This article was originally published at OpenDemocracy.
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?
2014 was the year that the indignados became politically known and popular. Spain is currently spoiled for choice when it comes to radical democratizing movements and political parties, from Partido X, 15MParaRato, Procés Constituent, to Podemos — which is now leading national voting polls, less than a year after its launch. The surge in support for the Catalan independence movement is, in many ways, thanks to its promise to solve the problem of inefficient Spanish democratic institutions by creating a new state.
However, while international attention has focused on Podemos and the Catalan independence movement, they may miss the formation of a new radical municipal platform that could seize power in the May 2015 local elections. The national elections are still a year away and the Catalan process is deadlocked, which makes the possibility of a new radical municipal platform seizing institutional power in the May elections plausible. It would be the first of these movements ever to do so.
A new radical municipalism
Guanyem Barcelona (Catalan for ‘let’s win back Barcelona’) launched in June this year, 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. The platform also backed the forbidden independence vote on 9 November in Catalonia. Ada Colau is unconcerned at municipal institution critics who claim that these institutions lack power to carry out Guanyem’s ambitions. She emphasizes that power and legal authority is not the problem, rather it is lack of creativity and political will. Ada’s anti-eviction platforms have successfully stopped over a thousand evictions across Spain since 2010 through direct action and civil obedience, which lends her claims a certain credibility.
Imagining a different Barcelona
Barcelona is not only one of the many sites where the problems affecting Catalonia and Spain are playing out, it is also home to the political battlegrounds on which Guanyem is uniquely poised to capitalize. Some of the problems affecting Spain at the moment are evictions, cuts to public education and health services, unemployment and widening inequality.
An emblematic example of Barcelona being home to the Catalan political battleground is that of Can Vies. In May this year, the city council evicted and demolished the community center, which had been run by the Barcelona transport authority in the neighborhood of Sants for seventeen years. The demolition provoked violent protests and arrests, and, subsequently, the mobilization of residents from across the city to reconstruct the building brick by brick. Guanyem has supported Can Vies in line with its commitment to neighborhood organizations and activism.
Following the Can Vies incident, the 2014 summer saw a wave of popular demonstrations against the effects of mass tourism in the port neighborhood of Barceloneta. Anger about rising rents and the proliferation of illegal tourist apartments sparked the protests. The population of Barcelona was alarmed that residents and businesses were being forced out of the area, destroying the fabric of local community life.
Recent years have also seen tourist ‘hot-spots’ like the Ramblas become no-go areas for Barcelonans, sometimes literally, as in the case of Park Güel, which local residents now have to book in advance to enter. Barcelona is a city of two million inhabitants, which last year hosted seven and a half million visitors. The city council’s target is to increase this figure to ten million, despite the deep popular concerns about current visitor numbers and the city infrastructure’s incapacity to cope with increasing tourism. Even before the protests this summer, Guanyem was vocal in its criticisms of the current model of tourism in Barcelona. At the core of its critique is the claim that only a small elite benefits from tourism, while ordinary people are forced to bear its costs (noise, overcrowding, rising rents and a precarious seasonal labor market).
Changing the rules of the game
Guanyem’s spokespeople have used strong rhetoric to push for increased transparency and accountability, lamenting at public institutions being held ‘hostage’ by an elite and only addressing their narrow interests. Ada Colau has said that, in order to break this monopoly, it is not enough for citizens to vote once every four years without taking more responsibility. She wants to “change the rules of the game” so that people can participate directly in the day-to-day running of the city, making decisions on everything from the use of public spaces to childcare services. Guanyem Barcelona is already putting this principle into practice in the development of its own policy agenda, by rolling out local Guanyem groups in neighborhoods across the city.
Guanyem’s electoral prospects will likely turn on its success at bringing together like-minded progressive political parties to stand on a joint ticket. The platform believes it can mobilize the 50% of the population who do not usually vote in the municipal elections. If it can, the eyes of Catalonia and the rest of Spain will be on Barcelona to see how the ‘new politics’ fares in power.