The opposition and the street

The effects of the crisis are no excuse for attempts to silence protests against the government

Far from welcoming proposals for parliamentary consensus concerning the crisis, the Popular Party (PP) government seems to want to silence the political opposition. The prime minister, for example, recently said of the Socialists that “the least they can do is shut up.” This, and other such remarks, are not just a letting off of steam in private, but public statements from top political figures.

In a democracy, it is a serious matter when the governing party tells the opposition to shut up. This is the way of authoritarian regimes, to exercise power without counterweights. Democracy functions by means of balances. The Spanish Constitution sets out the rules for political participation and expression of the popular will, and for the actors who channel it: political parties, labor unions, employer associations. To talk of silencing them from a position of power gives the impression that our leaders’ democratic convictions are lukewarm, or their nerves excessively strained.

The “inheritance received” from Zapatero is indeed a bad one, but this does not authorize a suspension of the normal workings of democracy. Especially when the opposition is arguing — rightly enough — that most of the measures adopted by the PP are at odds with the promises it made in the electoral campaign. The plans with which it came to power yield no immediate results, and those now being announced — such as tax hikes — are not the result of any promise to the public; nor have they rated any particular explanations on the prime minister’s part, other than the assertion that they are being adopted because the inherited situation is worse than was expected.

The attempt to silence the parliamentary opposition extends to the PP’s criticism of Socialist support for marches by the labor unions — which seems to denote either amnesia or impudence. The PP came out onto the streets several times against the previous government — particularly in 2005, alongside the bishops, protesting against the gay marriage law, as well as against the education law and “in defense of the Constitution.” Later, in 2009, PP leaders demonstrated against the new abortion law. Rajoy himself attended some of these demonstrations. When he didn’t attend, he still called on party members to get out onto the streets.

Politicians, beginning with the government, would do well to listen to the messages from the street about the ills of a society to which they are applying horse medicine. The public space must be the theater not of troublemakers or vandals, but of civic forces that channel protest in an orderly manner — an approach that is more intelligent than to abandon the street to anti-system groups. The government is right in saying that we are going through hard economic times, but, particularly on the Labor Day, people cannot be expected not to protest against an extreme austerity policy that the government has hardly bothered to explain, relying solely on the mechanics of its parliamentary majority.