MADRID -- Spain is beset by a series of crises, which makes the task of merely enumerating them a challenging exercise. Financial analyst Nicholas Spiro tried last week, telling The New York Times, “Spain is the only country in the world that must contend with a banking, economic, sovereign debt, political and constitutional crisis all occurring simultaneously.” Off hand, it is hard to think of any other country able to match that.
But, of course, these five problems are interconnected, as the presence of thousands of disgruntled protesters around Madrid’s Congress building most evenings last week served to demonstrate. Taking up the messages of the 15-M protesters — who in the spring of 2011 (beginning on May 15, hence the name) sparked a wave of similar anti-capitalist demonstrations in many Western countries— the “indignant ones” outside parliament last week were not demanding jobs or handouts. With unemployment at 25 percent of the workforce (and double that for those under age 25), many might be in need of such things, but they chose to join in a collective finger-pointing at Spain’s politicians, making no exception between the ruling Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist opposition.
The political crisis resonating outside is less apparent inside Madrid’s parliament, where the rightist Popular Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy can simply deploy its absolute majority to reel off austerity measures aimed at reassuring the markets that Spain’s debt load is sustainable. What’s more, the European Union, which has already approved a 100-billion-euro bailout for Spain’s stricken financial sector, has conditioned its support on budget-deficit targets being met — orders that Madrid passes on to the Spanish regions, which are responsible for spending on basic services such as health care and education.
But the malaise can be clearly seen in the street protests — which harness a growing sense of disenfranchisement on the part of the citizenry — and in local authorities across Spain who are questioning the harsh medicine they are being asked to swallow. The extreme example is Catalonia, where the traditional party of power has felt the need to move in sync with a popular groundswell of separatist sentiment and call for a referendum on self-determination. Never mind that in the months preceding Sept. 11’s massive march for independence, the same center-right nationalist government in Catalonia had caused the streets of Barcelona to seethe with angry teachers, health workers and others as it slashed at the public sector with a gusto that smacked of ideological zeal. But now the region’s budgetary problems cannot be explained away by the crisis and the need for belt-tightening, and deep-seated inequity in the state financing model is roiling tensions.
And it is not just Catalonia and its quest for greater independence that is challenging Rajoy’s dictates. This summer, five of Spain’s 17 regions, including Catalonia and the Basque Country, declared themselves in rebellion against the central government’s instructions that illegal immigrants were no longer to be given health care unless they paid for it. Andalusia is resisting Madrid-imposed cutbacks in public education, and PP-run Extremadura recently attempted to make its own stand by not applying across the board a recent hike in the value-added tax.