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Time for Spains indignados to prove their relevance

As the 15-M movement prepares for its first anniversary, it can look back on a year of limited but tangible achievements. But with the Spanish economy going from bad to worse, the organisation now needs to take a step forward.

As the 15-M movement, or indignados, prepare to commemorate their first anniversary, it says plenty about the state of Spain and its economy that much of the news coverage has focused on the possibility of clashes between demonstrators and police this weekend.

With gatherings and marches scheduled across the country, from Saturday until the symbolic May 15 date itself, the scene is set for a huge turnout and another expression of anger and outrage at Spains political class and their handling of the economy. Many fear that this will spill over into violence, either on the part of the protesters, or the police.

Violent confrontation was not something associated with los 15-M when they first emerged in May of 2011. Thats partly because when the movement first erupted, apparently out of nowhere, it took Spaniards, political parties, police and media by surprise. That element of surprise, a key weapon for the indignados, has evaporated.

And beyond fears of whether there will be tear gas and mles with police this weekend, one question above all others hangs over their imminent protest: what have they achieved over the last year?

The glib answer would be nothing. That they have drawn attention to many of modern Spanish democracys failings an unrepresentative political system, rampant corruption, panic in the face of the economic crisis, to name a few without actually providing answers.

The indignados horizontal structure, which is a drag on decision-making, hasnt helped, nor has a recent split in the organisation itself, just when its first anniversary events were being planned.

But in the autumn of 2011, the last time a major 15-M protest was organised, over three-quarters of Spaniards were in broad agreement with the groups concerns, according to Metroscopia polling firm. And over the last year, the indignados do have some concrete achievements to their name.

Their support for the anti-eviction platform PAH, which seeks to prevent authorities and banks from leaving families unable to pay their mortgages out on the street, is probably the most notable example. The eviction of around 200 families from their homes each day in 2011 under Spains strict mortgage laws is one of the most brutal indicators of the countrys current crisis and a direct legacy of the burst real estate bubble.

The involvement of activists in this cause has stopped only a fraction of the slated evictions. But it has drawn attention to an anomaly in Spanish law that leaves many families owing tens or even hundreds of thousands of euros after they have had their homes repossessed. The current government has responded with a palliative measure, although it is one that helps very few families caught in the mortgage nightmare.

Another development since May of last year has been the establishment of neighbourhood assemblies, in which people voice concerns about local issues. Some of these are little more than ways for the verbose to let off steam, but in other cases, barrio service exchanges have been set up, whereby an electrician, for example, will fix the lighting of a neighbour, who will fix a computer by way of payment.

These assemblies clearly are not an adequate replacement for the formal institutions of democracy, but they do serve another, albeit abstract purpose: they have got many ordinary Spaniards, who until recently had seemed resigned to the complacency, corruption and lack of accountability of their leaders, engaged in politics and thinking about why the economy is in the mess it is.

Getting worse

A look at the numbers shows that the Spanish economy is worse than it was a year ago. Unemployment is at nearly 25 percent and rising, the feared double-dip recession is a reality, a severe program of cuts is trying to slash the deficit, and the extent of the banking sectors problems is finally becoming apparent.

Comparisons with Greece are inevitable and that country is starting to show the disastrous social and political consequences that economic meltdown can provoke. As it tries to find a way out of its own crisis, Spain must not simply stare at the jobless graphs and bond indicators, it should doing everything possible to avoid violence and prevent extremism from further distorting its discredited democracy.

In such a context, a grass-roots group with bold, serious proposals and peaceful methods is exactly what Spain needs. Are the indignados that group? Its still not entirely clear; but its time for them to decide.

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