I was planning to post what would have been an almost routine update on the protest camp in Madrid's Puerta del Sol, but events have intervened. In Barcelona the authorities have launched an operation this morning to clear the camp in the city's Plaça de Catalunya. The pretext for the operation has been cleanliness and hygiene, but what we have seen over the last couple of hours live on Spanish TV have been been scenes of extraordinary and unprovoked police violence against peaceful demonstrators. This is a taste of what has happened this morning.
Antena 3 has interrupted it's normally bland and awful morning programming to cover more than any other channel the police charges. We've seen people being repeatedly struck with batons, being kicked by police whilst lying on the ground and many other incidents of violence from the police. The only hygiene that is missing here is democratic, in any truly free society many of the police in action this morning would be facing prison for their actions. Their bosses too. Following an interview with the police chief of Barcelona where he attempted to deny shocking scenes that viewers were seeing with their own eyes, the police tried to move journalists away from the scene. There have even been reports of volleys of shots being fired in the air. All this just so that lorries could carry away the contents of the camp, including the personal belongings of those who were there.
We now wait to see the response to this operation, it should backfire against the authorities. A camp in Lleida was also cleared this morning, although it seems to have happened without the appalling violence of Barcelona. Today at 19:00 protests have already been called in all the squares to protest this morning's events and the Plaça de Catalunya is now surrounded by demonstrators. There was a reasonable chance that the camps in many Spanish cities would have voluntarily brought their protest to a peaceful conclusion in the next few days, with the campaign adopting new tactics. The brutal crackdown this morning could now change that, just as the police eviction last week in Madrid brought more people out onto the streets.
In Madrid over the last couple of days I've noticed an increasing police presence in the Puerta del Sol. Until a few days ago there was just a row of police vans in front of Casa Espe, the headquarters of the regional government. The truth was that these police had nothing to do, no role to play. The camp in Madrid has been extremely peaceful and self-policing. Two days ago I noticed that there were now police stationed on every corner of the streets leading into the Puerta del Sol. Last night there were police vans in these positions too. It's as if they are slowly taking a tighter grip on the square. The shameful brutality of Barcelona's police this morning has now changed the outcome. The police don't create problems, they solve them was what interior minister Rubalcaba told us the other day. Doesn't look that way to me.
As a follow up to yesterday's post on the PSOE's leadership vacancy, the defence minister Carme Chacón has just announced today that she won't be contesting the job; at least not this time. She didn't look at all comfortable in the press conference, and at points even seemed to be close to tears. After detailing her project and saying that she took the decision months ago to be a candidate, Chacón has claimed that she changed her mind in the interests of party unity in the wake of Sunday's disastrous election results.
She would say that wouldn't she? It's widely assumed that Chacón has been under very heavy pressure not to get in the way of Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, who has still not officially even stated his interest in the job. It was reported this morning that Chacón's car had been stolen, but I'm resisting the temptation to suggest that this was a warning of what could happen if she stood as a candidate. It's still possible that there could be a primary election instead of a coronation, but it will be a brave candidate who takes the step forward. Nor is it so easy, you need a minimum level of support to be able to stand.
The whole process is beginning to look like an example of old politics winning the day. Can Rubalcaba really present a fresh vision of the country to those who have been protesting over the last week or to those PSOE voters who have opted for abstention? It was the police under his control that evicted the first campers in the Puerta del Sol. He's a throwback to the PSOE of Felipe Gonzalez, and whilst nobody doubts that he is an effective politician there's no sign of what sort of vision he can offer a country that needs change.
Chacón's decision is almost impeccable politically, when viewed from her own interests. She can now let Rubalcaba or whoever else gets chosen take the brunt of the expected electoral defeat, and then stand as a candidate for the future in the next contest. The only risk being that by this time there may be more candidates with the same idea. There is intense speculation that the government may not see out its full term and that we could get a general election in the autumn. Despite the calls from some for early elections it can't realistically be before then, Spaniards don't go to the polls in their swimming costumes.
The dust has barely settled following Sunday's crushing defeat for the PSOE in the municipal and regional elections, and the party is in turmoil over how to select their new leader. Nobody has yet declared themselves as a candidate, and this seems to be because of the behind the scenes manoeuvres to either try and avoid a contest or to keep the choice of Zapatero's successor in as few hands as possible.
It's been known for some time that those who favour the interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba have been looking for ways to force their candidate into pole position. What they fear most of all is a primary election process which could potentially see Rubalcaba lose out to another candidate; the most likely contender being the defence minister Carme Chacón. The argument they use is that this process would create too much uncertainty.
So we've had the idea floated of a "dream ticket" where of course Rubalcaba would be number one with Chacón as his deputy, presumably in return for a promise that the older Rubalcaba would stand aside in the event of an election defeat. Some have argued that there could still be a process of primary elections, but with only one candidate! Even this seems to be too much for some powerful figures in the party who have been pressing for the primaries to be avoided and for a decision on the succession to be taken more quickly by the party's executive or by a special congress. The latter idea was floated yesterday by the Basque regional president Patxi Lopez.
It looks as if those who are trying to prevent primaries may have jumped the gun, Zapatero has stated today that there will be a primary election process involving the party's members. In such a situation the question arises of whether there might be other candidates. Zapatero himself stood as a virtual unknown when he was elected via the primaries. Perhaps Lopez could be one of those candidates too, a close reading of the Basque election results suggests he may well be out of work in a couple of years time - but he is not a member of parliament and cannot become one whilst he holds his current job.
There may be some legitimate fears about a long drawn out contest sapping even further the PSOE's fragile electoral base. A Rubalcaba-Chacón contest is unlikely to be very inspiring, the absence of ideological content will reduce it to a choice between experience (Rubalcaba) or the novelty for Spain of a potential female (and Catalan!) prime minister (Chacón). It's still a far better way to choose your leader than that used by the Partido Popular where the almost life president talks to the honorary life president and then names the candidate.
The PP is pressing hard for the general election to be brought forward following their victory, although they won't present a motion of censure against the government unless they know they will win it. Zapatero clearly wants to serve his full term and give some time for his successor to prepare for the elections. The key to these plans doesn't lie within the PSOE itself, it is the Basque nationalists of the PNV who will decide whether to continue honouring the pact that saw the government through to this point.
When I saw the newly planted vegetable garden in the Puerta del Sol on Sunday evening it occurred to me that this is not the sort of thing you do if you're planning on going anywhere.
Although many may have assumed that the protest acampada in Sol was just there for election week the reality is different. The camp is still very much active even if the big crowds seen at the weekend have now diminished. Not only is it still there but it continues to evolve and expand. Every day the camp seems to change shape as new activity commissions are set up, or as new campaigners arrive to add their voice to the protest. The structures become more solid and secure as some of the improvised constructions are improved. The camp is kept clean and continues to work amazingly well. Those who believe nothing can ever be achieved unless you have a set of bosses sitting on top of a hierarchy would hate what is happening in Sol.
Equally the range of activities and debates has broadened enormously, a white board displays details of all the activities planned for the day. Yesterday I popped down for one of the general assemblies at the camp. It was hot, very hot, but again the spirit of collaboration that exists in the camp means that water sprays, drinking water, umbrellas, hats and sun cream are all passed around for those who want them. Madrid is a city that to say the least can often feel a bit "in your face", the collaborative atmosphere at the camp is a welcome antidote to that.
The assemblies are there to discuss general organisation of the camp, future strategy, proposals from the different commissions and what to do if the police are sent in to clear the camp. Contrary to what some seem to think, anyone can take part in these meetings. What's more, the aim is consensus. Proposals that meet strong objections are not put to a majority vote but are instead returned to one of the commissions for further work. Somebody stood up at yesterday's meeting to tell us all that he had voted PP and what he most disliked about the camp was the word "consensus". No surprises there, but he was allowed to say his piece and any attempts to shout down speakers down meet general disapproval.
Looking at the reduced numbers in yesterday's assembly, I couldn't stop myself from thinking about how much longer the camp can last. The lack of any noticeable impact on the elections may have dampened the enthusiasm of many. However, I was down again in Sol last night and there were plenty of people around. The place was buzzing with activity. Leaving aside the question of possible police intervention, the question of when to move on from the camp is going to be a tough one. But the next stage of the campaign in Madrid is already taking shape, assemblies are being organised in different barrios of the city for this weekend; the aim is for the campaign to develop local roots.
Anyway, it's time for a short video dedicated to those who criticise the protesters but who offer no proposals of their own or any sort of vision of the future except that of blindly following the pain caucus.
It's ironic that the text in the video comes from an advertisement devised by Apple. I wonder what that company thinks about the look of what is due to become Madrid's new Apple Store?
I looked for the El País elections results widget yesterday and couldn't find it. Here it is, along with an ominous blue look to that electoral map. I imagine in PSOE headquarters they have trouble even looking at it.
Could it have been much worse than this for Spain's ruling party? The story the opinion polls have been telling has been confirmed, and more distressingly for the PSOE it seems the announcement that Zapatero will not stand again has made little impact on the result. It's been a traumatic night for them. In only one regional election did the PSOE emerge as the party with most votes, and that by a handful in Asturias where they will struggle to govern. The only region where they look likely to remain in power (of those that voted yesterday) is Extremadura, but even here the Partido Popular (PP) got more votes and the PSOE will have to reach an agreement with Izquierda Unida to govern.
The yardstick for success or failure for both of the big national parties was Castilla-La Mancha. If the PSOE had retained power here it would have been seen as a failure for PP leader Mariano Rajoy, especially as the PP candidate was the general secretary of the party, Maria Dolores de Cospedal. In the event the PP took control by a single seat but with a voting advantage of several points. This region tells the story of the election. The outgoing president, José María Barreda, got significantly better approval ratings in the polls than his opponent, but the PP have fought these elections on national issues and these have clearly prevailed over local conditions in most areas. Barreda was one of the regional barons in the PSOE who had pushed hardest for Zapatero to make his announcement before election day; it wasn't enough.
In Madrid both regional president Esperanza Aguirre and mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón have won comfortable victories, but it's worth noting that the PP in the capital has got a lower percentage of the vote at a time when the party is achieving spectacular results elsewhere. There is now a fourth force in the regional assembly, Union Progreso y Democracia (UPyD) have achieved their best result in the city and will be represented. We will now get to see where they stand on issues like the creeping privatisation of public services or Aguirre's increasing application of segregationist policies in education. They can't have it both ways on everything, a position they've managed to maintain whilst not having elected representatives.
The odd thing in Madrid is that probably neither of the winning candidates wants to do the job they have stood for. The compulsive attention seeker Aguirre is going to be frustrated at being confined to regional affairs if the PP win power nationally in 2012. Gallardón will almost certainly leave his post to serve in a Rajoy government. We lucky Madrileños will be left with Ana Botella as mayor! Again, the local and national factors were confused in the Madrid campaign. Take a look at Aguirre's huge campaign poster from the Plaza de España if you can take it (young children and the sensitive should probably look away at this point). It calls for "change"; this from a party that has governed Madrid continuously for 16 years! Some change.
There are some very interesting results from other regions. In Cataluña the conservative nationalists of Convergència i Unió are now firmly in the driving seat and even seem to have displaced the PSOE's Catalan wing from the town hall in Barcelona. They now combine control of the regional government with that of the Catalan capital. A significant change, coupled with another terrible result for nationalist rivals Esquerra Republicana who just a few years ago seemed to be on the point of challenging CiU for the nationalist vote. It's worth noting, as a warning for the future, that the PP ran a nasty and repulsively racist campaign in Cataluña. No other description fits.
Elsewhere, there was another resounding victory in Valencia for a PP list packed with candidates facing corruption charges, including of course the regional president Francisco Camps. No surprise there for those of us who take it for granted now that corruption doesn't erode the PP vote, but in fact something has changed. Compared with 2007 the PP has lost support in percentage terms in Valencia even as the PSOE vote has slumped. Not a huge change but still happening at a moment when their support elsewhere is hitting levels not seen in years. Valencia more than anywhere else exemplifies the adoption of Berlusconi type politics in Spain, because of the insistence from the corrupt that the ballot box will absolve them.
In the Basque Country there is another fascinating situation. The political force which has the largest municipal representation in the region after the elections is the coalition Bildu, which the government and the PP tried to illegalise for alleged links with ETA. The right-wing nationalists of the PNV are the party with the most votes but Bildu has taken around 25%. It's an ominous result for the regional PSOE led government which relies on PP support to govern, and a reminder that these parties only achieved power in the first place in the Basque Country because previous illegalisations disenfranchised part of the nationalist vote. Will a PP led national government attempt again to remove the second largest Basque political formation?
Then there is Asturias. The PSOE finished the night just a few tens of votes ahead of the new party led by the former PP secretary general Francisco Álvarez Cascos. Anyone who imagines that this party is just a personal vehicle for Cascos would be absolutely right, the initials of the formation are FAC. It's a depressing result, because FAC stands for the most obsolete, cacique style of politics that you can imagine represented by a political dinosaur. But Cascos is now there as the kingmaker to decide whether PSOE or PP will govern alongside his party.
Although the night looks like a huge victory for the PP, it's worth noting that the percentages of vote obtained would not give them a majority in a general election. The difference on the night is caused by a slump in support for the PSOE. Some of those votes have gone to the PP, some to UPyD and some to Izquierda Unida who have experienced a small increase in support. But many of these votes have disappeared into abstention and the PSOE is failing to mobilise much of their core vote. This situation goes back a year, to the point when Zapatero did his great turnaround on the economy. With the PP pressing for early national elections the PSOE currently doesn't have a candidate. The current favourite, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, doesn't emerge well from these elections. Carme Chacón, at the moment his only known rival, has kept a lower profile but could be damaged by the defeat in her Catalan base. We will know very soon who intends to stand as Zapatero's replacement, that campaign was on hold until today.
Some observers have also tried to present the election as a failure for the protestors camped in Madrid's Puerta del Sol and many other cities around Spain. With so many voters sticking to the traditional and in many ways discredited parties it's likely to be disappointing for some. At the same time it was never very likely that a campaign that was virtually unknown just over a week ago was going to have a significant effect on the electoral outcome. It seems like a good moment to correct some misconceptions too. Democracia Real Ya, and the other protest platforms, are not an electoral movement. Just because the Junta Electoral decided last week they were doesn't affect that reality, and the campaign continues.
This campaign may well have more to deal with soon, there is an expectation that many regional governments have been holding back on making severe cutbacks until after election day. Likewise, I listened to a commentator last night on Spanish TV attributing high abstention to the campaign. This is nonsense, the protesters have continually called for people to go and vote. On the other hand, there has been an unusually large number of blank votes cast and this could be partly due to the protests, people who want someone to vote for but don't find a party that represents them.
Arriving with some friends at the Puerta del Sol just a few minutes before midnight, we made it just in time for the "grito mudo" moment of silence that marked the beginning of the day of reflection before voting day. Although we didn't get into the square, at least not for a while. The Puerta del Sol last night was completely packed, and until some people started to leave we couldn't get closer than 60 or 70 metres from the entrance to the square. Once we did get inside it wasn't as if we could go anywhere. Not that this is a complaint, every night in the square has seemed to bring bigger crowds, following each successive attempt to ban the protest.
The significance of the grito mudo was of course the fact that the assembly in Sol was technically illegal once the day of reflection had begun. Supposedly on this day there should be no acts of electoral campaigning and as I blogged yesterday the Junta Electoral has decided that the protests fall into that category. An interpretation of the law which is hugely controversial, and yet another example of the all too frequent practice here of stretching the law to achieve a largely political objective. Reform of the judiciary is one of the topics that quickly comes up in some of the debates taking place in Sol.
In any case, there was thankfully a very muted visible police presence in Sol, and the orders of the national government are that the police should not intervene unless there is evidence of serious offences being committed. The Sol protest has remained absolutely peaceful and disciplined. This has infuriated the right-wing press who clearly think a bit of old style riot cop discipline is what is needed. People need to be beaten into being obedient democrats. Since we're on the subject of the right-wing media, I'd love to know why the front pages of ABC and La Razón today are not considered to be electoral propaganda? Fool that I am, in my naive belief that what applies to the ordinary citizen can be expected to apply to powerful media groups.
This is not the first time that there have been protests in Spain on a day of reflection, there are some echoes of the spontaneous demonstration on the 13th March 2004 as it became clear that Aznar's government were attempting to maintain the fiction of ETA being responsible for the Madrid bombings until after people had voted. I'm not sure how much of that protest ever got shown on Spanish TV, I watched it live on CNN and it was a dramatic, tense afternoon. There are differences now, Madrid in those days of 2004 was in shock after what had happened. The similarity is there in the sense that the protests around Spain reflect a huge sense of disillusionment with those who govern them.
The "acampada" in the Puerta del Sol continues today and it's likely that there will be another huge turnout tonight. Tomorrow we'll see what happens, it's not clear whether those camping in the square will decide to prolong the protest after voting day or change to other campaigning tactics. Nor is it clear whether the national government will attempt to break up the protest tomorrow. The impact of the the week's events has gone beyond anyone's expectations a week ago and the traditional end of campaign rallies by the political parties last night ended up being something of a sideshow. As a final note, here's something else to be indignant about. I read this morning that the parties will get a 9% increase in their state funding this time around for the votes they get and their elected councillors. How about that for a bit of belt tightening in the midst of the crisis? I'm off to Sol to do some reflecting.
I left the demonstration organised on Sunday afternoon by Democracia Real Ya shortly after it arrived in the Puerta del Sol. I read later that night that some of the demonstrators had decided to camp in the square but I didn't think it would necessarily grow into anything bigger. The next day I had to go to London for a short trip, but what happened subsequently in Madrid is simply amazing.
The police moved in on the protesters in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when there were fewer people in the square, on orders from the national government's representative in Madrid. This police action provoked a response that few expected and on Tuesday night the camp was restored via the presence of thousands of demonstrators. A massive police presence did little to deter people. At this point the Spanish authorities started to realise that they had a problem, and the media which had hardly covered Sunday's march at all started to take notice of what they call "los indignados".
The authorities, having seen their first attempt at clearing the square backfire, opted for a different method. The provincial Junta Electoral, which is supposed to be concerned with ensuring the parties conduct their electoral campaign according to the rules, extended its remit to prohibit any demonstrations by those who were camped in Sol and their supporters. The justification offered by the Junta is almost comical. They believed that the calls made by protestors for people to vote responsibly were an unacceptable interference with the election campaign. When you look at who runs Madrid you can see why they did it.
Once again the tactic backfired badly, Wednesday night saw massive defiance of the ban despite the square having been cordoned off by police who were checking identification of those who tried to gain access to it. By this point the municipal electoral campaign was almost becoming an irrelevant sideshow, as similar protests began in other parts of the country. It was clear that both local and national governments wanted the Puerta del Sol to be cleared, but who was going to issue the order to clear an ever larger protest with massive baton charges?
The main national paries, PSOE and PP, have both been caught completely off guard by the movement and struggled to formulate any kind of response. Although the PP likes to pretend that the protests cause a bigger problem for the government, the reaction of the right-wing media shows their alarm at the prospect of a movement which might threaten some of their privileges. A defamatory campaign against the protestors has been launched by right-wing newspapers and the digital TV channels like Intereconomia. Not to forget Telemadrid. They're anti-system anarchists, or communists, or ETA sympathisers, or whatever. It didn't take long for the loopy conspiracy theorists get to work and to see the hidden hand of interior minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba behind it all.
Esperanza Aguirre, always available when we need someone to play the victim, claimed that it was unfair that the protesters were camped outside the headquarters of the regional government when the government is to blame for everything. She just doesn't get it, the protestors in the Puerta del Sol are there because it's where the demonstration ended on Sunday and it's the heart of the capital. Aguirre is but one of many targets of the demonstrators, but one thing is for sure; these protesters are people who have woken up to the future that awaits them and the cynical myth peddled by the PP that Spain just needs a change of government for things to get better won't work here. The grotesque sight the other night of PP leader Mariano Rajoy singing the praises of Valencia's Francisco Camps reinforced the feelings of many about the need for change.
Another massive crowd was in the Puerta del Sol last night and the movement continues to spread. Yesterday the national Junta Electoral also voted to outlaw any demonstration called for Saturday in the Puerta del Sol. It's perhaps worth pointing out that the Junta Electoral includes some of those judges whose determination to finish the career of Baltasar Garzón leads them to ignore any law or legal principle which might stand in the way of their objective. Events are showing just how fragile freedom can really be when you have to ask the powerful for permission to protest against them. Those in the square are not leaving, and they argue that they haven't actually called any demonstrations for Saturday, which is the day of reflection before voting day on Sunday. Of course, should any citizen wish to take a stroll in the Puerta del Sol then that is their right.
That's exactly what I did today and I came away hugely impressed with the atmosphere, organisation and discipline of the camp in the Puerta del Sol. Everywhere you walk there are little circles of people discussing what's going on, you attach yourself to one and listen or join in. Many people who would appear to be opposed to what is going on have come down to take a look for themselves. It's quite rare to see Spaniards from all sides of the political spectrum talking about the state of their country in this way. I've often found here that people either go quiet when they realise you don't agree with them, or resort to shouting to help you to understand their point. Generally, thats not the case in #acampadasol. You get more genuine political debate from the people talking in the square in 10 minutes than you get from 3 weeks of superficial, tightly controlled electoral campaign.
Not only is there no hidden hand behind this protest, there is no organisation controlling it either. This is today's asamblea, proposals for action and concerning the organisation of the camp are read to all those attending. If you like it you wave your hands in the air, if you don't there are shouts or whistles. Mostly people seemed to like it.
There's that bear again. Some people had a better view than I could get at the back of the crowd, this is not a good day to arrange to meet your friends beside the statue in Sol!
Then there is the organisation, those in the camp have divided themselves into different commissions which take care of an issue. This could be food, communication, rubbish collection, or anything else which needs to be sorted out. From what I could see it seems to work and well. There are also rules, simple but important ones. Peaceful protest is vital, no excuses can be given to those who would love to send in the riot police with their batons. Equally, the atmosphere might be festive at times, but that doesn't mean it's just a big party. No alcohol, no botellón in the square. There is a serious purpose here.
What do they want? That's the question that many ask about a movement with no clear leadership or any kind of official program. Well don't moan about that, just go down there and write down your proposals. Democracy can be quite contagious, once you try it.
Where this movement will go after the elections is a question many are wondering about, but the events of this week have given it a boost which has to leave some trace. We are, after all, only 10 months away from next year's general election. The idea that nobody should bother protesting because you can't change anything is being questioned, as are all the assumptions about the passivity of Spaniards in response to the crisis. Barring attempts at further repression on the eve of voting day it looks like the camp will be there until Sunday. Take a look, if you're around - it's well worth it.
If anyone asked what the demonstrators in Madrid were protesting about on Sunday afternoon, they might have got any number of answers. The lack of decent job opportunities, the complacency of Spain's main political parties, the Ley Sinde, the cutbacks in services, a life mortgaged up the eyeballs (if you can get on the property ladder in the first place). 15-20000 people took to the streets in a good natured but noisy protest that was organised entirely outside of the political party or trade union structures. Other protests were called at the same time in 50 cities around Spain. That small initiative from Juventud Sin Futuro a few weeks ago has grown.
Democracia Real Ya is a new platform that has really used the internet and social networks to spread the message and to mobilise, and has managed to bring people together around a feeling of discontent which is finding no answers from the country's political class. It will make the parties of the left feel less comfortable, conservative Spain is not going to take to the streets over these issues. But if those parties are failing to reach so many people or address their concerns then that is their problem to solve. The idea that the Spanish will passively accept whatever the crisis throws at them is now starting to provoke a response.