Can Europe Make It?

Beyond Ada Colau: the common people of Barcelona en Comú

Since the launch of Barcelona en Comú less than a year ago, Colau has taken pains to emphasize that she is just the most visible face of a movement that is horizontal in structure and collective in spirit.

Kate Shea Baird
27 May 2015
Ada Colau, campaigning in Barcelona.

Ada Colau, campaigning in Barcelona. Demotix/Lino De Vallier. All rights reserved.

"This victory is thanks to the hard work of thousands of people who've shown politics can be done differently" Ada Colau, 24 May 2015

Ada Colau has been making headlines across the world since the shock triumph of the radical municipal platform, Barcelona en Comú, in the Barcelona city elections on Sunday. Colau, who will be the first female mayor of Barcelona, is a well-known and popular figure across Spain, thanks to her time as an activist and spokeswoman for the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (La PAH). “Anti-eviction activist to mayor” is certainly a compelling story, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what’s going on in the Catalan capital.

Campaigning in common

Since the launch of Barcelona en Comú less than a year ago, Colau has taken pains to emphasize that she is just the most visible face of a movement that is horizontal in structure and collective in spirit. It was no surprise that she opened her victory speech thanking the people who had undertaken in the invisible work of logistics, cleaning, childcare, leafletting, and translation that made Barcelona en Comú's win possible.

This was not the typical posturing of a party politician. The Barcelona en Comú electoral programme was drawn up by over 5000 people, with contributions made in open assemblies and online, and the strategic and political decisions of the platform are made by the ‘plenary’ assembly, held twice a month.

As well as local groups in every neighbourhood of the city, the platform has also given birth to SomComuns, a network of cyberactivists who campaign on Twitter and Facebook, and a group of local artists and designers dubbing themselves The Movement for The Graphic Liberation of Barcelona, who have put their creative skills and the service of the cause.

Party of five

The complexity of the make-up of Barcelona en Comú has led to both understandable attempts to simplify it as well as deliberate attempts to misrepresent it. While the foreign press has tended to conflate Barcelona en Comú with Podemos, local critics have accused it of being a rebranding operation by Catalan “post-communist” party ICV.

In fact, five existing political forces (Guanyem, ICV-EUiA, Podemos, Equo and Procés Constituent) signed up to the proposal of standing on a joint electoral list. While it is true that the institutional experience and resources of ICV and the political appeal of Podemos have contributed to its success, many of Barcelona en Comú's most active participants come from neighbourhood associations and social movements, particularly indignados from the Spanish Occupy movement. This mix of loosely associated groups and individuals has contributed to Barcelona en Comú's broad appeal and to its success in increasing turnout in some of the city's most deprived areas.

Ada Colau and the ten councillors

The ten other Barcelona en Comú councillors elected alongside Ada Colau on Sunday are a good reflection of the broader composition of the platform, and the fact that six of the eleven are women is an indicator of its explicitly stated goal to feminize politics.

Colau’s number two is Gerardo Pisarello, constitutional scholar and member of Procés Constituent, a movement launched in 2013 with the aim of undertaking a bottom-up constitutional process to construct a “Catalan Republic of the 99%”. On election night, Pisarello dedicated the victory to the memory of his father, one of the “disappeared” under the military dictatorship in his native Argentina.

A tots els que ens han precedit. A la memoria de mi padre y de todas las víctimas de la dictadura argentina.

— Gerardo #BcnEnComú (@G_Pisarello) May 24, 2015

The election of an Argentinian-born deputy mayor is hugely significant in a city in which the 17% of the population of foreign origin is woefully underrepresented in the spheres of institutional and economic power.

Member of both Procés Constituent and Podemos, the lawyer Jaume Asens represents Barcelona en Comú’s stance against institutional corruption, having been involved in legal action related to the Barcenas, Millet and Pujol corruption cases. He has also represented neighbourhood associations in cases against the city council and is defending one of the Barcelona anarchists arrested during the controversial ‘Operation Pandora’. Political scientist and activist, Raimundo Viejo is the second of the representatives of Podemos to have been elected. 

Environmental scientist Mercedes Vidal is a member of United Alternative Left and former Vice-President of the Neighbourhood Association of Barcelona. She has worked on projects related to urban sustainability and has been active in campaigns for water resource conservation, sustainable mobility, green spaces and urban solar energy. She is active in the platform Aïgua és Vida (Water is Life), which campaigns for the remunicipalization of water services, as well as in the Alliance Against Energy Poverty.

Just two of the Barcelona en Comú councillors have previously held elected office; Laia Ortiz and Janet Sanz, both of ICV. As member of Spanish Congress of Deputies, Ortiz has twice been awarded the Avizor prize for the parliamentarian most committed to combatting poverty, thanks to her work taking on energy companies. Meanwhile Sanz has served one term in opposition in the council, with responsibility for environmental policy. Aged 30, she is the youngest elected representative of the platform. Also representing ICV is Agustí Colom, Professor of economic theory at the University of Barcelona. From 2004-2011, he was a member of the Sindicatura de Comptes de Catalunya, the organization charged with overseeing the economic and financial management and accounting of Catalan public institutions.

Like Ada Colau herself, three of Barcelona en Comú's councillors are not associated with any political party at all. Gala Pin has participated in social movements including La PAH, neighbourhood associations resisting gentrification caused by mass tourism, and activism in defence of internet freedom. Laura Perez has a background in the third sector, specializing in gender and public policy, particularly initiatives tackling violence against women in public spaces. Josep Maria Montaner is Professor of Architectural Theory at the Barcelona School of Architecture and Co-director of the Laboratory for Sustainable Collective Housing, which has advised the city governments of Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires.

All Barcelona en Comú's councillors have signed up to the platform's crowdsourced code of political ethics, tellingly titled 'Governing by Obeying'. Its aim is to ensure that the platform's victory serves to “change the rules of the game”, rather than merely substituting representatives of one party for those of another. The code includes salary and term limits, as well as transparency commitments and measures to put an end to the revolving door between public office and industry.

On election night, surrounded by her team, Colau returned to her message of active citizenship, underlining the role of the people of Barcelona in holding her accountable once in government. She warned against citizens dropping their guard now that the campaign is over, saying, "winning elections is just the beginning. We need all of you to do this with us and to be the protagonists of our democracy." 

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