The Prospects for Radical Democracy in Spain

The upcoming municipal elections will be a key test for the rising leftist movement in Spain.

Vicente Rubio Pueyo and Pablo La Parra May 22, 2015

A rally for Ahora Madrid in April. (Ahora Madrid / Flickr)

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 pre-elec­tion polls, Colau is poised to win the may­oral elec­tion in Barcelona this Sunday. 

"This participatory ethos is the heart and soul of the confluence candidacies: from online primaries to configuring electoral rolls to the collective composition of the party’s platform through open assemblies in each neighborhood."

Colau is part of a ris­ing elec­toral insur­gency across Spain by can­di­dates try­ing to reimag­ine rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy, draw­ing from social move­ments to cre­ate a new par­tic­i­pa­to­ry style of gov­er­nance by lis­ten­ing.” Four years ago, the May 15 move­ment appeared dur­ing the cam­paign for munic­i­pal and region­al elec­tions. Then, the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the move­ment by many politi­cians and main­stream media oscil­lat­ed between patron­iz­ing and con­de­scend­ing, along the lines of, If these kids want to achieve any­thing, they should orga­nize a par­ty, and run for elections.” 

Four years lat­er, the polit­i­cal land­scape has changed. As a pop­u­lar slo­gan puts it, Fear has changed sides.” Or per­haps hap­pi­ness and hope have changed sides, as Spaniards final­ly have a polit­i­cal alter­na­tive to aus­ter­i­ty. The emer­gence of PODEMOS in the Euro­pean par­lia­ment elec­tions one year ago was the first elec­toral man­i­fes­ta­tion of a grow­ing polit­i­cal shift to the left in Spain. The buzz could be heard by any­one in the streets, in the plazas, in every mobi­liza­tion 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 24.

From out­side of Spain, it’s easy to con­flate all the post-15M new elec­toral alter­na­tives under PODEMOS. But the real­i­ty is more com­plex. 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 four. PODEMOS is run­ning elec­toral can­di­dates at the region­al lev­el. This process has shown a rich diver­si­ty among the par­ty itself. Pablo Echenique, for exam­ple, is now run­ning for the Aragón region­al gov­ern­ment. Nick­named the oth­er Pablo of PODEMOS” (in rela­tion to Pablo Igle­sias, PODEMOS’s Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al), Echenique is promi­nent with­in the par­ty as a strong advo­cate for par­tic­i­pa­to­ry meth­ods in con­struct­ing the party’s program. 

At the local elec­toral lev­el, a series of exper­i­ments in con­struct­ing move­ment-influ­enced elec­toral plat­forms are tak­ing place. In these so-called con­flu­ence” process­es, PODEMOS is one force among many. Con­flu­ence forces have become impor­tant new play­ers in the upcom­ing local elec­tions. In addi­tion to the afore­men­tioned pos­si­bil­i­ty of a may­oral vic­to­ry in Barcelona, polls this week point to a tech­ni­cal tie in Madrid between the rul­ing Pop­u­lar Par­ty and Aho­ra Madrid (loose­ly affil­i­at­ed with Podemos), 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. 

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 tac­ti­cal merg­er of a group of par­ties that pre­serve their strong, vis­i­ble iden­ti­ties), the con­flu­ence log­ic is based on the idea of the non-hier­ar­chi­cal encounter.”

Take, for instance, the case of Barcelona en Comú. The par­ties and indi­vid­u­als will­ing to join this ini­tia­tive agreed 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 con­fig­ur­ing 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 based on grass­roots col­lec­tive participation.

Manuela Car­me­na and Ada Colau them­selves are good exam­ples of the het­ero­gene­ity of the peo­ple involved in these polit­i­cal exper­i­ments. Car­me­na, a 71-year-old retired judge, has a long his­to­ry of polit­i­cal judi­cial work, from her involve­ment with the clan­des­tine move­ment of labor lawyers involved in the anti-Fran­cis­co 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 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 eco­nom­ic crisis.

The gen­er­a­tional span and com­ple­men­tary tra­jec­to­ries of Car­me­na and Colau hints at the dia­logue between dif­fer­ent activist tra­di­tions 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 a log­ic of lead­er­ship that looks quite dif­fer­ent from tra­di­tion­al elec­toral spec­ta­cles and entrenched author­i­ty. As Colau argued 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 Comú” (“in com­mon”) have been recur­ring themes in most 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 evic­tion rates in all of Spain. 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 and the 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 prag­mat­ic and real­is­tic in many of their pro­pos­als, these pro­grams also con­vey an open-end­ed char­ac­ter focused on defend­ing and democ­ra­tiz­ing the pub­lic domain. These forces have an exper­i­men­tal char­ac­ter that goes beyond the anti-aus­ter­i­ty Left’s usu­al reac­tive frame­work: in their com­bi­na­tion of audac­i­ty, open­ness and real­ism, these new polit­i­cal projects rep­re­sent not so much a sim­ple return of the Left” – or, at least, of the Left as we knew it – but the build­ing blocks of a whole new 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, what 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’s strat­e­gy towards the Novem­ber 2015 gen­er­al elec­tions, at 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 of the Euro­pean par­lia­ment elec­tions to try to pro­duce change at the state lev­el, while these munic­i­pal con­flu­ence forces have start­ed from the local lev­el. The elec­tions tomor­row and over the next few months will deter­mine if these two dis­tinct approach­es can inter­twine in order to pre­pare for the fall elec­tions. Mean­while, the buzz keeps get­ting louder. 

Vicente Rubio Pueyo and Pablo La Par­ra are affil­i­at­ed with the NYC to Spain delegation.
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