The Spanish “Indignado” protesters who inspired the worldwide Occupy movement are out to conquer city halls and regional governments across Spain in elections on Sunday.
After swamping Spanish squares and streets from 2011 onwards to rage against unemployment, corruption and crisis-linked spending cuts, the onetime street movements have morphed to become parties and are now running for office.
Two new electoral contenders have harnessed the popular unrest of the “Indignado” movement: centrist party Ciudadanos and left-wing Podemos, which has the support of countless smaller “citizen platforms”.
They have transformed Spain's political landscape ahead of a general election due around November — and Sunday's regional and local elections are being seen as a key test of their growing strength.
“In practically all the main provincial towns there are citizen platforms running for office,” said Pablo Simon, a political scientist at Madrid's Carlos III University.
“They could decide the result in many cases — if not by winning the city hall then at least by coming second.”
The new groups are challenging the two big parties that have taken turns running Spain for more than 30 years: the conservative governing Popular Party (PP) and the main opposition Socialists.
Polls have consistently shown the PP losing support and in recent surveys the protest groups were polling strongly in Spain's two biggest cities, Madrid and Barcelona.
In the race for mayor in the conservative stronghold of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, a 71-year-old former judge running for the Podemos-backed movement Ahora Madrid, was level on votes in one poll with the combative PP stalwart Esperanza Aguirre.
In Barcelona, an official poll showed the “Indignada” activist Ada Colau in first place, though she would need to make an alliance to govern the city.
Polls show the tide could also start to turn in smaller northern regions, where Podemos could enter regional government coalitions.
“Podemos could finish second in Aragon and in Asturias,” said Simon. “In Navarra it may even come first. Those could be the first places where the new parties get a chance to govern.”
Crisis and corruption
Voters will punish both big parties for the hardships of the recent economic crisis as well as the corruption scandals that fill Spain's newspapers and airwaves every day.
Economic growth is gradually improving, but the unemployment rate was at more than 23 percent at the last count and anti-austerity campaigners say recovery is not yet reaching the poorest.
Promising to defend the poor, Podemos started to turn Spanish politics on its head when it won 1.2 million votes in European elections a year ago.
A few months later support for Catalan party Ciudadanos surged too after it launched nationwide, drawing voters who find Podemos too radical.
Among them is Juan Escriva, a 34-year-old lawyer. He recalls joining the Indignado protests on Madrid's Puerta del Sol square in 2011.
That was part of a wave of demonstrations that the Occupy Wall Street movement later cited as an inspiration, along with uprisings in the Arab world.
“What attracts me about Ciudadanos is the idea of choosing the good bits from different parties and combining them,” he said.
The two-party system that followed Spain's emergence from dictatorship in the 1970s seems to be coming to an end.
“There is no doubt that a majority of Spaniards want change. What they want now are governments that make pacts and engage in dialogue,” said Jose Pablo Ferrandiz from major pollster Metroscopia.
“That is truly something new in Spain. We are not used to coalition governments.”
Simon said a new multi-party system could lead to long-overdue reforms of the courts and other state institutions untouched since the years of transition from the Franco dictatorship.
“We have gone for practically 30 years without altering our institutional system. That is what will be on the agenda from this year onwards.”
By Patrick Rahir / AFP