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6 Reasons to Care about the Spanish Municipal Elections

Sunday 24 May is municipal election day in Spain. Here @BueRubner explains why people outside Spain should turn their attention to Spain.

 1. Believe it or not: European politics.

In the latest polls the grassroots-based electoral platforms Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid are head to head with their conservative opponents, and in each city the party with most votes will get the mayoral.

Before the end of this year Spain faces a historical parliamentary election, where the radical Podemos party could win. The municipal elections Sunday will be a decisive test for the electoral platforms that have formed in the country since the indignados of the 15M movement took the streets in 2011. Podemos has recently lost its lead in the polls, and the municipal elections will provide a clear sign of the Spanish appetite for change. A victory to Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú could turn the tide for Podemos, and be the start of a process of profound political change in Spain. And a Podemos government in Spain will take Syriza out of its European isolation and increase the leverage of anti-austerity forces in Europe.

2. Radical female mayors.

On Monday the mayors of Spain’s two biggest cities could be women elected on the basis of deeply rooted citizen’s campaigns.

Ada Colau of Barcelona en Comú is known and beloved across Spain as the spokesperson of the housing rights network PAH. PAH is the perhaps most interesting and strong movement emerging from the Spanish crisis, and it has more than 200 generally active and combative chapters across the Spanish state. Beginning in 2009 the PAH has invented a model of organisation and social power through which its many participants have managed to overcome the individualisation of debt. This has created strong fighting and caring organisation, in which people collectively resist evictions, re-negotiate loans with banks, and occupy empty buildings for its evicted members. The nucleus of Barcelona en Comú is formed by the group of activists and academics of whom most have been active in the PAH or the 15M movement. About a year ago en Comú was launched as a proposal for a confluence of existing social movements and left-wing political forces in order to “win Barcelona”. This confluence now includes Podemos, and several smaller left-wing parties, and draws on the active support of many neighbourhood and community organisations.

Manuela Carmena of Ahora Madrid is a retired Supreme Court judge, who in the 1970s defended workers imprisoned by the Francoist regime, and became a member of the communist party (PCE) for some years after the transition. As a judge she is known for her strong anti-corruption stance and for supporting Basque victims of police brutality. Ahora Madrid was originally inspired by Barcelona en Comú (then under the name Guanyem Barcelona), and similarly to en Conú it is a confluence of various existing social forces and political parties, including Podemos, while many activists also come from the 15M, the neighbourhood assemblies and the PAH.

3. Municipal democracy, city-state style

The historical experience of radical city councils in the UK in the 1980s is somewhat bleak, just think of the sad endings of the Greater London City Council and the Liverpool Council under the leadership of the Militant tendency. And in Spain they remember a long history of struggles for direct municipal democracy, culminating in Barcelona becoming an anarchist city under the Spanish Revolution and Civil War.

Today, Spain has one of Europe’s most decentralised states, and its municipalities enjoy a large degree of constitutionally guaranteed autonomy from the central state as well as near full financial self-sufficiency. There is thus scope for the implementation of a number of radical policies, especially in the biggest cities. However, many cities including Barcelona and Madrid are deeply indebted. While this will naturally be a weight on any municipal government, combative movement-based mayors can take the battle between democracy and the banks onto a new terrain. Particularly the influence of the PAH could prove significant, as Barcelona en Comú has committed to use its possible powers to stop banks from evicting tenants from economic reasons – a rather radical proposal when you think of it.

4. Some of the coolest organising in Europe.

Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid – along with a dozen campaigns in smaller cities – do not fit into the old dualism between parties and movements. They have no fixed and closed membership model, their policy development happens in open workgroups and their policy priorities were decided in online and street level “primary elections” open for the general public. Their election campaigns draw on a mix of highly professional communication and organisation, open assembly formats and collaborations with citizens’ and neighbourhood groups and associations. The platforms have no official ideology and offer no clear-cut political identity. Instead their strength and cohesion lies in the face-to-face encounters and the collective elaboration of desires and plans which is possible on the municipal scale. Their radicalism is sustained by a very clear sense that a rupture is needed with the current model of democracy, which in Spain is widely seen as corrupt and unrepresentative, as well as with the crisis-ridden neoliberal paradigm for urban and economic development. Unlike Podemos, whose organisational model has begun to resemble a more classical political party, these electoral platforms continue the experimentation with participative democracy that was started by the square and neighbourhood assemblies, while incorporating it into highly efficient organisational structures.

5. Reinventing the public sector.

The Spanish municipal movements are reimagining tackling the complexity of the public sector. Because they work on the level of the city, they do not see the public institutions as external to the everyday life of people. Instead of an un-ambivalent opposition to the state, we see a more complex struggle within the state. And instead of just defending public services they work towards democratising them in collaboration with public employees – and against the higher rungs of government.

6. Rad policy proposals.

The “10 priorities for Barcelona” that Ada Colau is running count: “1. Fight against precarity, poverty and inequality and create decent work. 2. Stop evictions and create housing with social rents. 3. Secure access to affordable water, electricity and gas. 4. Clean up political life, end privileges and create transparent and participative processes. 5. Support small businesses, freelancers and the cooperative economy. 10. Make Barcelona an international reference point as a just and democratic city.” One policy that will surely do the latter is en Comú’s plan to close all migrant detention centres in the city.

It is obvious that the challenges of Ada and Manuela will be huge if they win. And their experiments are not without possible contradictions. Yet one thing is certain: if they win the power of ordinary folks in Spain will grow, and the crisis of the Spanish state will deepen and become productive of radical possibilities. And even if they don’t win, there are many political lessons to learn from them.

Tune into #SpainDecides on twitter Sunday evening 8-10PM CET to follow our live election coverage.

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Published 24th May 2015

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