

“Also, there’s no reason to form a party in the old mold, where the ruling clique ends up cooking and eating everything. We have to see how it can be set up so that isn’t possible, although I don’t believe the mass meeting model can have the continuity needed.”

Most bloggers disagreed with this viewpoint, denouncing the Spanish electoral system as fraudulent, anti-democratic and reinforcing the “partitocracy”.

According to “unodecincuenta”: “All that’s left is to spoil or not mark the ballot paper, or, best from my point of view, don’t vote. If we don’t vote we will be added to the 30-odd percent who never vote, and even though they don’t do it for the same reason as we will, with an abstention rate above 50%, let’s see if they carry on strutting around about representativeness!”

Amanian replied: “To the indignados, shirty with me: I knew that was going to be a 'suicide' column, but I had to do it …

“As a Marxist I see no other way of transforming society. Everything happens inside the system, from unions and parties to parliament to the right to camp in a square. What’s more, these aren’t presents from anyone, but the results of workers’ struggles and tools in their hands to take back something from those who conspire to steal what we have gained.

“People become corrupt? Of course. But for those of us who don’t believe in 'immaculate saints' and can’t hire extraterrestrials, there is no other way than to improve control procedures over leaders and representatives.

“Abstention is useless. Many leaders govern with a vote of less than 30% of the electorate. And does anyone see any evidence that after winning, the PP is going to surrender to the popular demands raised in the big demonstrations?”

“Jesusmariaramon” conceded that “Nazarin is right. 15-M will not be able ― alone and only with demonstrations, protests, pickets, active opposition to evictions and its international extension ― to stop the bullies from keeping dismantling the ‘Welfare State’.

“But, undoubtedly, 15-M is beginning to instil in society ... the suspicion about something that on the other hand is evident ― the capitalist mafia that controls the world and all its institutions and leaders ...”

If 15-M continues to mobilise as it has to date that understanding can only grow, and with it the experiences that can help the movement best work out its role in the next phase of likely PP government.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]