Photo: Alberto Estévez

Grassroots movements sweep into Barcelona town hall

  • May 25, 2015

Cities & Communities

The radically democratic citizen platform Barcelona en Comú wins the municipal elections in a major step forward for the struggle to reclaim the city.

The outcome of Sunday’s municipal and regional elections in Spain is shaking the country. Two activist women connected to grassroots movements and backed by the leftist party Podemos are likely to become the next mayors of Spain’s biggest cities — Madrid and Barcelona — while the ruling right-wing Popular Party has taken a drubbing in cities and regions across the country. Five years of austerity have finally taken their toll on the establishment’s grip on power, effectively shattering the old way of doing politics.

The victory of Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common,” formerly known as Guanyem) is particularly meaningful in this respect. Led by the 41-year-old anti-eviction campaigner Ada Colau, En Comú describes itself as a citizen platform and a confluence of various social movements and radical political groups. The platform aims to combine the objectives of ending austerity, halting evictions, expanding public housing, improving popular living standards, curbing mass tourism and reclaiming the urban commons with a strong commitment to direct democracy and a new bottom-up politics — transforming existing municipal institutions in line with the spirit of the 15-M movement.

For an indication of the historic significance of En Comú’s electoral victory, just consider the photo below, taken after an occupation by activists of the Platform for People Affected by their Mortgages (PAH) in 2012. That woman in the picture is Ada Colau, Barcelona’s new mayor and the cops’ new boss. In her victory speech last night, Colau pledged to “govern by obeying,” directly citing the Zapatista principle of popular self-governance from below.

En Comú will have the backing of the anti-capitalist and pro-independence Popular Unity Candidates (CUP), who also won big, gaining four seats in the city council. In addition to En Comú’s 11 seats, this will unfortunately still leave the two leftist forces short of a majority in the 41-seat council, requiring further negotiations with other groups in the days and weeks to come.

Below we are sharing a selection of ROAR’s past coverage on Barcelona en Comú/Guanyem. Check back over the coming week for further reports and analysis about the municipal elections and the state of the struggle in Spain.

‘Let’s win back Barcelona’: the rise of Guanyem

by Kate Shea Baird on November 30, 2014

When the indignados occupied the public squares of Spain on May 15, 2011, demanding ‘real democracy’, they changed the terms of public debate. They called for an end of elected officials’ excessive privileges, measures to tackle corruption in public life, the dismantling of the stale two-party system, and citizen participation in decision-making. Their decision-making chimed with the popular mood far beyond those who participated in the occupations, and indignados became the pillars of the so-called nueva política (‘new politics’). Post-May 15, the question became whether this protest movement was capable of being an electoral contender, and if so, how?


Guanyem Barcelona (Catalan for ‘let’s win back Barcelona’) launched in June this year [2014], a citizen platform whose aim is to “take back the city and its public institutions and put democracy back at the service of the people.”

The platform’s likely mayoral candidate is the popular anti-evictions activist, Ada Colau. She became politically prominent after she accused a representative of the Spanish banking association of being a ‘criminal’ during a parliamentary hearing. Her popularity and oratory flair are undoubtedly powerful weapons in the movement’s bid for mass media attention. Nevertheless, the platform also has deep roots in the city’s social and political activists networks.

Guanyem Barcelona is a joint initiative of members of Colau’s Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, local neighborhood associations and anti-corruption campaigners, as well as a number of Barcelona-based academics, journalists and artists. It has collected over 30,000 signatures in support and is currently discussing with local political parties, including the Barcelona circle of Podemos, with the aim of standing on a joint ticket at the upcoming elections to the city council.


Guanyem’s choice of the municipal sphere and Barcelona, in particular, as the stage on which to play out its experiment in ‘new politics’, is no accident. 15M itself, of course, was a distinctively urban phenomenon, born of the shared frustrations of the densely concentrated, cosmopolitan, and digitally savvy Barcelona population. Yet, Guanyem’s draft manifesto goes so far as to describe Barcelona as “the ideal place to push for a much-needed democratic rebellion.”

It points to the city’s rich network of local associations and tradition of political activism. It also points out Barcelona’s strategic potential to connect with and reinforce similar democratizing ambitions/movements in Catalonia, Spain and the rest of Europe. This theory is proving true: a number of other ‘let’s win’ platforms have sprung up in other cities across Spain since the launch of Guanyem Barcelona.


Barcelona en Comú: the city as horizon for radical democracy

by Manuela Zechner on March 4, 2015

Since its inception, Guanyem Barcelona has grasped the role of neighborhoods as protagonists of change. It is clear that Guanyem learned much from movements such as the PAH — the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, Spain’s strong and popular housing movement which also emerged from Barcelona — that have built their strength through processes of networked proliferation of local groups, each of which is singular in its political leaning, social-affective texture and style. Neighborhood groups are a crucial space for developing analyses and mobilizing the collective strength to enable feedback and contagion effects between local processes and the platform’s thematic groups as well as its coordination committees.

In the winter of 2014-’15, each of the neighborhood groups worked on a diagnostic document concerning their area. These were drawn up in open meetings and analyze problems and propose measures at the local level. […]

Proposals range from the re-appropriation of public space to the opening of health centers and services for old people, to supporting small local businesses and forms of solidarity economy, creating an adult education center and more free WiFi spots, encouraging participatory planning and translation, supporting self-run cultural and social spaces, generating more council housing and changing the areas’ planning permissions, and so on.

These local assemblies are spaces of encounter between people from divergent walks of life, bringing together different levels of expertise and experience — local and technical knowledge being worth the same. They constitute an immense gathering and reshaping of knowledge driven notably by an ever more downwardly mobile middle class.


The current political-institutional crisis forces us to re-imagine the political and social as spaces of collective action. The city is a space of experience and acting we know and participate in daily, not only symbolizing but also embodying our social common. While it’s the key layer between the square and the parliament, between the 15M and Podemos, its importance is not just a matter of scale: politics in the city has a potential to propose radical new methodologies for thinking proximity and difference in organizing. It has the power to explode binaries and contradictions between the street and the state, the micro and the macro, and even the local and the global.


Is Barcelona on the verge of a feminist revolution?

by Kate Shea Baird on April 7, 2015

Something special is happening in Barcelona. At the local elections in May, the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) could snatch control of the city council. If it succeeds, the consequences for the women of Barcelona and, perhaps, cities all over the world, could be radical.

A victory for Barcelona en Comú would catapult anti-eviction activist Ada Colau into the mayoralty. The election of the city’s first female mayor would be a landmark event in itself, but in the case of Colau it would have special significance. After her rapid rise to national prominence in 2013, Colau turned down offers from traditional parties to stand on their tickets. Only with the apparition of Barcelona en Comú (initially known as Guanyem Barcelona) did she decide to make the leap into electoral politics.

The platform’s roots in the city’s neighborhood associations and social movements, in which women have historically played a leading role, are allowing Ada Colau and the women working alongside her to shape the initiative in their own image, rather than playing by the rules of the male establishment. They are developing new forms of horizontal, networked leadership that stand in stark contrast to the hierarchical models typical of traditional politics. Barcelona en Comú is showing how urban politics can be feminized from the bottom up.


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