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Spain’s Fight to Take Back the City

Four years ago progressive platforms won power in some of Spain's biggest cities, including Madrid and Barcelona. The international left can learn a lot from their successes – and failures.

Last month’s local elections saw the majority of Spain’s radical municipal councils – known as “Fearless Cities”– lose office four years after storming the political scene. 

In the capital, Madrid, Manuela Carmena’s administration was replaced by a hard-right coalition made up of the conservative Popular Party and liberal-rightest Ciudadanos, but which is also dependent on the far-right Vox party’s support for its majority. A similar right-wing coalition took over from Zaragoza en Común in the Aragonese capital while in La Coruña and Santiago de Compostela left-wing alliances – formerly backed by Podemos – lost out to the resurgent centre-left Socialist Party. 

There were a few bright spots – Cádiz’s Anticapitalista Mayor “Kichi” was returned and, despite being edged into second place and finishing 4.5 percent down on their 2015 result, Ada Colau’s radical Barcelona en Comú (BenComú) also secured a second term in the Catalan capital, albeit in a weakened form. 

Although the Catalan separatist Esquerra Republicana won the popular vote (with a narrow 0.6 percent lead over BenComú), Colau -a former housing activist- was re-elected last weekend with the support of the unionist majority on the council. This required the unlikely support of Ciudadanos’ candidate (and former French PM) Manuel Valls who promised her the votes solely to avoid a pro-independence mayor.

In both Barcelona and Madrid losses were concentrated in working-class neighbourhoods that had heavily backed Colau and Carmena in 2015. The latter’s new platform Más Madrid managed to cap its losses at 2.5 percent by eating into the support of the Socialists in more affluent areas. But it dropped thousands of votes to abstention in the so-called “red belt” neighbourhoods, thus seeing the overall progressive vote shrink in the city. For her part, Colau’s lost votes predominantly went to the Socialists, particularly in areas like the city’s poorest district Nou Barris where the majority is opposed to Catalan independence. 

With Catalan politics polarised around the national question, BenComú’s intermediary position (it is in favour of a binding referendum but opposed to actual independence) was a major factor contributing to its losses. Yet this alone cannot explain the scale of the retreat elsewhere in Spain for a movement which promised a new “municipalist” model for left-wing politics. 

Against the Tide

In the last decade the European left has seen moments of intense social mobilisation, as well, more recently, as moments of institutional advance. But the two have never come together as part of a more sustained challenge. This was something Spain’s municipalist movement experienced first-hand in the aftermath of its electoral success in 2015. Its immediate background was the wave of social activism thrown up by the massive Indignados (15M) protests in 2011 with various large-scale movements emerging around the defence of public services and urban issues such as housing. 

The Indignados movement took over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in May 2011.

After Podemos’ breakthrough at the European elections in 2014, the idea of standing in local elections was conceived as way for this new post-15M left to combine electoralism with a strong grassroots dimension. The various candidacies were structured around broad-based “citizen platforms”, which brought together members of political parties like Podemos and Izquierda Unida but also activists from social movements and various independent figures. These platforms aimed for a rapid “institutional assault”, which would catapult the left to office in the country’s main cities, while also seeking to further the Indignados’ demand for “real democracy.” 

Municipalists considered the smaller-scale local level as more susceptible to horizontal forms of organization as well as to producing a more socially embedded politics. In this respect, they sought to institute a series of participatory and anti-patriarchical practices, which would open up “new ways of doing politics”. They were also betting that they could harness their positions in city halls to continue building an alternative social bloc. Asserting municipal sovereignty against Spain’s oligarchy would require “one foot in the institutions and a thousand in the street”: that is, in order to force through their radical reforms, these councils would also have to build social engagement and counterpower beyond the institutions themselves.

This model for a radical municipalist politics has received a great deal of coverage from English language publications – with the field of municipalist theory growing exponentially since 2015. But, in many ways, the initial transformative aspirations of the Spanish movement seem rather distant and divorced from the reality of having to govern local administrations. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, a positive dynamic between the institutions and the street was never really produced beyond short-lived conflicts like last summer’s taxi strike in Madrid and Barcelona. Instead, the Fearless Cities’ four years in office saw a steep retreat in social mobilisation and anti-establishment feeling across Spain. As Barcelona’s former Deputy Mayor Gerrardo Pisarello put it last year:

It seems to me that the debate is above all about what to do when mobilisation outside is not sufficiently intense. We have not had [such mobilisation]. We have had moments of intensity and others without [but] we have not had a mass movement for the “right to the city” which we had hoped for. Why has this mass movement against speculation not been produced? Well, what is certain is that it has not existed on the scale which we would need to stop such processes.

Secondly, the degree of political autonomy was much less than anticipated, not least because none of the platforms secured absolute majorities. Faced with well-organised elites and unable to challenge nationally-imposed austerity, these minority administrations struggled from the beginning to combine the demands of office with their radical programs. In some cases, most notably with Carmena’s Ahora Madrid, they slowly disintegrated in office as they tried to reconcile competing demands. Closely related to this was that, thirdly, many of the platforms’ organisational structures ultimately proved unfit for purpose as the contradictions within such broad social alliances began to appear. 

The councils reacted in distinct ways to the limits they encountered and with a varying degree of success. In this respect, this article focuses on the fate of Spain’s two major cities, Madrid and Barcelona, and how their Mayors charted quite distinct routes when confronted by a wall of corporate power. 

Left-wing judge Manuela Carmena won election as Mayor on the Ahora Madrid platform in 2015

In Madrid, Carmena fell back on a very technocratic idea governing with the aim of gaining a breathing space in which to notch up advances in less politicised areas. For her, the role of local government was as an arbiter between competing interests within the city. In contrast, Colau and BenComu have succeeded, at times, in using institutional power as a means to intervene on behalf of a mass social constituency, securing a number of important advances in housing and in the struggle over the public provision of resources. 

In Office But Not in Power

The contradictions and tensions that defined Carmena’s term in Madrid seemed to coalesce around what was her most controversial decision. In April 2018 her administration finalised an agreement with the then Spanish government, one of the country’s largest banks (BBVA) and the construction conglomerate San José to greenlight the building of a massive new financial district in the wealthy north of Madrid. Situated on what is currently public land owned by the state railway company, the Operation Chamartin project will see the construction of over a million metres of office and retail space, up to 20 high rise towers, including Europe’s tallest skyscraper, and 11,000 apartments – in a city with an already high vacancy rate. 

The agreement represented a major retreat on the council’s initial plans for the area which had sought a more sustainable development proportionate to the surrounding neighbourhoods with a total floor space 64 percent lower than the final deal. Yet, with the project requiring the council’s consent to proceed, Camena came under intense pressure with planning negotiations taking place under media attacks and the threat of legal action being brought against the city. 

When the details of the deal were announced, the dismay amongst activists was palpable, with some likening it to a “bailout” for developers that will allow them to appropriate public money to launch the first large-scale development project in the city since 2008. The Ecologistas en Acción characterized it as one of “continuity and accommodation to the [neo-liberal] dogma imposed during the bubble” while for the Izquierda Unida, who broke ranks to vote against the project, it would “leave the future of [Madrid] in private hands” and deepen the economic disparity between the north and predominantly working-class south of the city.

Carmena’s support for the Chamartin development in Madrid proved controversial.

The Chamartin deal is probably the clearest example of how Carmena’s administration has been unable to advance against the city’s oligarchy over the past four years. Madrid is the third largest city in the EU, the political capital of Spain and the key financial centre in Southern Europe. It is also the headquarters of most of Spain’s largest corporations, such as Telefónica, Repsol, Banco Santander, as well as some of the world’s leading construction conglomerates that have come to play an inordinate role in the country’s economy. 

In this sense the potential to fulfil their campaign promises of recovering outsourced council services, which had become an important profit source for such construction giants, or imposing a new more balanced urban model required confronting some of the most powerful economic interests in Spain. 

On taking office, the counterattack was immediate. After only four days the council’s head of culture Guillermo Zapata was forced to step down after jokes he tweeted during a debate on the limits to humour were republished by various news outlets. Further attacks followed quickly, with a string of controversies centred on freedom of speech issues robbing Ahora Madrid of much of its initial momentum. As the journalist Antonio Maestre pointed out, six weeks into their term the council seemed “completely overwhelmed” by such pressure and “unable to offer a political defence of its ideas.” 

The United Left’s Eduardo Garzon, a former advisor to the council, described to me last year, the pressure-cooker atmosphere of these initial months: 

The mechanisms used by the economic powers are quite subtle. You have experts, lawyers and civil servants all telling you that you are crazy – that, for example, our proposal to remunicipalise waste management services could end with us not having the resources and capacity to actually run the service. At the same time you have the media attacking you and talking up the political costs of proceeding. After a while it starts getting to you.

Governing for All

In this context Ahora Madrid’s organisational weaknesses became increasingly exposed. Founded only three months before its victory in the 2015 local elections, the platform brought together four quite distinct actors: the social movement-led Ganemos, Podemos, the United Left and the green coalition Equo.

Carmena was a last minute addition, incorporated as a candidate who could appeal to a broad spectrum of the progressive vote after the formation’s programme had largely been finalised. A retired judge who had fought for civil rights under Franco, she had had little contact with post-Indignado wave of activism before being recruited by Podemos’ leadership and lacked the type of organic relationship Colau had with the movements.

As Mayor, Carmena broke with the left-wing of her coalition and increasingly governed as a moderate.

Faced with the pressure of its initial months, it became clear there no was consensus on how to approach the challenges of office with Ahora Madrid’s diverse elements never managing to coalesce. Instead, Carmena increasingly fell back on a vertical and personalised style of governing to enforce a moderate line. For her, the focus had to be on pragmatic administration rather than getting bogged down in what she saw as unwinnable stand-offs. 

While seeking a more cooperative relationship with the economic elites, she concentrated on rolling out ambitious programs in pollution reduction and pedestrianisation that noticeably improved living conditions in the city centre. The council also increased social spending, launched pilot programs in social economy and participatory budgets as well as taking important stands on the refugee crisis and on LGBT and women’s rights. These achievements were impressive, particularly given the difficult balance of power in which the council was operating. 

But they came with a heavy price tag. Clearly programmatic concessions were always going to be necessary but Carmena’s aversion to controversy was ultimately taken as sign of weakness by the city’s elites. As Antonio Maestre put it, rather than backing off after each concession, “they pressure[d] her ever more because they know it works”.

By enforcing moderation from above, her coalition slowly began to fall apart. From the second month of her term onwards, Carmena chose not to participate in Ahora Madrid’s internal decision-making bodies, with her supporters claiming she was “an independent figure leading a team of individuals” who had always rejected the notion of “party discipline.” The result was programmatic u-turns being taken by her inner circle with little input from the wider group of councillors, let alone the activists that had been instrumental in getting her elected. Her term came to be defined by a series of bitter confrontations between the Mayor and her allies, on one side, and an internal opposition led by the council’s head of finance Carlos Sánchez Mato, on the other. 

These differences reached breaking point around two controversies. One was the Chamartin deal, the other Carmena’s acceptance of a revised financial plan for the city after a long standoff with the PP government over budgetary rules. The first two years of the council’s tenure had seen expenditure increase by €800 million despite the council meeting its debt repayment obligations, but the PP’s plan saw this figure fall to €60 million in their final 18 months. 

The government of former Partido Popular Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sought to apply budgetary pressure to the left-wing administration in Madrid.

The Right’s intentions were clear. By pushing the plan on the council, they wanted to kill off the legislature and deprive the council of the funds needed to complete its investment programs in the run-up to the elections. Indeed out of the 4,200 new public homes promised by the end of their term, the council had only completed 63 by the time of last month’s poll (with 3,000 more at various stages of completion).

To run the PP’s gaunlet required a public display of the divisions in her coalition. In the end six of her councillors refused to back her decision and another three voted in favour under protest. Ahora Madrid never recovered from this bitter split, with Carmena setting up a new platform, Más Madrid, with Podemos’ ex-deputy leader Íñigo Errejón earlier this year.

Despite this, there is no doubt that Carmena remained a very popular figure. Her approval rating stood at 60 percent going into the campaign. Yet as the journalist Nuria Alabao noted, the increased abstention in low-income neighbourhoods seemed to reflect a sense of “hopes not being realised”. With the council’s spending restricted, particularly in term of investment, many in peripheral areas of the city felt abandoned by a candidate they had overwhelmingly backed four years before.  

“A lot of people are disheartened here,” one observer put it on election day, “I nearly did not go out to vote myself. What has been done in the Latina [district] these years? Almost nothing… the same sidewalks are still cracked and broken, the same empty lots are still there.”   

This disillusionment was further reinforced by the acrimonious manner in which Carmena and Errejón established their new platform. The plan to break with Podemos and Izquierda Unida was kept secret until the last moment, with many in even Errejón’s circle only finding out about the project through the media. 

The move split the wider Spanish left just months before a general election and then saw an alternative left-wing candidacy, Madrid en Pie, running against Carmena in the local elections. Its inability to reach 5 percent of the vote further confirmed the deep sense of exhaustion amongst progressive voters after years of factionalism in the city’s new left politics. 

A Tale of Two Cities

The comparison between Carmena and Colau is a complicated one. When asked before Christmas how he would compare Carmena’s administration in Madrid with the more combative one to which he belonged, Gerardo Pisarello offered a generous response claiming that if “at times we [in BenComú] have considered ourselves to be more courageous, in the end we realised we were simply more peripheral.” 

This is true, to an extent. Governing at the heart of the Spanish state marked out Ahora Madrid not only for greater national media attention but also more concerted attacks from the PP government. Colau’s administration also had the advantage of greater fiscal autonomy due to the city’s lower debt rate.

Left-wing municipal platform Barcelona en Comú, led by Mayor Ada Colau, won landmark victories over AirBnB and Uber.

There were numerous similarities between the experiences. As was the case in Madrid and elsewhere, Colau’s administration failed to challenge the existing model for major council services based on outsourcing and profiteering. In 2017 her administration announced it was impossible to re-municipalise home help assistance given the legal restrictions on incorporating the existing private workforce as public employees. 

Instead it concentrated on improving the precarious conditions of these 2,600 carers, many of whom are contracted to billionaire Florentio Perez’s ACS group. It had also previously made it clear that it would not seek to take back control of street cleaning and waste-collection services, which together make up 10 percent of the council’s budget.

In terms of the rental market in Barcelona the administration has lacked the formal powers to directly regulate prices, which have risen 37 percent in the last five years. Yet, at the same time, housing is clearly an area in which BenComú has pushed a range of measures to crack-down on predatory practices. 

Last year the council passed a regulation under which 30% of all new-built homes and major renovation projects have to be sold or rented at affordable rates. This should see 400 extra new affordable units per year in the city. It has also cracked down on illegal AirBnB apartments (shutting down 2,300 out of around 18,000 rentals in the city) as well imposing fines against major banks and financial institutions which are sitting on empty apartments.  

While these measures have not been sufficient in themselves to tackle the scale of the housing crisis in Barcelona, they have demonstrated Colau’s greater willingness to take on corporate interests – with the Mayor pushing the limits of her institutional powers to do so. 

If Carmena was primarily an administrator, and never really comfortable engaging in political polemic, Colau, a seasoned activist, possesses a more conflictual understanding of politics. She and her colleagues see the role of political office not simply as a mechanism for integrating and reconciling interests but also as a tool to be used to further the demands of social struggle.  

As she put it recently: “Before conflicts were invisible from an institutional perspective… Now it is normal that the Barcelona City Hall says officially it won’t allow speculation with basic goods and resources and that it will confront oligarchs and speculators.” 

This was evident in two key battles during the administration’s term. The first was that over the city’s privately run water supply. When, in 2017, the council announced it would hold a city-wide referendum on taking back public control of the resource it was met, in Colau’s words, with “multinational Agbar’s full arsenal: lawyers, [negative] publicity across all the media, etc.” 

After facing various court injunctions, the bill was then voted down by opposition parties on the council, including the left-wing CUP and ERC – the latter in a clear attempt to derail one of Colau’s flagship measures. The measure was presumed dead, but her team went back to the negotiating table and managed to reach a deal with these parties, which will see Barcelona hold a consultation over public administration of its water supply before the end of this year.

Colau was Mayor during the recent controversy over Catalan independence, and sought a compromise position between Madrid’s crackdown and the declaration of independence.

The second came during one of the few moments of heightened social mobilisation in recent years – the taxi drivers’ dispute with online platforms Uber and Cabify. At the centre of this standoff was BenComú’s attempts to introduce regulations to crack down on digital platforms. These were struck out by the Catalan Supreme Court, which ruled they went beyond the city’s competencies. 

Yet, after a year of campaigning from taxi drivers and the city hall, which was punctuated by two massive taxi strikes, regulations were finally brought in at a regional level. This resulted in Uber deciding to leave the city in February, in an important victory against the precarisation of labour. 

Beyond these advances, BenComú’s greater internal coherency is the other element that stands out in comparison with Ahora Madrid. Colau’s position of hegemony within the organisation has given it greater stability while a more integrated leadership team and an active, if relatively small, base has contributed to a healthier internal culture. Differences between various factions have been dealt with without the type of public spats and divisions that occurred elsewhere. 

This is, in part, down to the fact that, unlike in many other municipalist platforms, collective structures were created with common spaces for debate and activity. In this sense, BenComú operated as something more than an uneasy alliance between varying forces.

This is not to say, though, it has managed to transcend the organisational difficulties experienced with new left politics in Spain and elsewhere. All of this pivots on a lack of social depth. BenComú can count on between 1,000 -1,500 activists in a city of 1.7 million with a somewhat larger number of participants online. 

In the key vote over potential pacts for a new government last week just over 4,000 members participated on its online platform. The paradox is that while being innovative in participatory practices, it has so far failed to develop as a mass organisation. Instead as with left-populist formations like Podemos or France Insoumise, the relationship between a charismatic leader and a dispersed electorate remains its principle link to wider society.

Four More Years

After the electoral losses both in the municipal elections in May and the general elections in April, many on the Spanish left have talked about the end of Spain’s regime crisis, with the system having re-established itself after years of democratic pressure. Others also talked of the passing of the country’s “municipalist moment.” As Nuria Alabao put it “we can safely say that we are no longer where we were in 2014 when large mobilisations nurtured the municipalist projects… Today little remains of these processes.”

Probably the most dramatic example of this change in political cycle was the scenes’ which accompanied Colau’s swearing in for her second term. When the votes were counted, the large crowd outside the City Hall, predominantly made up of pro-independence supporters, irrupted in anger as they booed and shouted “fraud” at Colau’s victory. 

This was followed by sexist slurs and a number of plastic bottles being thrown at her and other councillors as they made their traditional journey across Sant Jaume Square. If in 2015 anti-austerity, anti-elite sentiment was the driving force behind the left’s electoral victories, now it finds itself operating within a landscape dominated by nationalism (whether Catalan or Spanish) and a sense of exhaustion amongst social movements.  

In this context BenComú face an uphill battle. While they look set to reach a programmatic agreement for government with the Socialists over the next weeks, Colau will still need the backing of Esquerra Republicana, or alternatively the votes of Manuel Valls, to pass measures. With its discourse of victimhood and betrayal, after Colau chose not to ally itself with the pro-independence bloc, Esquerra is not going to make life easy for her minority administration.

Faced with such difficult institutional arithmetic and continued tensions with the city’s economic powers, BenComú’s priority for its second term is “to guarantee that changes” which have already been initiated – in housing, increased social spending and the battle over water – are seen through and “become irreversible”.

In her inaugural speech as Mayor four years ago, Colau addressed her supporters asking them: “don’t leave us alone [in the institutions] because it is one thing to win and another to govern. The future of Barcelona is in your hands.”

There are few other examples in Europe of a radical organization that has better navigated this tension between “winning” and “governing”. But it has done so within tight limits, and in conditions of loneliness as the Indignado wave retreated. As it seeks a path forward, BenComú will remain a key reference point for the international left with all of its contradictions, limitations and moments of inspiration.