How the Spanish political laboratory is reconfiguring democracy

On May 15, 2011, Spain was convulsed by one of the most spectacular popular uprisings in its history, and in the history of the modern democratic world.

How the Spanish political laboratory is reconfiguring democracy
With the likes of Pablo Iglesias and Ada Colau coming to power in Spain, we are witnessing the rise of the ‘post-representatives’. Barcelona En Comú/flickr, CC BY-SA

Eight million Spanish citizens took part in the occupation of public squares and buildings in at least 60 towns and cities across the country. The movement of Los Indignados (“the outraged”) was born.

At the time Spanish citizens had plenty to be disgruntled about: economic recession, high unemployment, endemic corruption, cronyism, wasteful and reckless mega-projects, mounting central and local government debt and much else. With both major political parties complicit in these dynamics, the public themselves began searching for an antidote to the “business as usual” mantra offered by the cartel parties and mainstream media.

From that 2011 occupation of public space to the creation of new political parties in 2013 and 2014, politics in Spanish social circles remains as lively as ever today.

The Conversation

The country has been transformed into a democratic laboratory, where the participation and use of new communication strategies – born in peripheral political contexts – are primarily active, open and ready for experimentation and innovation.The Conversation

Radical changes

It’s true that Spanish politics still suffers the same old defects: political corruption, austerity, inequality, inadequate separation of powers (in key sectors such as the judiciary) and limited citizen participation in government. Though reduced to a parliamentary minority, Partido Popular still governs, and it does so without serious modification of its pet policies.

Yet believing that nothing has changed in either Spanish politics or social life is unwarranted.

Several weeks ago, Rodrigo Rato, the former International Monetary Fund director and former Spanish minister of economy under Jose Maria Aznar, was handed a 4.5-year prison sentence.

He was not alone. Thanks to the monitoring work of Xnet, a small activist group from Barcelona, 65 employees of the Spanish banks Caja Madrid and Bankia were found guilty of misappropriating funds.

Since the 2014 local elections, compositions of political parties and city councils in many towns has also radically changed. Some cities are now led by well-known activist figures, including Ada Colau, who in 2015 became the first female mayor of Barcelona.

Madrid, Zaragoza and Cádiz were also among the cities to be governed by new political parties linked to the indignados M15 movement.

In Barcelona and Madrid, experiments are under way with early-warning corruption detectors and bold new forms of citizen participation.

Breaking the spell of parliamentary representation

So why has the M15 movement been so powerful? What was it all about? In its initial phase, expressions of anger took the form of general criticisms of the decadence and disintegration of Spain’s dysfunctional political order. The renowned claim “no nos representan” (“they do not represent us”), together with a demand for democracia real (real democracy), brought together two ideas: the crisis of representation and a craving for more citizen participation.

Signs from M15’s Occupy Puerta del Sol, Madrid, in 2011. Diego Hernández/flickr


Then, under the “real democracy” slogan, and to highlight the gap between the promise and reality of Spain’s democratic system, citizens began to create parallel intuitions and processes. They wanted to shame politicians into acknowledging their lack of democratic legitimacy.

What was most innovative in the organisation of this outbreak of public protest was that no traditional political actors were involved. In the place of trade unions and political parties, digital networks played a vital role in organising, mobilising and publicising M15.

Even without mass media coverage (which came only after demonstrations proliferated), outrage spread quickly through many Spanish cities. Faith in the democratic credentials of the Spanish political system crumbled. Citizens were asking: how can the search for an improved democracy be sustained, and what might that mean in practice?

Monitory democracy and the new weapons of the weak

In the era of “monitory democracy”, new forms of representative politics involving people not elected at the polls are flourishing. Citizen efforts to draw attention to institutionalised corruption, secrecy, violence and social injustice become essential demonstrations of the limits of political parties and parliaments.

Indeed, monitory democracy has given new “weapons to the weak” and in some ways turned power relations upside down. Today, citizens and their representatives have a considerable advantage against the secretive and petulant elites who could previously do as they liked in splendid isolation, out of public sight and mind.

This is not to say that we are witnessing the emphatic end of representative politics, only that the ecology of representation is becoming more complex and more dispersed. In Spain and beyond, the aura previously surrounding the political class is clearly being replaced by public disdain.

Introducing the post-representatives

The very fact that there is an attitude of hostility towards parliaments and other forms of representation, however, has cast a shadow over current initiatives in Spain. New contenders cannot escape considerations of transparency and must be the first to modify aspects of political parties to prevent new elites from springing up within them.

Several parties have already introduced defence mechanisms to ensure that leaders do not become arrogant. However, measures like revocation, rotating official positions and reducing salaries for elected positions have their limits.

Much of Podemos’ success is due to the easily identifiable figure of Pablo Iglesias; Ahora Madrid would not be where it is now without Manuela Carmena; and Barcelona en Comú’s election campaign would not have had the same success without the formidable presence of Ada Colau.

Now elected, how will popular former street activist Ada Colau uphold her radical platform in office? Barcelona En Comú/flickr

How is it possible to avoid what seems to be an inherent oxymoron of the new politics – an anti-representative style of representative politics? In a media-saturated environment, where political actions are carried out on a scale involving millions of citizens, there will always be charismatic personalities and visible figureheads who adopt and embody a particular stance on the major questions of the moment; they provide a focus for the ordinary person’s attention.

At the same time, we are witnessing the evolution of political figures whose raison d’etre is to reject the legacy of the politician as representative.

These are the “post-representatives”, representatives who are simultaneously monitory and monitored, even though they have their roots in criticism of the very legacy of politics and politicians.

Ada Colau, who largely came to fame for drawing attention to the shortcomings of the established political elite and of the very democratic process itself, can no longer be regarded as a “street activist”. Following her election as Barcelona’s mayor, she is now at the forefront of action within the political process.

Looking towards the future: innovation or nostalgia?

But it is on this point that numerous observers have questioned just how this more direct political alternative can be put into practice.

Does it imply a desire to keep up the overwhelming impetus of the public forums and assemblies, the memory of which is still very much alive among many activists in the Spanish democratic laboratory?

And if so, is this not a formula for what has been termed “the tyranny of structurelessness” – that is, the transfer of burden to ordinary citizens, who are forced to find the time, energy and “click power” to spend hours in public debates, both on and offline?

Is a new phase of democracy developing in Spain? Or is this just another case of ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’? Photo: Julio Albarrán/flickr

Is it not simply making a fetish of “presence” over “voice”, regardless of how weak or mediated it is by other processes? Why should those with responsibilities for looking after children or older relatives, people who work, or those without access to online participatory digital media become hostages of people who are crazy about politics and perfectly happy to spend all their free time in group debates?

Is there no argument to suggest that the practices of direct, monitory democracy look less to the future than to the past, based perhaps on the nostalgic desire for face-to-face, neighbourhood interactions; a slower, community-based way of life; and other tropes that go back to the assembly democracy of classical Greece? The question arises of whether the danger of this nostalgic ambition is that it starts to move away from the reality of many citizens’ lives.

Still, the lingering ambivalence about parliamentary representation among millions of Spanish citizens is understandable. Simply going back to the mass political parties with their memberships of millions seems highly improbable.

Whatever happens to representative politics, we are observing an extraordinary desire to rethink the basic coordinates of democratic life in Spain. It is not easy to think of another modern political system where this sense of contingency runs so deep, and where the alternatives seem so real.

By Ramón Andrés Feenstra, Assistant Professor of Moral Philosophy, Universitat Jaume I; Andreu Casero-Ripolles, Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Communication, Universitat Jaume I; John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney, and Simon Tormey, Professor of Political Theory and Head of the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. 

The main arguments of this article were abridged from the authors’ forthcoming book Reconfiguring Democracy, published by Routledge. It will be the first in the Crick Centre’s new Anti-Politics and Democratic Crisis book series co-edited by Matt Wood.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 


Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.


France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.


Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.


Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.


The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.


Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.


In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.


Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.