Protests: Has the Revolution Come to Spain?

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Pedro Armestre / AFP / Getty

Protesters gather at the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid on May 19, 2011, to speak out against Spain's economic crisis and its sky-high jobless rate

Two political earthquakes shook Spain in mid-May. First came the massive sit-ins held in protest of the country's capsized economy and unresponsive political class. Then came the sound drubbing to the governing Socialist Party (PSOE) in regional and municipal elections. Remarkably, no one is quite sure whether the first phenomenon had anything to do with the second.

The tens of thousands of Spaniards who have taken over central squares in 60 cities are clamoring for political, economic and social reform. High on their list of complaints is unemployment: 21.3% among the general population, and a shocking 43.5% among youth. Other complaints include political corruption (more than 100 candidates in the local elections are currently under judicial investigation), social-welfare cuts and a general sense that elected officials aren't listening to them.

The protests have transformed Spain's public squares into models of participatory democracy, drawing inevitable comparisons to the civil-disobedience movements in Egypt and Tunisia. Amid a festive air of concerts and impromptu theatrical performances, volunteers have organized themselves into committees to provide food to protesters and organize cleanups. Citizens' commissions hold daily meetings to discuss issues like electoral policy, environmental protection and women's rights.

But unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, it's hard to know whether the demonstrations have had any real effect. Some organizers encouraged protesters to show their contempt for both parties by entering blank ballots at the voting booths. Others seemed uninterested in voting at all. Although the number of blank ballots was higher than it was four years ago (2.54%, up from 1.94%), so too was overall voter participation: 66.23% vs. 63.24%. "My impression at this point is that [the protests'] impact was small," says Pablo Oñate, a professor of political science at the University of Valencia.

After the PSOE took a clobbering on election night — it got just 27.8% of the vote, its worst-ever local returns — the party claimed it had been hurt by the economic crisis. "It was reasonable to expect that [the PSOE], which exercises the responsibility of governing the nation, would today be punished at the polls," said Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. But half of the 1.5 million votes the PSOE lost went not to the right-wing Popular Party, which took control of 11 out of the 13 regions in which elections were held, but to other parties, like the United Left. "The issue here isn't that Spain has become more conservative," says political consultant Luis Arroyo, who in the past has worked for the PSOE, "but rather that the Socialists have become less progressive."

The PSOE may pay a higher price in general elections next March. With no end in sight to the country's economic troubles, the demonstrations will likely hinder the government's ability to maneuver. A second batch of austerity measures expected in the fall is now unlikely to materialize, says Barcelona-based economist Edward Hugh. With demonstrators demanding change, and specifically jobs, "I can't see the government having the stomach to wield the ax much more," he says. That may not be enough to give Spanish protesters bragging rights over their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. — With reporting by Eric Karlsen / Madrid