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Spanish crisis met with muted popular response

Published on 10/05/2010

A deep recession that has led to soaring unemployment and austerity cuts has failed to spark popular anger in Spain, where the unions are reluctant to put pressure on the government, analysts say.

Although May Day rallies drew tens of thousands of people protesting the crisis, they were not on a scale or intensity that could alarm the government.

Certainly, they were nothing like the violent demonstrations that erupted in debt-ridden Greece on Saturday.

"The (Spanish) trade unions have been quiet for the past several years, and now it’s difficult to get the engines started," said Cayo Laro, the secretary general of the United Left coalition.

Spain suddenly found itself in recession in late 2008 after several years of strong economic growth based on its booming property sector.

Since then, any possible motives for public anger have grown steadily.

Official data last Friday showed that the jobless rate had soared to over 20 percent, double the eurozone average; the government this year launched an austerity plan to rein in the public deficit that includes tax rises; labour reforms are being studied and the government plans to raise the legal retirement age.

But unlike in Greece and Portugal, two eurozone countries also under pressure over their public deficits, reaction on the streets has been relatively subdued.

"There have not been any really unpopular measures taken for the moment," said Gayle Allard, an economist at the IE business school in Madrid.

Government’s generous unemployment benefits
Unlike Athens and Lisbon, the socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has thus far shied away from freezing salaries.

In addition, "the system of unemployment benefits is much more generous" than in other countries," said sociologist Fermin Bouza.

"Perhaps when the benefits run out, we are going to see something," said Allard.

But there are deeper reasons for the popular apathy.

Small- and medium-sized businesses
For one thing, the unions do not want to step up popular pressure on the government.

"They think hard before sending people onto the streets," said Bouza.

For Allard, it’s because they are "very politicised", close to the socialist government, subsidised and "not very representative".

"Spain is a country of small- and medium-sized businesses where it is much more difficult to have union representation," said Cristina Bermejo, secretary general of the youth wing of the CCOO union.

Combo picture made on 5 May 2010: Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (L) and Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Spanish opposition party (R) giving press conferences. Spain’s government and opposition agreed to reform a law on regional savings banks, which have rattled markets due to the slow pace of restructuring moves.

Strong family support
Another factor is family solidarity.

"The family is very strong here, each member helps others" when they are in financial trouble, said Allard.

The underground economy is also extensive, and a large number of the 4.6 million people who are officially unemployed are not in fact jobless, said both Bouza and Allard.

Allard estimated that almost 1.4 million of them work in the underground economy.

But unions put the government on notice at May Day rally that things could change.

"We don’t know what imposing a restrictive budget for the year 2011 will mean," said UGT leader Candido Mendez. "If that means reducing the guarantees for unemployment benefits, we will have a major labour conflict."

AFP / Fabien Zamora / Expatica