Madrid’s city council recently broke the rules on its debts, prioritizing money for “social sustainability” over “financial sustainability” and diverting €500 million ($550 million) into public spending. Barcelona’s city council meanwhile has reclaimed empty propertiesfrom banks and turned them into social housing.
The acts are not isolated, and reflect a sea change in Spanish local politics. May’s local elections saw a tide of citizen-led initiative reclaiming power across many cities. In December’s state elections, these initiatives stood alongside Podemos, lifting the party to third nationally and winning in Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Spain’s Radical Mayors
Many Spanish cities with socially progressive mayors witnessed sweeping changes in 2015, as official cars were swapped for public transport and citizens stepped in to halt evictions.
Seven months after spring elections, Madrid is the first European city to start a debt audit process, aimed a canceling illegal or illegitimate debt. Barcelona has plans underway to extend citizen engagement, both digitally and through assemblies, and is planning a new local currency.
Another impact of the political changes center around the refugee crisis. In late August, Barcelona’s new Mayor Ada Colau drew further attention to the thousands who have died attempting to get into Europe. Trending as #refugeeswelcome, the message gained support across Spain and the campaign went viral internationally.
One reason for the uptick in citizen power is Ahora Madrid, which represents a convergence of progressive parties that has arisen to reclaim Spain’s capital – held for the last 24 years by the conservative Popular Party.
It started in May of 2014 when the first convergence of organizations took place to develop the group’s approach to direct democracy and municipal issues. The next month they met again, inviting more activists involved in a wide range of progressive campaigns, from feminism to the environment. They formed working groups focusing on the electoral program for the city: how to select candidates, communicate with the public, and coordinate politically.
Open and transparent, the process began with about 100 people. “We created this from the base to the top,” Chiara Giacco told Occupy.com. Involved since the first meeting, Giacco is part of Ganemos Madrid (We Win Madrid) that now forms part of Ahora Madrid, as well as PACD, the citizen debt audit platform.
In July of 2014, a general assembly was held to prepare for the party’s launch. Organizers deliberated over key questions, including the party’s slogan. With the numbers of participants swelling, they saw a need to re-organize and used a consensus approach familiar from the 15M movement of the squares. Each meeting started with agreed upon expectations and goals, and people worked collaboratively and inclusively. Larger meetings often broke into smaller groups that allowed most people a chance to speak – and post-in notes were even used encouraging shy people to join in.
“It may have seemed boring to begin with, but it meant everyone could have input,” said Giacco. Ganemos Madrid was joined by Podemos and other new parties. Nevertheless, the process wasn’t easy.
“The main fights were about choosing the list of who would stand for election – of course, humans can always be egotistical,” she added.
Last fall, the theater booked to launch Ganemos Madrid was packed. They presented their core priorities, which included forcing multinational corporations to give back more to the city, improving public transport and reducing smog pollution. Political transparency was also key, as Popular Party mayors had a track record of corruption scandals, and citizens were eager to turn the page. “It was important to show a different style of politics could be done,” Giacco said.
As the the process moved deeper into the barrios, local groups were set up to explore local concerns, for instance highlighting projects where the council had wasted money. By February of this year, the decision over who would be the party figurehead was still not clear.
Barcelona, meanwhile, had a similar project called En Comú (In Common), which chose Ada Colau as its candidate. Before the election, Colau was already well known for standing up against evictions with the housing group PAH. In 2011, she delivered 1.5 million signatures and spoke in the Spanish Parliament, gaining considerable attention when she called a banker a criminal in a tribunal.
A Candidate for Madrid?
As a city that is politically less radical than Barcelona, the Madrid campaign needed someone to appeal both the 15M supporters and those with a more conservative leaning. After a long search and some persuasion, Manuela Carmena agreed to stand as the party leader. Respected as a judge, at 71 years of age, she stood markedly more mature and ready for the position than the other candidates for mayor. She also had the respect of radicals; during the Franco dictatorship she stood up for human rights of political prisoners.
Finally, when it came to the spring election, Ahora Madrid managed to beat a no-expenses-spared campaign by the Popular Party. The hard work and engagement of activists, artists and citizens was key to Ahora Madrid’s success.
Now, the successes continue after election results earlier this month – specifically in the realm of debt. Madrid’s debt audit platform has inspired the city council to undergo an official debt audit process to challenge illegitimate or illegal debt. Both the council and PACD will look to create special audits for local areas and districts.
In many senses, the outreach element of the debt audit replicates how Ganemos Madrid won the city: with a steady drumbeat of popular support. It also showed that if citizens want to reclaim power, they need to be invited into an open, transparent and inclusive process that inspire them to give their time, skills and enthusiasm.