Why are there street protests?" That was the question that Mariano Rajoy asked himself in 2005, when he was the opposition leader and the Socialist Party was in power. Then he went on to provide his own answers: "There are protests by millions of Spaniards so that the government will change its harebrained antiterrorist policy... And there are protests in Salamanca because people don't like to have things rammed down their throats... And there are - and will be - protests in defense of the National Water Plan."
Seven years later, now that Mariano Rajoy, of the Popular Party (PP), is sitting in his prime ministerial office in La Moncloa, street protests are no longer to his liking. The same man who, during the first two years of the Zapatero administration, encouraged and actually attended an average of one protest every two months (over antiterrorist policies, the transfer of Civil War archive material to Barcelona, same-sex marriage, abortion legislation and water management), often standing in the front row, has irked a considerable amount of people by pitting the few thousand protestors who marched in front of Congress on September 25 against most of the 47 million Spaniards who did not, and who represent "the silent majority."
Speaking at the Americas Society in New York following the protests in Spain against the austerity measures and against politicians in general, Rajoy said: "Allow me to acknowledge the majority of Spaniards who do not demonstrate, who do not make the front pages of the newspapers and who do not appear in the opening item on the newscasts. They are unseen but they are there, and they are the majority of the 47 million people who live in Spain. That immense majority is working, if they can, giving the best of themselves to attain the national goal that concerns us all, which is pulling the country out of this crisis."
Rajoy's statement was met with two additional protests back home, and this newspaper received dozens of letters to the editor complaining about his words. "I felt insulted, and coming here is my answer to that," said a lawyer who joined a new march before Congress on Saturday.
Protests are a constitutional right, and they indicate the discontent of society"
But is Rajoy not right when he talks about a silent majority of millions of people who do not protest in public? "In a democracy, the majority is never silent," explains the sociologist Belén Barreiro, who was the president of the public agency Center for Sociological Research (CIS) during the Zapatero administration. "There are numerous tools to know what people think, from elections to opinion polls. The latter are a habitual tool in all democracies. But protests are important, too. Not only are they a constitutional right, they also indicate the discontent of a portion of society."
The way things stand now, Rajoy's numerical comparison in New York is turning against him. Those few thousand protestors were expressing an unhappiness toward Spain's political class that is shared by millions of Spaniards. "You cannot pit active citizens with challenging attitudes against passive citizens with suffering attitudes because at the present time they are two sides of the same coin," warns the sociologist Carlos Lles.
So say the CIS opinion polls. Most Spaniards now feel that politicians, political parties and the government are the country's third-worst problem behind unemployment and the state of the economy. With Rajoy already in government, a CIS survey in July of this year showed that 84.9 percent of citizens considered the government's track record regular, bad or very bad. And 62 percent, according to another poll by Metroscopia, disapproves of labor market reforms.
María Dolores de Cospedal, the PP's secretary general and regional premier of Castilla-La Mancha, recently compared the September 25 march with the failed military coup against Congress in 1981. "Both attempted to cover the mouths of all Spaniards," she said. Her boss's statements in New York introduced a worrisome variant: who is trying to cover who's mouth?
Social unrest does not always result in a battering at the polls, say experts
There was a famous speech by Richard Nixon called "The Great Silent Majority," dating back to November 1969, when the United States was gripped by violent protests against the Vietnam War. In it, he said that "if a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society."
In that same speech, however, Nixon explained his plans for a US troop withdrawal that lasted four years. In 1972 he was re-elected with a majority. At the other end of the spectrum is the silent majority that kept Franco in power in Spain. Fear of expressing one's opinions - which was forbidden, in any case - and sustained economic growth made it possible for the dictator to remain glued to his seat.
Barreiro says that social unrest does not always result in a battering at the polls. Some historians and sociologists criticize the very idea of playing with such an intangible concept as the silent majority.
"By definition, a silent majority is in need of an interpreter," says Miguel Martorell, a professor of contemporary Spanish history at the distance university UNED. "A democratic government has full legitimacy. The use of such an intangible concept is a way to try to legitimize a specific position. It makes no sense. To appeal to the silent majority is to try to find a message in tea leaves."
Another historian, Ángel Viñas, says that in a democracy, public opinion is expressed through the polls. "When there is deep social unrest, there is a minority that takes to the streets," he says. "Rajoy's words are an old trick, but it is also typical of an authoritarian regime: whoever does not protest against me is with me."
There is still another angle: fear that the street, like Nixon warned, could impose its criteria. The secretary of state for culture, José María Lassalle, this week published an article in EL PAÍS titled "Antipolítica y multitud" (Antipolitics and multitude), in which he alleged that replacing deliberative institutionalism with the cries of the population is not democratic, and neither is holding that the will of the people is above the law.
Ricardo Montoro, an economist and sociologist who presided the CIS under the PP administration of José María Aznar, said that these days 10 million Spaniards would vote for the PP. Instead of backing Rajoy's statement, he said that "millions of Spaniards who support the PP were surely grateful for that reference to them, following the media display of recent days. In a democracy, what really counts is what is expressed at the voting stations."
Both Viñas and Barreiro underscore the depth and breadth of social unrest in Spain, where the feeling of despondency is such as has not been seen here for 70 years. Mariano Rajoy, who was ready to try to improve Spain's poor image during his trip to New York, had to swallow a couple of bitter pills. First there was a dark report on the social situation in Spain in The New York Times, with pictures of people rummaging through the trash. The second was the protest in front of Congress. Someone very familiar with the power (and the weaknesses) of street protests, Toni Ferrer of the labor union UGT, says: "That speech by Rajoy is a way of not facing up to reality. A majority is rejecting his reforms and he is looking the other way. Social psychologists define it as a hatred of the mirror used by Snow White's stepmother."
In fact, the reflection offered by the mirror is not the best that Spain has ever seen. Neither is the violence of a few protestors, but concealing the reality is an all-too-real temptation. "It is foolish to televise all the public order problems because they are an invitation for further protest," said Jaime Mayor-Oreja, president of the Popular Group in the European Parliament, telling the Cope radio station that what he likes the least are the broadcast images of the police charging against protestors.
The sociologist Lles notes: "When politicians in their statements opt only for [the images] that are most convenient to them in each case and ignore - or despise - the rest, they are fueling the legitimacy crisis that the CIS opinion polls are revealing."