Gezi spirit in Spain and Turkey
ALBER SABANOĞLUOnly two weeks before the Gezi Park manifestations, Spain celebrated the second anniversary of the 15-M movement, whose beginning was marked with the demonstrations in 60 cities against cuts made in social rights by the then-governing Socialists. Just as in Gezi, the protesters went on to stay for weeks in the main plazas of the cities, converting them into open forums where all kinds of ideas were discussed creatively. They got the support of people from all walks of society.
The main difference with the events in Turkey was the attitude of the police and of the authorities. Even Esperanza Aguirre, then the president of the Madrid Autonomous Region and one of the most callously neoliberal politicians in Spain, chose to come to terms with the “occupiers” of the Plaza del Sol, after having futilely labeled them as “some outcasts” in the first few days. The occupation of Sol was ended by mutual agreement on June 12, and those in the other cities followed a similar course.
The movement continued through neighborhood assemblies very similar in many aspects to those that are being held nowadays in Turkey. It was decided that they would be bi-weekly, with several neighborhoods, or even the whole city joining forces for bigger action when the circumstances required it. In Madrid, assemblies were organized in 114 neighborhoods or villages. Since it was unrealistic to try to achieve all the goals at once, a few of them – such as attempts to avoid house evictions due to mortgage non-payments, to enlighten people on economic matters, to mobilize against privatizations - were given priority. In addition, each neighborhood tackled specific issues that were important to them: Chueca, the center of gay life in Madrid, was very busy with LGBT matters, for example. Activities like art workshops, open air cinemas and computer classes have now become permanent parts of many neighborhood assemblies.
Two years later, what is the situation of the 15-M movement? Has it been able to achieve any of its goals?
In November 2011, the right-wing PP came to power. At present this government, like the AKP government in Turkey, has become alienated from a large part of the population. Using the economic crisis as an excuse, they have been disassembling the welfare state step by step. Education, health and other public services as well as social rights are hit almost on a daily basis, in the process unveiling the government’s dislike of any form of culture, thought and the arts. Not even the knowledge that most of their own voters are against these cuts has proved strong enough to stop this course. In the light of these facts, one can easily be tempted to think that the 15-M and subsequent protest movements have achieved nothing. But in fact things aren’t so simple.
15-M’s biggest success in these years has been to put a stop to most of the mortgage evictions. People in that desperate situation found, through 15-M, a platform that carried their voices first to the national media, then to the European Union. Spanish banks’ cruel mortgage lending conditions were exposed and as a result of EU pressure, the government had to enact a law that softened the conditions. 15-M has also been in the vanguard of all the campaigns against public service cuts, adding some ingenious forms of protests of their own like standing on guard near the homes of corrupt bankers or politicians reminding them of their shame at every hour of the day.
Interesting experiments were conducted in using alternative currencies, time banks, and barter. There are now 168 local currencies in Spain. Previous successful experiments in the U.K., Brazil and Switzerland show that the number of participants is an important factor for success, so some of those 168 currencies will need to join forces. Time banks and barter have fared well. Overall, these experiments have allowed many unemployed people to be active again and they have reanimated local economies in the absence of bank credits.
Perhaps even more important are some of the changes that are not visible at first sight. Two years ago, Spain was a country divided into two blocs - roughly the left and the right - which never agreed on anything. This division was reflected in all the institutions, consequently paralyzing any prospect of change. Today, people from the right and the left join forces to stop the privatization of hospitals, left-wing and right-wing judges unite to invalidate abusive government decrees, etc. 15-M’s claim that “the politicians in Congress do not represent us” has found an echo in most of the population. Polls indicate that if elections were held today, the alternating duopoly of the two big parties (the Socialists and the PP) in the government would be broken for the first time in 32 years. A coalition would need to be formed including some small parties, which for the first time would have a significant say on how to govern the country.
Both in Turkey and Spain, it is becoming clear that the people’s consciousness and its perceptions are instrumental in bringing about change. The struggle in Turkey is more existential and also harsher because of the physical violence used by those who hold power: at stake is not only the stopping of destructive neoliberal policies, but also whether a regime based on a broad social contract can emerge at last, and whether that regime will be secular or not. This is also what gives the movement in Turkey its dynamism. In Spain, there is the risk that with a modest improvement in the economic conditions in Europe, a parody of “recovery” will allow the usual actors to remain in power using new masks, neutralizing all the popular energy that exploded on May 15, 2011. Hopefully, this won’t happen.