Until recently Spain has been a relatively quiet place. During the late 1970s it became a classic case of negotiated transition. In 1977, the entire political spectrum, from the hard right to the communists, signed a compact that sealed the terms of the country’s political and economic liberalization. This was followed by a massive transformation of the Franquist economic legacy during the 1980s and 1990s. During this period, the developmentalist industrialization drive that marked Spain’s postwar period made room for an economic model that aimed to increase competitiveness by targeting the consolidation and internationalization of the country’s financial, energy and construction sectors. As a result, in the eyes of many, by the 2000s Spain emerged as a European “tiger” economy. Suggestively, permanent double-digit unemployment levels were the sole negative markers of the Spanish model remarked on a regular basis by analysts.
Even as the post-Lehman crisis raged on, sending unemployment at the highest level in OECD and putting half of the country’s youth out of work, citizens did not lash out harshly against the status quo. Unlike the Greeks, most Spaniards seemed to be joining Ireland in taking a stoic view of the crisis. By mid 2012, even the famously reflexive and creative indignados movement whose tactics stressed a radical rupture with Spain’s existing political institutions withdrew from the national scene into myriad neighborhood assemblies. Spain’s economic model was failing a record number of its citizens but the consensual bases of 1977 seemed to endure the test of the worst economic crisis.
Yet this Spanish political tradition began to melt into the air in the summer of 2012. The 65 billion austerity hole in the Spanish government’s fiscal coffers adopted in early July by the conservative administration of Mariano Rajoy led to string of protests whose repertoire signals that more contentious forms of politics may be entering the stage. The country’s relatively tamed labor union movement put hundreds of thousands in the street and the protest space is no longer the main turf of the ultimately easy to ignore indignados. In July coal miners battled the bicorned federal police in the Asturias mountains using makeshift weapons and staging ambuscades. Enraged by the government’s reneging on its commitment to subsidize the industry, hundreds of miners walked from various parts of Spain towards Madrid. Thousands cheered them along the way. In Madrid, the miners’ column protest swelled into a massive rally on Paseo de Castellana, the city’s leafy main avenue. It was hardly a dull view. Stone-throwing, tear gas, rubber bullets and hovering police choppers made up a picture that had little to do with the typically subdued protest style of Spaniards in revolt. The miners’ march on Madrid seemed to be just the beginning of a different age in Spain’s protest politics. Flash protests organized by a broad array of actors, ranging from pot-banging burghers to flamboyantly militant youth spread like wildfire throughout the country as police tactics became more violent. For weeks, the phantom of protesting Athenians has been visiting Spain on a regular basis.