Middle-aged take to Madrid's streets for change


A WEEK before the general election in Spain, hundreds of people rallied at Puerta del Sol in Madrid to protest over the privatisation of public services, high unemployment and political corruption.

Criticising the electoral system, the protesters want a more participative democratic system that would give them greater say in political decisions. “We are making politics,” says Marta, who helps run the #Acampadasol Twitter feed. “It’s a democracy, so we all have to take a stand and to make propositions, we can’t just leave it up to those in parliament.”

These gatherings are now an almost weekly event, organised by the 15M movement, named after the indignadosprotests which began on May 15th. More than six million are estimated to have participated in the nationwide movement, inspiring solidarity protests across the world, including the Occupy movement in Dublin.

The majority of people gathered at Sol last weekend were not young idealists but middle-aged Spaniards, and older people wrapped up in scarves and caps.

Pensioner Angustias, one of the “veterans” of 15M, received the loudest cheers when she rose from her small wooden chair to speak. “We are a flag for change around the world,” she stated proudly. “We will see change. Maybe not me, because I am old, but the unity we have is strong.”

The elections on November 20th will in all likelihood see the centre-right conservative Partido Popular (PP), come to power, bringing an end to eight years of government under the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE).

“Change, good or bad, is required,” says Fermín Bouza, Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. “The PP is very orthodox, not the right choice to overcome this crisis, but everything indicates it will be so.”

This election, which will cost around €90 million, is overshadowed by a tangible sense of disillusionment with the current political system.

For many voters such as

Blanca (23), a student at Escola Massana in Barcelona, the PP and PSOE, or “PPSOE” as they are commonly referred to, are “the same face, different name”.

Another source of contention is the electoral system which rather than giving all votes equal weight, “one person, one vote”, gives greater influence to those voting in more populated areas, particularly regions such as Madrid and Barcelona.

Karlos Garcia Quiñoy, an economics graduate from Madrid involved with the 15M economy assembly, claims that political parties now resemble companies, only interested in their own success and profit.

“For the elections we are encouraging people to participate,” he says. “The PP and PSOE are pushing the same old ideas. We need to spread the vote to other political groups, for people not to put in a blank vote but to vote for the smaller parties.”

The 15M ran a counter campaign, with voting polls online and at Sol last weekend with petitions against the privatisation of health, education and water. On the “12N” ballot papers people could submit propositions to the government for reform.

The “15 Octubre Referéndum” also had ballot boxes at Sol, asking people to vote on four major issues – reform of the electoral system, eliminating corruption, separation of powers and creation of mechanisms of citizen control.

Far from discouraging people to vote, the 15M is encouraging people to become more politically engaged and seeking to counter the high rates of abstention and “blank votes”. The blank vote has a long tradition as a form of protest, but there are many initiatives to change this.

The Escons en Blanc (Seats in White) group believe the law should be reformed so that blank votes would relate to empty seats in parliament. Candidates for the party will not take their seat in parliament or the MP’s salary.

“We give a voice for the people who don’t want representation from the current political parties,” says campaign manager Oriol Hernández. “It’s not an issue of right wing, or left wing, we care about transparency, educating people about their rights and holding parties accountable to their electoral promises.”

The party that wins this election will have to answer to a population restless for change and more prepared than ever to demand it.