Voices From The Anti-Austerity Movement That Changed Spain

Five years later, activists of Spain's 15-M look back on all the changes it wrought.
Protesters fill up the Puerta del Sol square during a protest marking the anniversary of Spain's 15-M movement in Madrid's Puerta del Sol, May 12, 2012.
Protesters fill up the Puerta del Sol square during a protest marking the anniversary of Spain's 15-M movement in Madrid's Puerta del Sol, May 12, 2012.
Paul Hanna / Reuters

Five years ago, as a member of Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future), Pablo Padilla marched alongside thousands of protestors to the Puerta del Sol in Madrid to express outrage at Spain's political and economic failures.

"When I look back, it seems like a lifetime, and yet it's only been five years," he says.

Neither Padilla nor the other demonstrators could imagine that the march would transform into the largest popular mobilization in Spain's recent political history. Nor could Padilla foresee that it would dramatically change the shape of politics in Spain and even his own life.

Padilla is now a deputy in the Madrid Assembly for Podemos (We Can), the increasingly popular grass-roots anti-austerity political party.

The anti-austerity movement -- commonly known as 15-M in reference to the date of its first demonstration, or Los Indignados (The Indignant Ones) -- launched amid a moment of deep economic and political turmoil in Spain in the spring of 2011. Still reeling from the global financial slow-down and a staggering and unceasing unemployment rate, specifically among the country's youth, 15-M captured Spain's collective imagination and has yet to let up. The movement continues to inform ongoing conversations centered on economic hardship, political corruption and a desire for fresh representation in government. Podemos' continued rise in popularity is political proof.

"It was the most important political event in our country since the transition to democracy," Padilla tells HuffPost Spain. "It showed many people who thought that politics was an alien subject understood by old gentlemen in suits that it was a part of their lives. It has reshaped both the party system and the way we understand politics, and that is something we should be proud of."


Fabio Gándara (pictured above), who was part of Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now), a key group behind the organized demonstrations of May 15, likens the movement to an explosion “that spawned a wave of change in Spanish society, a wave with many implications."

Gándara recalls the grass-roots genesis of the march.

"We were ordinary people who were tired of what we were seeing at the time, and we decided to act outside of parties and unions," he says. "The march was organized through social media and we gradually started adding more people, more partner websites, and more groups, who raised awareness of the coming demonstration. When we got to May 15, we had tens of thousands of followers and calls to action in over 60 Spanish cities."

The May 15 demonstrations gave birth to many of the slogans that are now household refrains to most people in Spain, such as "It's not a crisis, it's a scam!" These proclamations weren’t simply popular among the young, but also among their parents and pensioners in general.

When the demonstrations ended, most people left Puerta del Sol, but a few remained. Gándara was in a nearby bar, reviewing the success of the event with other members of his organization. "One of our people came in and told us that there was a group of kids who had decided to camp," Gándara says. "Then we walked to the square to convey our support and to tell them that we were going to share what they were doing on social media."

Padilla, for his part, came upon the camp after fleeing police assaults that occurred shortly after the demonstration.

"I remember one fellow who told me this was going to be our particular Tahrir, like the square in Cairo, and we laughed a little," he says.


Translation: "We just camped at Madrid's Puerta del Sol, we're not leaving until we reach an agreement. #acampadaSol." The above Tweet signaled the beginning of camp efforts in Madrid's Puerta del Sol.

Activist Rafa Pacheco holds on to a keepsake from his time in the demonstrations: "We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers," the makeshift poster reads.

"We had just lived through the cuts to pensioners and officials, and in the same year when 80 billion euros had been given to the banks," Pacheco says. "The citizens saw that they were being scammed, and that we were paying for the broken dishes of something we had not been a part of."

For Pacheco, 15-M was "the beginning of system change in Spain."

"We had a system that was good to get us out of the dictatorship and transition to democracy, but, 40 years later, it is totally outdated. A lot of people who had accepted it at the time, no longer felt comfortable with it. And for those of us who were born with democracy, it felt like it wasn't enough," he says.

A City Is Born

In the 28 days that the camp lasted, "a city was born," Padilla says.

"There were political and human experiences that marked the lives of many people, especially of those of us who had been on the margins of politics for some time, [because] we were finally able to practice politics for the majority," he says. "And also for people who had never played any part in politics apart from voting or not even that, people who saw that politics was about speaking in the agora and discussing everyone's issues."

Gándara remembers a special moment when "the whole square filled with people talking and debating."

"There were many people who went to work and then went to el Sol to maintain that illusion and desire for change," recalls Pacheco. He says that he also remembers what the media said of 15-M: "They criminalized the camp, saying that the people there were nothing more than four anti-system hippies, and no, it was a movement of the entire population."

To help end this stigmatization, Pacheco, who worked in the mornings and taught at a university in the afternoon, adopted a particular strategy. "I left class with a T-shirt and stopped at home to grab a suit and go to el Sol in order to show that it was a global movement and that there were all kinds of people involved," he says.

Padilla remembers fondly how the Puerta del Sol was occupied after the Central Electoral Board banned camping on Election Day. That changed how members of his family viewed what was going on down there.

"Those who had not seen some of my political activities with sympathy, gave the movement all of their support; they came to the square and they told other people about it," he says.

Soon, however, bureaucratic characteristics typical of national politics and discord amongst campers presented challenges to the grass-roots community at Puerta del Sol. Everyone acknowledges the faults and negative aspects of the 15-M experience, such as reports of theft and violence.

Padilla believes that there where those who specifically wanted to undermine the idea of camping. They thought it was an end in and of itself, he says: "That undermined the political action, which was that the camp was a means to highlight the movement, to get together and to develop political projects."

For Gándara, the worst part was entering "assembly dynamics that slowed decision-making."

Pacheco is the most critical of the movement. He says that there were two causes behind 15-M's end.

"On the one hand, [there were] extremist movements that stopped the whole population from supporting their main ideas, and, on the other, a highly politicized media in the two major parties that always focused on those people," he says.


Rafa Pacheco actively participated in the movement. / Photograph: Carlos Pina

15-M Perseveres

The 15-M camp dissolved on June 12, at which point many, after the overwhelming victory of the traditionally conservative PP (People's Party) in the municipal elections of May 22, thought the movement was dead.

"There were those who wanted to blame the PP's majority [on the movement's failure], but to interpret it as a cause of the victory of the PP is a mistake," Padilla says.

"It was really hard to get something in the short term," says Gándara, who believes that, with the end of the camp, the movement disappeared from the media, but that it left behind a conversation that continued to reverberate through Spain's society.

"After the camp, there was a brutal decentralization toward the neighborhoods and municipalities that not only happened in Madrid," says Padilla. "In fact, some of the power of 15-M is that it was not a static matter, it was not governed by the traditional rules of politics. That was one of the most positive things about it. That, and the ability to engage with the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages)."

"I see three phases in the movement," Pacheco says. "The first one had huge social support; the second one no longer had the support of the whole country; and the third one, in 2013 and 2014, in which the most active people entered politics."

The Movement Moves Into Politics

That last phase, the step from activism to politics, is well-known to Padilla, who is a deputy in the Madrid Assembly, and often thinks of those who asked the movement to form a party and participate in the elections.

“They failed to conceive that this could lead to an actual loss of power for them.”

- Rafa Pacheco, activist

"The person who told us that we should try to be a part of institutions regrets that proposal every single day," he jokes. As a member of Podemos, Padilla looks at the X Party as "the first to break the taboo of playing the institutional."

"Today everyone thinks of Podemos as the heir to the 15-M and that is the way people ought to think about it, not merely as 15-M," he says. "Because without 15-M there is no Podemos, without 15-M there is no municipal movement. But just like without V de Vivienda [the movement for decent housing] or the anti-globalization movement, there wouldn't have been a 15-M. Are they the same? No, but its genealogy must be understood."

While Padilla thinks that the transition into politics has been "complex," he draws positives from it.

"It is important that those of us who transitioned from activism to public institutions do not forget where we came from. But we should also have the opportunity to explore with political imagination and criticism what can and what cannot be done from within institutions," he explains.

pablo padilla

Pablo Padilla, a deputy for Podemos, was a member of Juventud Sin Futuro. / Photograph: Carlos Pina

Curiously, the fifth anniversary of 15-M nearly coincides with the anniversary of the dramatic municipal change in Spain's major cities.

"Even in the best of forecasts, it was difficult to predict that changes would be achieved so quickly," Gándara says.

"The fact that cities like Madrid and Barcelona are no longer held by the major parties has completely unbalanced some people. They failed to conceive that this could lead to an actual loss of power for them," Pacheco adds.

Government Gridlock Disappoints

The current parliament's failure to form a government has left many wondering what happened to the spirit of dialogue and compromise.

"It's been a disappointment," Gándara says. "One of our maxims was dialogue, putting flags and sectarianism aside and opening our minds to connect with the person next to us."

"I'm ashamed that Podemos and Ciudadanos (Citizens) are in part emulating PP and PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) by doing trench-style politics," says Pacheco, who demands a new level of seriousness from all parties heading into the June elections. "I would not want us to go from two opposing blocks to a policy with four opposing blocks. We will discuss measures. Let us not repeat the same mistake."

Padilla is also critical of the lack of agreement. "Whoever goes to a political discussion with the fixed idea of not changing his or her mind, is neither a part of new politics or of 15-M," he says. "And to do that, you can be very young or very old, or you can come from 15-M and remain stuck with certain ideas. The result of the political discussion, as long as it brings improvements to the social majority, will always be positive regardless of who is flying or who is carrying the flag," he adds.

Five years after 15-M, Spain's political landscape has seen significant change, yes, but with the current stalemate in parliament, there is a risk that citizens will once again be screaming that their politicians "do not represent us!" On June 26, the country's political parties have another opportunity to sidestep fresh social disenchantment.

A version of this post first appeared on HuffPost Spain. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

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