Last Sunday’s election marked the biggest political drubbing modern Spain has witnessed. The eleventh general election since the country reestablished democracy was won with a crushing majority by the conservative Popular Party; a handsomely rewarded electoral result after spending the better part of the last decade in the political wilderness. The party, led by Mariano Rajoy, now stands in firm control at the municipal, regional and national levels.
So, can the election result be interpreted as a rebuke of the ‘indignados’, a movement that, though not ideological, can be placed left of center in the political spectrum? Is it, furthermore, game over for the protest that spurred a global call to action to amend and perfect liberal democracy? Hardly. On both accounts.
In a nutshell, the result can be interpreted as a knee-jerk reaction of a closed two-party dominated system in which few things happen outside their rigidly controlled fiefs. After almost three years of sloppy economic management and steady declines in the poll numbers of the ruling Socialist party, the inevitable alternative was a widely unpopular do-nothing opposition leader that won not by presenting a better alternative, but simply by capitalizing on the president’s lack of popularity. Not exactly democracy at its best.
Part of the indignation that spurred the 15-M movement last spring was precisely an anger at an institutional design that is not only closed and steeply hierarchical, but also clearly tailored to hand most political control to the two main parties. Among a wide public, Sunday’s results will only hasten the consensus that the system needs reform (Rajoy achieved an absolute majority with almost 500,000 less votes than the simple majority José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero won in 2008; a good example of the democratic deficit many complain about). And, unlike professional politicians who pander to interest groups or worry about towing the party line, the disenchanted public wants results measured by a simple and straightforward indicator: a responsive political system.
The novelty of these protests is their composition. People from very different walks of life coming together by a loose set of political objectives in which, counter intuitively to the formal political process, the agenda matters less than the actual manifestation. As Slavoj Žižek’s would put it, under this new logic of participation, you occupy first, demand later. At the core, the importance of the ‘indignados’ (much the same can be said of Occupy Wall Street) thus far revolves around an abstract but potent idea: political desacralization. Desacralization of the forms, the rituals, the tempo, and spaces of the professional political class and process. In demystifying the way political consensus has been and can be built. Among others, this is one of the reasons why the movement intelligently steered clear from engaging directly in the election.
Now, with a radically different political scenario, the movement has to mutate and adapt. It needs to show that it’s flexible enough to come up with new and imaginative ways to affect the political process. To intelligently occupy a political space in which it represents much more than a left leaning movement opposing a right leaning government (for that we have the unions, which are already threatening with general strikes in the Spring). In similar fashion to Occupy Wall Street (that needs to change gears and prove its continued relevance after being kicked-out of Zuccotti Park), the ‘indignados’ need to prove the relevancy of their cause by going beyond electoral results or a specific party agenda. I would describe this as attrition in reverse. That is, find ways to build consensus, make political gains and participate in the political realm in general in exactly the opposite way that Rajoy acted as opposition leader.
In the end, the challenge is to show —unveil might be a better word— that not only the rules of political consensus building are broken, but that today there are much more effective means and mechanisms through which public matters can be debated and decided. Sunday’s electoral results are as much of a risk as they are an opportunity. Although at first glance the cards might seem stacked against the ‘indignados’ and their cause, with due time we might find that actually the opposite holds true.