May 22, 2015 / 5:55 PM / 2 years ago

In Spain, grassroots movements revive interest in politics

A cyclist rides past electoral banners by Solidaritat Catalan independence party (SI) and Convergencia i Unio (CIU) party in Vilassar de Mar near Barcelona, Spain, May 21, 2015. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino

MADRID (Reuters) - In an apartment block in central Madrid, homeowners and tenants in danger of being evicted gather every Thursday to plan awareness campaigns and get free advice from lawyers.

‘The Mortgage Victims’ Association’, or PAH - its initials in Spanish, has stopped hundreds of evictions and is one of many grassroots campaigns to rise from Spain’s brutal six-year economic downturn in a popular revival of political involvement.

“People come to us with difficult problems,” says Felicitas Velaquez, an activist who often stays the night with homeowners to prevent dawn evictions by police. “Once those problems are resolved, they become empowered and politically aware.”

This resurgence of street-level politics on issues from the privatization of healthcare to corruption will draw more voters to Spain’s new parties, anti-austerity Podemos (‘We Can’) and market-friendly Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), when the country goes to the polls in local elections on Sunday, analysts say.

It also makes an electoral outcome harder to predict as new parties fragment the vote and destroy traditional allegiances, with polls showing 30 to 45 percent of voters still undecided, as much as double the level of the previous, 2011 local vote.

“Before the arrival of the new parties, these social movements had no political party to satisfy their demands,” says Jose Pablo Ferrandiz of polling firm Metroscopia, who expects participation to rise 3 or 4 percentage points as a result.

The new parties have sought to harness these campaigns, with Podemos joining forces in Madrid with a group of social movements under the name ‘Ahora Madrid’ with 71-year-old retired magistrate Manuel Carmena as candidate for mayor.

In Barcelona, Mortgage Victims’ Association founder Ada Colau is the favorite to win municipal elections on Sunday on a combined ticket including Podemos.

The ‘Indignados’ movement, which swept through Spain four years ago when thousands of mostly young Spaniards camped out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol central square, has matured from protests to political engagement, she told Reuters.

“The terrible situations many have gone through have made people realize that for things to change they have to get involved,” she said, noting that to the country’s credit, populist movements in Spain have not veered toward the xenophobic extreme right as in other European countries.

“THEY DO NOT REPRESENT US!”

The result is a new political landscape.

The percentage of people “very interested” in politics doubled in Spain from 2006 to 2012 while participation in associations jumped, the European Social Survey showed.

During the same period, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party and leftist Socialists, which have alternated in government since the end of dictatorship in the 1970s have lost popular support.

The latest polls ahead of a year-end general election show they would capture less than half the vote, compared to close to 84 percent in 2008 and 73 percent in 2011.

Approval rates for politicians have also halved since before the crisis, these polls show, with corruption topping the list of issues that most concern Spaniards along with unemployment.

Yet, where political analysts and mainstream parties see a risk for Spain’s stability as the country enters an era of unpredictablity, the new movements see an opportunity.

Cyber activists Xnet, another group with their roots in the ‘Indignados’ or 15M movement, whose rallying cry was “They do not represent us!”, have set up an online drop box for whistleblowers which uncovered a scandal involving grace-and-favour credit cards at former savings bank Caja Madrid.

“15M said it would end the two-party system and that is what citizens are doing,” says Xnet member Simona Levi, who is also involved in an anti-corruption political party Partido X which will not stand in elections on Sunday.

“Where there is no absolute majority and a fragile equilibrium of power, politicians are obliged to listen to the concerns of the people,” she said.

Editing by Julien Toyer and Louise Ireland

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