The emergence of ‘Real Democracy Now’ and other similar movements such as ‘Occupy’ has raised awareness that many European citizens do not feel represented in the established party system.

Spain 2011 – the origins of a movement for more democracy

On 15 May 2011, around 100 people decided to occupy the ‘La Puerta de Sol’ square in Spain’s capital Madrid after having attended a protest calling for ‘real democracy now’ (Democracia real ya). In Spain, this day now marks a movement (15-M), which is hard to categorise. It is safe to say that the movement occurred as a reaction to the negative impacts the 2008 crisis had on Spain. Spain’s economy until this point had seemingly been on a good track: growth rates were stable and the public deficit was low. What went wrong behind the scenes, however, was the proliferation of the construction and banking sector, relying on and contributing to excessive financial bubbles. When those bubbles burst, the positive trend of the previous years was reversed. State debt rose, growth rates stagnated, and speculation on the financial markets aggravated the downturn. As a result, the unemployment rate soared from 8.1% in October 2007 to 25.8% in September 2012; only one indicator for Spain’s imploding economy. The same trend was visible for its youth unemployment, which rose from 18.2% to 46.4%. One could thus argue that the protest movements were motivated by the emerging economic problems. This appears to be supported by the fact that the protests soon picked up topics such as criticism of financial market power, of globalisation, the guilt of the banks for the crisis, and criticism of the state’s austerity policy.

Nevertheless, a closer look reveals that the problem is much more democratic and political than economic. The worsening economic situation merely acted as a trigger to make citizens aware of their lack of opportunities to influence their destiny. As their personal situation deteriorated, they wanted to take part in solving the crisis and started the passionate appeal for “real democracy now”. This call both addressed a perceived lack of representation at the national level, as well as at the European level and furthermore the outcry over the influence of the financial and banking sector.

The 15-M movement – in contrast to other protests – did not limit itself to criticism. Following its vision to bring decisions closer to the people, it set up assemblies discussing a wide range of topics at grassroots level. The idea of local assemblies was rapidly picked up by a plethora of communities. Thus, the 15-M in fact helped politicising the whole country. One and a half years later, however, the initial enthusiasm and ardent efforts have lost their momentum and are not as concentrated anymore. Where initially one strong demand united the ranks, fundamental discussions on the movement’s future have taken over.

Within the group, those supporting a formalisation of the movement in giving it a legal foundation or even making it a party have been denounced as ‘rebels’ and expelled. They now group themselves under the name Asociación DRY (Asociación Democracia Real Ya) and still pursue their goals pointing out that the un-hierarchical, un-organised structure of the 15-M brings problems such as a long duration for decisions to be adopted, a dispersion of topics which weakens the potential for strong messages backed by a large number of people, and simply the problem of being heard: a conclusion of even a 1,000 person strong assembly does not carry a lot of weight. The basis of the movement, however, did not appreciate the move of the ‘rebels’ and warned that such initiatives threaten a democratically established project, and only ‘repeat the same vice [they] want to eradicate’.

Where to take action: a parallel to the Greens’ revolution?

It appears that the movement is in a dilemma, or at a crossroads to say the least. On the one hand, its fundamental character is a form of direct democracy and action of the people. On the other hand, it appears difficult to effectively organise and make politics in such a set-up – at least politics with a trans-local impact. The Greens throughout Europe in the 1980s were in a similar situation, as Janet Biehl depicts. Best illustrated in her description of the development of the German Greens, she shows how they actually transformed from a movement heavily criticising the distance between the established political system and the people, into a party of exactly this system. Within this system, the public usually distinguishes the German Greens from the other parties by their environmental agenda. Their particular views on topics such as gender equality, or social inclusion and justice, and even democracy, are usually not perceived as defining their image.

Yet, it is also clear that the Greens have not been able to preserve the exact structures, which had characterised them when they were still a movement. Despite attempts to maintain the character of direct democracy, the original form of discussing every single decision collectively before taking a united position had to be left behind. For a party which is confronted by the mass of daily decisions in state politics, this form of decision-making is unfeasible. On the same grounds it proved impossible to scrutinise the party delegates’ daily decisions in the parliament, which the movement still had paid close attention to. A third departure from the Greens’ original movement position is the fact that the party has decided to enter into coalitions with other parties on various occasions. A coalition is a forum where compromises are drafted between the top negotiators on each side; what has been decided by the basis on the ground will oftentimes not directly reflect in an eventual policy outcome. Therefore, one could conclude that compared to the origins of the Greens as a social movement, their contemporary structure is more focused on political efficiency than on organising collective debates on each decision.

This trend is exactly what the members of the “real democracy now” grouping want to avoid. For them, the political process of arriving at a decision is much more important than the decision itself. The risk that a formalisation of structures could pose to this conviction is seen as too high to take. What room does this leave for conclusions of the Greens? Do they necessarily have to go back to their roots as a movement to be perceived as a defender of true democratic participation? Is the ‘Real Democracy Now’ case a wake-up call for the party to do so? On the other hand, where does the future of the 15-M lie if it stays a movement? Is it destined to stay a forum for local debate? Can it maintain sufficient momentum to stay alive at all? Already today proactive and steady support seems to falter and diminish, and the actual effect on actual policies changing the realities of the citizens of Spain has been negligible, seeing that Mariano Rajoy’s government implements the austerity policies that 15-M opposes.

Workability and direct democracy: a need to square the circle?

The established Green parties have taken their decision; it is hardly imaginable that they will go back to being a movement, as they have gained a strong foothold and considerable influence in the parliamentary scene. Yet, more democracy and more citizen participation have always been central priorities in European Green parties’ programmes and also lie at the heart of their reform vision for Europe. In a situation where citizens appear not to see the established political system as the place where more democracy is found, the Greens thus confront a conundrum. On the contrary, the impact the ‘real democracy now’ movement had was notable as it sparked an important discourse and motivated a lot of citizens to get involved in politics again. The sheer extent of the movement can be measured in the millions of people, who on 15 October 2011 marched in protests all around the world[1]. Is more democracy thus only to be found on the streets? Even on the fringes of their own party structures, the Greens experience that many movements attributable to the Green family seek to realise their cause outside the political arena, as has recently been discussed by Erwan Lecoeur in an analysis of the French Greens in the Green European Journal. Transition town movements, alter-globalisation, and Degrowth supporters are only a few examples to be mentioned. Also those activists often do not feel represented through (Green) party politics anymore, a situation which becomes even more understandable in times when the large mainstream parties are beginning to internalise the rhetoric of ecologic transition and environmental protection.

The question to ask is therefore how the Green parties can distinguish themselves from the rest again, how they can offer something to those activists the others cannot, and how they can form a united movement for more democracy and true sustainable transition, which yet seeks realisation through parliamentary procedures. Does the answer imply that one has to square the circle to reconcile movement and party politics?

Green democracy now

The attempt to square the circle is a desperate act, as it is simply impossible. Therefore, if ways existed to integrate the message of ‘real democracy now’ in the European Green message, they would have to be innovative to transcend the inherent disparity. Yet, even when addressing the topic of democracy directly, the European Greens appear to be limited to the classic institutional debate. In their latest resolution “What’s next for Europe? More union for the EU” the call for ‘more democracy’ is ubiquitous and is to be reached by finally making European elections transnational, by equipping the European Union with real own (financial) resources, and by striking a clearly defined balance between supranational level and the national level (subsidiarity). These three demands would clearly improve the democratic record of the European institutional apparatus, but the question is how much more (perceived) democracy this really conveys to its people. Returning to the case under scrutiny, movements like the 15-M have clearly indicated that institutionalized party politics, already at the national level, do not meet their idea of adequate citizen involvement. The case of the failed attempt of Asociación DRY to bring the movement to the mainstream has underlined this, and another example is the lack of success of the Spanish Left Izquierda Unida (IU) to create a sub-party group, Izquierda Abierta (IA), for the integration of the 15-M.

The example of the German Greens shows, however, that innovative elements can be introduced into institutional structures without compromising their workability. More than maintaining a link to the past (as a movement), those elements can constitute a credible offer to those who are dissatisfied with the contemporary party system. It radiates hope that there might be a way to by-pass the impossibility to square the circle. Yet, in order to realise the potential this bears, two things have to happen. First of all, Green particularities in their vision of European democracy have to be emphasized much stronger. The German Greens for example could – and should – demonstrate their unique approach to party democracy on a much larger scale, and make it a green vision.  Second of all, a European message for Green democracy should be drafted, which is innovative and also comprehensive, embracing the local sphere of politics, and being bold in putting forward alternative, novel proposals, which respect the autonomy of political units outside the grand parliaments of Europe and its Member States.

More deliberative forms of democracy in the local sphere and stronger opportunities for local politics to influence ‘high’ levels of politics would only be one general proposal out of a large palette of potential reform initiatives. Putting forward creative proposals for the reform of European democracy from the bottom-up, could not only help the Greens live up to their own expectations as innovators, but could also convey that it is the Greens who are the real democratic people’s party – a people’s party which is both close to the people and efficient in putting their demands into practice. In a time of political assimilation, this could equip the Greens with a new narrative outside their expertise in ecology. Yet, rather than being an artificial and spontaneous invention of a narrative, ‘Green democracy now’ would be a narrative originating at the very roots of the Green movement.


[1] It has to be clarified, however, that this day of protest was a united outcry by the 15-M, the occupy movement, and also the trade unions.

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