My Canadian friend Alex asked me about them, so I wrote this reply:
Alex: Out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on the riots/protests in Spain? Do you identify with them? Have you ever been a part of any demonstrations (at any point, not just recently)?
Fran: I’ve been to several, 15M the last one. I remember still the huge demostrations against joining the Iraq war and after the Madrid bombings. Protests are actually frequent, but often very politized or very union-centric. Valencia is a conservative city which is often seen as very colaborative and subservient of the central goverment, and more interested in entertainment and party life than in politics; save for the latest student strike, protests here have little weight compared with Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao. Often protests are organized in Madrid only, and people is expected to travel there to join them.
I had yesterday this same conversation on skype with Lena. Normally, both the riots near the Congress and the independentist protests in Barcelona would have been largely irrelevant. In the first case they would have been dismissed just because of numbers (there’s been protests in Madrid with more than a million people, even sports celebrations; the one in front of the Congress was in the lower tens of thousands). In the second one, because it still is in fact a populist move by the conservative “independentist” party, who has made very sharp cuts and has been caught in cases of corruption; that party is very pro business and they have been historically very comfortable with a “I get to govern autonomically my region, but also condition the Spanish politics and budgets”. For a football analogy, it’s like Barcelona Football Club channeling and exploiting the nationalist symbolism, but actually having no intention of leaving La Liga and playing only against catalonian teams. A large deal of Catalunya’s business is with the rest of Spain, and they would take a large economic hit if only because of Spanish boycotts; their debt rating is way worse than Spain’s, and with the EU’s negative to accept them right away as an independent country, they would have no access to European rescue funds.
The problem is… Rajoy. The current goverment is extremely weak. They can pass any law by themselves, but, by now, they are almost delegitimized. They have almost systematically reversed every electoral promise, their support in polls has fallen already from 46% to 30% (on a traditionally ridiculously immobile support base), they are seen as unable to transmit any confidence to the markets or stand against european impositions, they have internal rifts going on with ultra liberals and ultra conservatives bailing out or splitting to run their own parties. Rajoy’s regional “barons” often try to distance themselves from him to avoid associating themselves with the austerity cuts.
This weakness context is the reason the N independentist marches and a small protest around the Congress are actually making people nervous and aren’t beign dismissed right away. There’s also a feeling that people is tired already of the ineffectiveness of the protests, and to show up in front of the Congress is seen as a step towards higher hostility against the political class.
I do think that this goverment will eventually ask for rescue funds, and they will have to announce early elections. If the date is too far away, people will lose the patience and you’ll see massive protests again. They should be largely peaceful, but I’m sure there would be some material damages. By the end of year we’ll know already if the party lost or not several regional elections, including the referendum-light that the elections in Catalunya will be; depending on what happens they may feel or not they have the strength to keep going a bit further. Very bad results would make it very difficult to last 2013. If they don’t ask for rescue funds nor announce early elections then it’s all in the markets’ hands: if debt interests spike back up, if the banking rescue fails and they are liquidated, if there are more cuts to public services… the big elephant in the room is retirement benefits: that’s where a lot of the voter support comes for this party, and it’s the last promise to break. A cut in retirement benefits would implode the party.
Overall though the Spanish population is way too civic to escalate things too much, at least not before the goverment collapses on its own. My worst worry is that this same weakness may energize some of the latent extremist groups, which may take example from the historical cases of violence and terrorist actions.
Fran: I didn’t answer if I identify with them. I do identify with the ones protesting against the austerity cuts. I do think there’s lots and lots and lots of waste to cut, but this goverment is being extremely soft with the energy, real estate, financial sectors, and the tax evaders, property owners and 1% higher earners, while “making everybody carry a share of the burden” by hurting people that had no responsability in the crisis, including the younger generation, and overall killing the economy for the sake of a short term rescue for the zombie banks.