Earlier this month, Paul Mason (Newsnight’s economics editor) visited Seville and reported on the economic crisis facing Spain. As Mason reported, the problems in Spain are primarily fuelled by an absurd property bubble that grew too large and, finally, burst causing a severe trauma that has led to people losing their jobs and losing their homes. So severe has the trauma been, that Spain is apparently the next big crisis waiting to happen.
As a result of “the crisis” (the ubiquitous term used across the Spanish media to describe the current situation), new houses have been left empty as the companies that built them go bust. One such example (and one used by Mason) is a five-storey apartment block in Seville which was built to suit “young professionals”. The flats remained empty for some time until, eventually, they were taken over by families who had been evicted by the banks from their previous homes (banks who now accept bailout money from the government).
Shortly after occupying the empty properties, the electricity and water supplies were cut-off. They have now taken to protest outside the town hall in Seville to force the local government to take action in their defence (see video below). Unsurprisingly, they are angry because they feel the government has failed them. Indeed, with a substantial number of properties empty whilst increasing numbers are homeless and jobless (whilst the banks are receiving all the help they could wish for), it is not difficult to understand why the people are angry about the lack of support they are receiving from government (either locally or nationally).
The problem in Spain is that the people have the “wrong” government (in more ways than one). The People’s Party (the main right-wing party in Spain) won the election amidst a background of widespread opposition to the then PSOE (the main left-wing party) administration. But, this opposition was not from a right-wing perspective. Rather, the left-wing government was facing widespread opposition from the left. This opposition grew as a result of Zapatero (the then Prime Minister) abandoning a Keynesian policy of increased spending to stimulate the economy and boost growth. And, indeed, that policy was working with an improvement in the level of economic contraction. Then, as with so many European leaders, Zapatero decided to take orders from the IMF who instructed its usual prescription of untested austerity measures, which ultimately led to the mass protests by unions and “indignados” across Spain.
There has been an underlying tension in Spain since the end of Franco. There are still those that long for the days of the “safety” of the Franco regime. It is not unusual for some to proudly display pictures of the caudillo in their homes. Since his death, there has been an attempt to brush the whole era under the carpet and pretend it didn’t happen. Any attempt to confront his crimes (he was responsible for the deaths of thousands) is dismissed as unimportant and best forgotten. Talk to a Spaniard now and their likely response is either to express disgust at the regime, or to make it clear that they absolutely do not want to talk about it. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his regime, it is the right-wing who primarily refuse to confront his crimes. They are particularly keen to point to more important matters (the economy, jobs, crime etc) than to support the families of Franco’s victims or even to remove any reference to the dictator on the streets of Spain (there are still plaques referencing Franco across Spain).
With the economic crisis seemingly building in Spain, it is a question of when, not if, these tensions finally surface. Some I have spoken to (independently) believe that the country is a moment away from serious unrest, perhaps not unlike that which has been witnessed in Greece. With Spain’s democracy still relatively young, there is no telling what an explosion of these underlying tensions might lead to. It is hard to believe that the country will return to the years of instability and polarisation of the early 1930s, but there is sure to be instability ahead. Europe will certainly need to tread carefully as far as Spain is concerned. If not, “the crisis” will seem like a period of stability in comparison.