At the 15M anniversary march in Madrid last week. Photo by Robert Pluma.

Spain’s Municipal Elections and the Prospects for Radical Democracy

With contributions from a New York City social movement delegation currently in Spain ahead of the country’s local elections on May 24th. You can follow their trip on Twitter at @NYCtoSpain, and NYC to Spain on Facebook.

“Do you hear the buzz? The buzz says: let’s defend the common good.” These are the lyrics of the campaign song of Barcelona en Comú — one of the new “confluence” platforms of “popular unity” running in the May 24th municipal elections in Spain, sung (with the help of autotune) to the rhythm of a popular Catalán rumba by its candidate, Ada Colau. According to the polls, Colau is poised to win the mayoral election in Barcelona this Sunday. These electoral insurgencies across Spain are reimagining the promise of radical democracy, one that draws from social movements to define a new participatory style of “governance by listening.” Four years ago, the May 15 movement appeared precisely during the campaign for municipal and regional elections. Despite its undeniable questioning of electoral politics and representation, previous election cycles were too soon to measure the movement’s impact. Then, the characterization of the movement by many politicians and mainstream media oscillated between patronizing and condescending overtones: “If these kids want to achieve anything, they should organize a party, and run for elections.”

Four years later, the political landscape is completely overturned. As a popular slogan says: “fear has changed sides.” Or perhaps happiness and hope have changed sides, breaking with the lack of political alternatives in the bleak context of austerity. The emergence of PODEMOS in the European elections one year ago was the first electoral manifestation of an ongoing change that, if not for the establishment, was already clear for many Spaniards. Certainly a buzz that could be heard by anyone in the streets, in the plazas, in every mobilization of the so-called “Mareas” (Tides) in defense of public education and healthcare, in every neighborhood. Today, several cities and numerous smaller towns are running candidates from these new political parties, with elections on May 24th.

From an external standpoint, it’s easy to conflate all the post-15M new electoral alternatives under PODEMOS. The reality, however, is far more complex and rich, and gives the idea of a multilayered landscape. On May 24, there will be two elections in Spain. One is the regional elections, which will take place in every “autonomous community” (the Spanish term), except Catalunya, Basque Country, Galicia, and Andalucia. PODEMOS is running electoral candidates at the regional level. This process has helped to show a rich diversity among the party itself, with new kinds of leadership figures such as Pablo Echenique, now running for the Aragón regional government. Nicknamed “the other Pablo of PODEMOS” (in relation to Pablo Iglesias, PODEMOS’ Secretary-General), Echenique is prominent within the party as one of the proposers of more participatory methods in program elaboration, as well as in the configuration of electoral lists.

The other electoral plane at stake are the local elections, where a series of interesting experiments in articulating social movements and electoral platforms are taking place. In these so-called “confluence” processes, PODEMOS is one force among many. Confluence forces have become a strong new player for the upcoming local elections. In addition to the aforementioned possibility of a victory in Barcelona, polls this week point to a technical tie in Madrid between the ruling Popular Party and Ahora Madrid, which would allow its candidate, Manuela Carmena, to become mayor of the capital city with the support of other forces. There are similar possibilities for parallel initiatives in other major cities throughout the country: Zaragoza en Común, València en Comú, or Málaga Ahora, among others.

Photo by Robert Pluma.

What does this confluence mean? How does it work? What are the ingredients of these new municipal initiatives? The “confluence candidacies” bring together a wide spectrum of participants: from grassroots activists to members of Left political parties, from well-known scholars to common citizens from diverse professional backgrounds. Rather than reproducing the traditional “electoral coalition” model (the tactic merger of a group of parties that nonetheless preserve their strong, visible identities), the confluence logic works on the idea of non-hierarchical encounter. Take, for instance, the case of Barcelona en Comú. The parties and individuals willing to join this initiative had to agree to a “Code of Political Ethics” which had been previously discussed, amended, and approved in an open, online debate. This participatory ethos is the heart and soul of the confluence candidacies: from online primaries to configure electoral rolls to the collective composition of the party’s platform through open assemblies in each neighborhood. No longer a top-down politics of opaque pacts and closed policy platforms, but an open-source process — the political as a result of grassroots collective participation.

Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau themselves are good examples of the heterogeneous profiles involved in these political experiments. Carmena, a 71-year-old retired judge, has a long-standing engaged judicial trajectory, from her involvement with the clandestine movement of labor lawyers involved in the anti-Franco workers’ movement to her later defense of inmates’ human rights in Spanish prisons or her work to guarantee social housing to evicted people in Madrid. Colau, for her part, is a 41-year-old social activist, co-founder and former spokesperson of the PAH (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), undoubtedly one of the most tenacious and innovative grassroots social movements developed in Spain during the recent crisis. The generational span and complementary trajectories of Carmena and Colau hints at the compelling dialogue of different traditions of social mobilization underlying these municipal movements — as when Carmena praised the contributions of the squatter movement in Madrid or Colau reclaimed the memory of the proletarian neighborhood struggles of the 20th century in Barcelona.

Both Carmena and Colau were elected through open and participatory processes and both have put into practice an alternative logic of leadership quite different from traditional electoral spectacles and entrenched authority. As Colau pointed out in a recent interview, participation has to be understood “not as a top-down concession but as a way to rule,” thus it is necessary to develop non-patriarchal modes of leadership inspired by feminist and ecological thought. Similarly, Carmena has repeatedly criticized traditional political rallies, instead promoting what she calls close “encounters” with neighbors.

“Ahora” (Now) and “En Común” (In Common). These two words have become recurrent in the naming of most of these confluence candidacies. On the one hand, “Now” summarizes the sense of urgency in recovering basic social rights and, more so, overturning the neoliberal model of urban growth that has been the model for Spanish cities over the last decades. After almost 25 years under conservative rule, Madrid has become one of the most aggressive laboratories of neoliberal privatization throughout Europe, propelled by a conglomerate of political power, major construction companies, and financial interests — repeatedly proven corrupt — that have overtaken basic public infrastructure such as hospitals and water access. The apparently kinder, social democrat/nationalist-ruled model of Barcelona is perhaps one of the most exemplary cases of the effects of branding in a city’s everyday life: streets have been turned into shop windows for tourist consumption, while spectacular buildings coexist with one of the highest evictions rates all over Spain. On the contrary, these confluence forces advocate for a profound shift in this model of urban development, rooted in social economy and sustainable practices.

On the other hand, “In Common” appeals to the demands for extended participation within the political institutions that 15M first put forward. The programs of these citizen platforms are packed with proposals for newer forms of political accountability, transparency, use of both online and in-person assembly methods of deliberation in the elections of district representatives, among many other developments. Although focused on immediate needs, and thus plainly pragmatic and realistic in many of their proposals, these programs also convey an open-ended character that point not only towards a recovery of the public domain, but to its redefinition along participatory lines. In a way, these forces show an experimental character that goes beyond the reactive framework of the anti-austerity Left: in their combination of audacity, openness, and realism, these new political emergences represent not so much a simple “return of the Left” — or, at least, of the Left as we knew it — but the building blocks (with PODEMOS) of a whole political constellation.

The political scenario after the upcoming regional and municipal elections this Sunday remains uncertain, although some indications for major changes are at stake. If Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú finally win the elections in the two major Spanish cities, which potentials and limits will they find operating at a municipal scale? Are Madrid and Barcelona at the brink of a new definition of municipal autonomy, popular empowerment, and a grassroots reactivation of the right to the city? To what extent would a hypothetical new political landscape in the regional elections influence PODEMOS’ strategy towards the November 2015 general elections in a moment when many critical voices are reclaiming a critical examination of the “middle-classist” turn of the party?

PODEMOS started from the top tier (the European elections) as a platform to produce change at the state level, while these municipal confluence forces have started from the opposite end. If politics, in many ways, is the art of the encounter, these next several months will determine if these two distinct approaches can intertwine in order to prepare for the fall elections. Meanwhile, the buzz keeps getting louder.