Sol square cleared of last 15-M activists, August 2011. Demotix/Nathalie Paco. All rights reserved.Never had democratic Spain seen a political party accumulate as much power as the Popular Party (PP) - the Spanish Conservatives, amassed in 2011, the last time the whole country went to the polls to elect local governments and renew 13 out of 17 regional assemblies.
The debacle it suffered on May 24, 2015, was therefore magnified by its previous inordinate success. The overall shift to the left is unquestionable, but the Socialist party not only failed to capitalize on the nearly 2.5 million votes lost by the Conservatives, it even lost a further 700,000 supporters compared to their dismal 2011 performance. With the Conservative Catalan Nationalists of CiU losing another 110,000 votes, the only influential party of the traditional Spanish party system to hold its ground, and indeed grow, has been the Conservative Basque Nationalists of PNV/EAJ.
Spain’s tsunami and its tides
Anti-eviction protest in Madrid over terminally ill resident, 2014. Demotix/Juan Carlos Lucas. All rights reserved.The seism that polls had been predicting in Spanish politics since autumn 2014 had finally materialized in actual elections results. Those who expected fundamental change were not disappointed. The overall numbers still show the Popular Party topping the popular vote, followed by the Socialists. But the unprecedented successes of local lists led by civic activists in most of Spain’s largest cities, and the impressive results in regional elections (all regions voted except Andalusia, Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country) of two newcomers to the Spanish political scene, the new left radicals of Podemos and centre liberals of Ciudadanos, have shaken the party system and threatened the hegemony not just of the PP, but of the two parties that had for decades held the overwhelming majority of positions of power (with the partial exceptions of peripheral nationalists in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Navarre and the Canary Islands). A tsunami it was not, but a series of tides, some of them high, many of them unexpected, rose across the Spanish electoral geography, most noticeably in the large cities.
The use of tides as a metaphor is loaded with significance. Spanish activists have used the word ‘tides’ to describe a series of social protests that were inspired, energized, at times even ignited by the energy generated in the occupation of public squares across Spain in late spring 2011. Internationally known as ‘indignados’, a name journalists coined for them, the activists of 15-M (after May 15, 2011, the day of the first protest that ended in the occupation of Sol square, in Madrid) did not simply go home after their successful and long-sustained street action captured the international imagination and struck a chord with the mainstream of Spanish society. Instead, they tacitly agreed to support each other as they pursued very different courses of action and political battles.
The white tide for the defense of Public Hospitals from crooked privatization, the green/yellow tide to defend public education from cuts, the blue tide for access to water as a common good, accompanied by fights for free culture online, against corruption, a new feminism, all profited from the new interaction between street action and the net. The net, in particular Twitter, had become in Spain a political arena of its own, rather than a distant echo of ‘real’ politics. In parallel, as the global media crisis hit Spain with particular harshness and threw most broadsheets and audiovisual media, heavily indebted, into the arms of large banks, a thriving alternative media scene emerged and re-shaped narratives and perceptions. Those who certified the death of the 15-M as a movement failed to realized that, in essence, the 15-M had in fact been a deeply transformative moment of Spanish activism, politics and communication. The full effects of that moment are still now emerging.
PAH and Spain’s property bubble
Anti-eviction protest in Barcelona, 2013.Demotix/Paco Serinelli. All rights reservedNo movement was more successful in the difficult times of austerity, unemployment and arrogant PP hegemony than the anti-eviction movement. Known in Spanish as PAH (Platforms of those Affected by Mortgages), the Barcelona-born group took issue with the silent tragedy of tens of thousands of families caught, as Spain’s monumental real estate bubble burst, in a vicious circle of unemployment, abusive mortgage clauses and declining real estate prices. A merciless application of Spain’s draconian mortgage law resulted in an endless string of ruthless evictions, which reached epidemic proportions in the most impoverished neighbourhoods. A group of debt activists grouped around a small Social and Economic Rights Observatory, who had learned the lessons of their failure to curb the crazy escalation of prices and the race to buy under increasingly risky contracts during the boom years with the ‘V de Vivienda’ group, managed to do what seemed impossible: transform groups of depressed, humiliated home owners about to lose their house and stay trapped in debt for the rest of their lives, into activists, into fighters.
The signature action of the PAH was street action to stop evictions, but they have run the whole gamut of savvy, determined activism, from a popular legislative initiative to Congress; the occupation of untenanted, bank-owned apartments for evicted families; direct street pressure on Members of Parliament; action in provincial courts; successful strategic litigation before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg; permanent vigilance with regard to eviction threats and agitation online; to direct negotiations with banks, sometimes after occupying one of their offices or their empty houses. The PAH’s spokeswoman, Ada Colau, soon became a popular figure in Spanish media, launching angry attacks against banks and governments alike, and calling those responsible for the evictions ‘criminals’ in the Spanish parliament.
Pablo Iglesias and Ada Colau
Pablo Iglesias meets Ada Colau in Guanyem HQ, December 2014.Demotix/ Enric Catala. All rights reserved. From the start of 2012, however, Europe and, for the most part, its Spanish elites, had proceeded to forget the ‘colourful indignados’, and begun to compare Spain’s political stability and heavy-handed austerity favourably to Italy and, above all, Greece. The unexpectedly good results of a hitherto unheard of group, Podemos, in the May 2014 European Parliamentary elections came as a surprise. Six months earlier Anticapitalist Left, a minuscule party, had approached Pablo Iglesias with the idea of starting a new party. The 36 year-old university lecturer, who had by then become a familiar face thanks to his exposure on TV political talk shows, was part of a group of far left academics that had transformed the Politics Faculty of Madrid’s Complutense University into an ideological bastion of the radical left, with strong connections to the Bolivarian regimes of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Deeply frustrated by the lack of ambition of the United Left, with whom they had hitherto collaborated, Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues – political communication and public opinion experts – started to put into practice a version of left-wing populism inspired by the writings of Argentinian thinker Ernesto Laclau. A masterful use of the internet, the exploitation of Iglesias’ rogue image in fringe TV political shows, and a broad array of grand promises on a rabidly anti-austerity platform captured the thirst for radical change of many Spaniards, who gave them enough votes to ensure 5 seats in the European Parliament.
One month later, in June 2014, Guanyem Barcelona (Let us Win Barcelona) was launched in a public school in El Raval, the multicultural, poorest part of Barcelona’s centuries-old centre. By then, everyone was talking about Iglesias. A few purple ‘Podemos’ T-shirts appeared at the presentation of the new civic platform. Neither Podemos nor the also-present Catalan Left Green leaders, however, were the stars of the day. That honour went to Ada Colau who, six months earlier, had vacated her role as spokeswoman of the anti-evictions movement, the PAH, and reappeared in public at the head of a new ambitious initiative. Guanyem Barcelona brought together local activists and experts who had started to discuss the initiative almost a year earlier, and had finally managed to convince Colau, who previously when approached had declined to head up the lists of two existing left-wing parties. Guanyem Barcelona was about winning, but also about a new way of doing politics. Making direct parallels with the crucial role of municipalities (including Barcelona) in the establishment of Spain’s First (1873) and Second (1931) Republics, they proposed to renew the system from the base by capturing local power from the civic initiatives and a confluence of political forces to the left of the Socialists. Colau, a 40 year-old activist with enormous streetcred amongst some of those who had been deepest hit by the crisis, provided the galvanizing figurehead, a perfect mayoral candidate.
Barcelona has a tradition of incubating political innovation in Spain, but it was immersed in a rather particular political moment. The overwhelming political story in Catalonia since 2012 had been the quest for independence, and in particular the referendum that the Catalan government wanted to organize as a mirror image of Scotland’s, which was declared illegal by Spain’s authorities. Instead of a real referendum, a non-binding civic consultation was organized on November 9, 2014, in which over 2 million people participated.
The rest of Spain, meanwhile, was totally immersed in another emerging drama: Podemos was growing in the polls at an unprecedented rate. By October 2014, the surveys estimated that Podemos was at the same level as the Popular Party or the Socialists, and some polls even placed it in first place. With a strident rhetoric against ‘La Casta’, Podemos was capturing a profound swell of anti-elitist feeling and a thirst for radical change accentuated in the crisis. Across Spain new Podemos ‘circles’ emerged by the week, while Iglesias and his University companions took steps to centralize power. Iglesias wanted to win, and he and his companions would not leave anything to luck, or for that matter to meaningful deliberation and participatory processes, to the disappointment of some of the ‘new politics’ activists that so enthusiastically joined them.
The leadership of Podemos secured a firm grip on the party in its first Congress in October 2014. Soon thereafter, Podemos announced that they would not run for the local elections – there was not enough time to vet local candidates and ensure that they would not hurt the party in the crucial moment of the general elections – but it would support civic lists closer to its ideas. Podemos went on to create regional structures, and started to move its discourse and proposals towards the coveted political centre, where most undecided and disappointed voters were to be found.
As 2015 started, the rollercoaster of the Spanish polls saw a new entrant: Ciudadanos, a centre liberal party that was born in 2006 as a reaction to Catalan nationalism and had had a modest presence in the Catalan Parliament ever since, decided to expand to the rest of Spain. In three months, with a telegenic leader similarly popular in talk shows and a calculated fresh vocabulary of renewal that avoided any radical tones, it was soon polling at 18% of the vote, not far from Podemos, which saw its growth stall. Spain headed towards a four-party system, and Podemos’ dream of creating a new hegemony based on the below vs. above, or people vs. ‘La Casta’ dichotomy became increasingly unrealistic.
Spain’s municipal activists
Under the surface, local activists across Spain’s cities were busy. The example of Guanyem Barcelona inspired many to try and build their own lists. A setback came when it emerged that the Guanyem Barcelona brand had been registered to deprive the civic list of its name; months before the crucial election, the brand, that had started to spread to other cities, had to be reinvented. But the work did not stop, a combination of face-to-face events and an impressive display of the whole arsenal of technopolitics tools that activists had perfected since the 15-M. In Barcelona Podemos, the Left Greens (ICV), the United Left and other smaller political parties joined the list and accepted the leadership of local activists, and their methods. A demanding set of deliberative processes were put in place to produce a manifesto, an ethical code, and lists of demands and proposals (for the whole city, but also for each city district), which were ‘validated’ district by district and online by hundreds of enthusiastic supporters. If the academics behind Podemos were obsessed with messaging and reading opinion polls, many of those supporting Guanyem Barcelona had an expertise in new forms of participatory politics, and helped shape the deep commitment to participatory democracy shared by the civil society groups and activists that were at the core of Guanyem Barcelona.
Many other Spanish cities followed the example; but generating a spirit of unity and genuine participatory dynamics was not easy everywhere. The local groups of the United Left, still the largest party to the left of the Socialists as far as institutional presence and territorial reach was concerned, only joined in some cities, in particular where there was previous experience of the United Left running in coalitions, like Aragon, Catalonia and Galicia.
In many large cities, however, the United Left did not agree to join the civic lists, and either ran on its own, or under competing coalitions with small groups. The brand Guanyem, and its Spanish version Ganemos, could not be used as a unifying factor; names and combinations of the civic lists varied from city to city. The result was widespread confusion. Digital newspapers and blogs ran lists of who was part of what coalition for bewildered left-wing voters who wanted to know who was the local equivalent to Ada Colau and her (soon to be renamed) Guanyem Barcelona.
In Madrid, the civic coalition eventually called Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid), took off later than in Barcelona, largely inspired by the experience there, and lacking a charismatic figure comparable to Ada Colau. Podemos was particularly popular in the capital and its leaders were all Madrid-based, so they were determined to play a larger role shaping the local civic list. The United Left, with a sizeable institutional presence, became deeply divided over whether or not to join, to the point that the candidates elected in the primaries to run for Mayor and Regional President left the party when its regional structures rejected joining forces with the civic lists and Podemos. The counterweight to Podemos would not be the relatively weak political parties and figures that joined, in particular the Greens of Equo, but the civic activists, who were directly connected to the 15-M, of which Madrid had been the epicenter.
Andalusian regional elections in March 2015 were a slight disappointment to Podemos: although the results (15% of the vote, and an unexpected first place in Cádiz, the city of Teresa Rodríguez, Podemos’ lead candidate in Andalusia) were impressive enough for a 14-month old party, the 15 Podemos-elected regional parliamentarians were not numerous enough to determine the government, or threaten the Socialist hegemony in the region. Overblown expectations fuelled by national polls in the late autumn, were thwarted, and the dream of a new hegemony, or at least of leading the opposition to the PP, seemed beyond reach.
Podemos and its leader also came under serious attack in the media, not least for their connection to Venezuela, especially as the amount of money paid for his advice to the number three of the party, Juan Carlos Monedero, became public knowledge once his tax declaration was leaked to the media. No longer the newest kids on the block (Ciudadanos was enjoying its own honeymoon period in the mainstream press and soared in the polls), Podemos had to come to grips with the reality that the assault on power would not be a straightforward proposition, and that the regional bastions that stood in the way of the overall prize, the Spanish Parliament and Government, would not easily be overcome.
In Andalusia, and despite the dynamism of the Spanish party political system, the polls had been surprisingly accurate in predicting the final result. As pollsters turned to the May local and regional elections, a new map of opportunity emerged. The first position seemed out of reach in all 13 regions going to the polls. The best hope was to overtake the Socialists into second place somewhere, perhaps in Aragon, and lead a coalition government; otherwise, Podemos could be a useful coalition partner or other form of support to oust the right from power. Coalition with the Socialists, not a new hegemony, started to emerge as the only open road to regional power. The rhetoric locating the Socialist and the Popular Party at the same level of corruption and as the representatives of ‘La Casta’ had to be modulated; the new vs. old politics no longer worked so well in the face of Ciudadanos’ rise; and the polls stubbornly denied Podemos, region after region, its self-proclaimed role as the main rival to the Popular Party.
Barcelona en Comú and #AdayManuela
Ahora Madrid's Manuela Carmena votes in 24M elections. Demotix/ Jose Hinojosa. All rights reserved.At the local level it was another story. In most large cities in Spain, let alone villages, the Conservatives versus Socialists binary (plus Basque, Canarian, Catalan and Navarran nationalists and regionalists) seemed destined to remain central. But in Barcelona the figure of Ada Colau ensured the constant visibility of the civic list, renamed Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) in a direct reference to the Commons spirit that impregnated the project.
The implosion of the Catalan Socialists, main opposition to the Catalan nationalist mayor, left the road wide open to the emergence of another major alternative. In Madrid the local civic list, Ahora Madrid, elected in the primaries a relatively unknown figure, 71-year old former judge Manuela Carmena, with an impeccable ethical profile and a background in anti-Franco resistance, human rights causes and social sensitivity. The figure she struck was not nearly as popular as Ada Colau’s, and even her closest supporters took some time to warm up to her discrete, serene but firm leadership style. In other Spanish cities local circumstance, success in attracting all the relevant forces (in particular, Podemos and the United Left) under the same banner, and the ability of local activists determined the chances for success; the negotiations went city by city, with some regions more prolific in their inclusive coalitions (in particular, Galicia), than others (for example, Andalusia).
Ada Colau soon emerged as the most credible alternative to the Catalan Nationalist Mayor Xavier Trias. In 2011 the soft-manner, moderate 68-year old Mayor of Barcelona had taken over a city in a healthy financial situation (a rare gift in the midst of the public debt crisis in Spain), an invaluable international image and a proverbial quality of life from the Socialists, which had governed it ever since the first democratic elections in 1979. He had ruled the city without major scandals, escaped the worst corruption allegations that hurt his party, and hoped to retain power in a campaign based on the largely held feeling that Barcelona remained, after all, a good place in which to live. His supporters soon identified Barcelona en Comú as the main threat, and transformed Ada Colau into the target of their attacks. That, in fact, helped the strategy of the civic coalition Barcelona en Comú and, in an extremely atomized political scene where up to seven lists were expected to enter the local council, both leading parties did everything they could to polarize the race between the two of them. Most polls gave a slight advantage to the Catalan Nationalists, but the race was close enough for Barcelona en Comú to present itself as the best hope for a real upset to the old party system not just in Barcelona and Catalonia, but in Spain.
In Madrid the Socialist party selected an unknown candidate, the uncharismatic Antonio Miguel Carmona, to reclaim local government after two decades of Conservative hegemony. The Popular Party chose Esperanza Aguirre, former regional President and visible leader of the most socially Conservative and economically Liberal wing of the PP, who had escaped the endless stream of scandals plaguing the party in the Madrid region relatively unscathed. With a direct, aggressive style, Aguirre soon identified Ahora Madrid and Manuela Carmena as the ideal rival to mobilize the PP’s most loyal and right-wing base, which she thought would be the best way to keep power. Aguirre increased the problem that the PP had everywhere in Spain: an arrogant, inflexible image that alienated it from the centre moderates (who now had a centre liberal alternative to vote for, Ciudadanos) while it mobilized left-wing voters against it. Manuela Carmena capitalized on that effect, and on the contrast between Aguirre’s aggressive style and her own calm demeanor, so different from that of traditional politicians. As election day came closer, the polls started to show Ahora Madrid overtaking the Socialists as the main alternative to the Right, and slowly closing the gap with the PP, to the point that outright victory no longer seemed possible.
Whereas Podemos fought in regional elections under relatively obscure leaders, luring the voters with the appeal of the party name and its national leader, Pablo Iglesias, two non-party affiliated leaders of a very new kind, Ada and Manuela, as they were soon known, lifted their coalitions into potential winning positions.
In the two weeks before elections, the 15-M-associated galaxy on the web, in particular on Twitter, had no doubts. The two female candidates, #AdayManuela, were the best hope for change in the May elections. A victory in Barcelona or Madrid would be a symbolic wound in the very heart of the old system, a concrete achievement that was, in fact, very closely linked to the spirit that emerged from the 2011 square occupations and connected with a decades-old civic activism strong enough to make the left-wing parties obliged to them, rather than the other way round.
May 24, election night
Few election nights are as exciting as those of regional and local elections, when dozens of stories unfold at the same time. The night of May 24 was a particularly rich one, long anticipated, and unprecedented in its complexity. The regional elections saw Podemos entering every regional parliament in play, with an average result across Spain (15%) very similar to the one obtained by the party in Andalusia two months earlier. The best result, 20.5%, came in Aragon, where Podemos’ candidate was the former Member of European Parliament Pablo Echenique, an activist for the rights of people with disabilities who had been the leader of the rival fraction that was swept aside by the central core of Pablo Iglesias and his university colleagues. By a narrow margin (0.9%) not even Echenique could overtake the Socialists to become the potential leader of a left-wing coalition able to take power from the Popular Party in Aragon. Podemos had managed to achieve a level of regional power that no other party outside the big two had ever had in Spain, but there was no purple tsunami sweeping through Spain’s regions. The limits of the original strategy that had brought the party to the top of the polls in less than one year were now apparent.
A bigger story took place in the large cities. During election night not the Socialists, but the new civic lists, went neck to neck with the Right for the first place in some of Spain’s largest cities: Madrid and Barcelona, but also Cádiz, Zaragoza, A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela. In the city of Valencia a Left Green and Valencian nationalist coalition, Compromís, reaped the fruits of long years of persevering opposition and fightback against the corruption of the local PP; only in Seville were the Socialists the ones who seemed close to victory. In all those cities the rapid counting issued in a thrilling finish; within less than three hours of the closure of the polling stations, the final results emerged.
In Barcelona, A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela, the civic lists had come in first, winning victories that Manuela Carmona in the campaign, and Ada Colau on victory night, compared to that of David over Goliath. In the rest of the disputed cities the Popular Party achieved pyrrhic victories: very soon it emerged that the other left forces would support the civic list candidates in becoming mayors of Madrid, Cádiz and Zaragoza. In some other cities, such as Alicante or Burgos, local civic lists did not get close to the majority, but achieved results that no party other than the Conservatives and the Socialists could dream of. In most other places, however, quickly assembled and poorly branded lists, with unknown candidates and varying compositions, achieved noticeable, but not spectacular results, often even below the results that Podemos alone received in these same cities in regional elections.
The feat of the civic activists is remarkable. From a protest movement notable for its lack of visible leaders, a cohesive programme or a shared strategy in 2011, they went on to generate innovative participatory democratic processes and to fight the party system they had criticized in elections, winning the top positions in large cities, four years later.
Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings
Podemos’ leader Pablo Iglesias is a declared fan of ‘Game of Thrones’ (he famously gave the series’ DVDs as a gift to the King of Spain on their first meeting), and he is not shy about his ambition to play in real power games, not just in the realm of ideas. Ada Colau implicitly drew the contrast with Barcelona en Comú, stating that they were more like ‘The Lord of the Rings’, a fellowship of very different folks united in a mission for the common good. This comparison captures the plurality contained in the civic lists, and therefore in their groups of elected councillors : longterm alter-Globalization and anti-poverty activists, experienced Left Green, or United Left politicians, recent Podemos members, seasoned anti-Franco figures, local community organizers, engaged academics, new 15-M digital activists, and more.
After election night the main question mark was whether the Socialists and the Podemos-backed lists would bring their forces together to oust the right; many progressives feared that mutual suspicion would stymie the possibility of recovery for leftwing cities that had not been in power for up to two decades. Indeed, one case of disagreement was experienced in Gijón, Asturias’ largest city, where the local Podemos-backed list held a referendum amongst its supporters to validate its agreement with the Socialists (as it had promised to do), lost the vote, and decided not to honour the agreement, thus allowing the right wing to keep power. But Gijón is the only example of a major Spanish city where the right has kept power in a council where an alternative left wing majority exists. The civic lists that came first have managed to elect their heads as Mayors with the support of other groups of the left, and in turn the other civic lists have contributed to dislodging the right by supporting Socialist and other progressive mayors in Valencia, Seville, Alicante, Palma de Mallorca, Valladolid, Córdoba, Pamplona, and dozens more cities.
Reigning over this diversity will be no easier than implementing long, detailed manifestoes that are the results of complex deliberation and that do not always amount to coherent policies and strategies. In places like Barcelona, where the list won, the atomization of the political groups represented in the local Council will force the civic list to run a minority government, constantly negotiating with the three other left-of-centre parties for major initiatives and budget approval. Where the lists came second, like in Madrid or Zaragoza, the formal coalition will be indispensable, and add a further complicating element. For as long as the Popular Party remains in power in Spain, the hostility of the national authorities is guaranteed, as is pressure from the press and, presumably, some major economic powers, from the very election day onwards. The long experience in activism of some elected members will not easily translate into the skills needed to govern complex bureaucracies and large projects. And it will not be easy to satisfy expectations with the limited competencies of local authorities, the all-pervasive fiscal austerity and aggravating circumstance, such as Madrid’s crippling debt or Cádiz’s stratospheric unemployment.
que sí, que sí, ¡que sí nos representa!
It is worth noting that this political transformation took place in the depths of Spain’s economic crisis, which kept unemployment well above 20% (and up to 26%) for all of this period. That context provided the opportunity to challenge old structures, but it was never obvious that the energy of 15-M would be the one channeling the frustration. After all, many European countries have seen in the same period noticeable rises in support of anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic far right parties. In Spain, by contrast, the dynamism has been on the left of the political spectrum, and 15-M and the activism and political activity that it inspired are in no small measure responsible for that dynamism.
The final test for success is not taking power, but real policy and social change, and that is still far from given. In a way, though, the success is already there. To use the expression that the PAH popularized in Spain in its fight against eviction, the Spanish activists have demonstrated that Sí se puede, it can be done.
That was precisely the most shouted slogan during the festive ceremonies of June 13 where the new Mayors of Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Cádiz, A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela took possession of their new offices, with hundreds of supporters celebrating in front of town halls. Another slogan of that day was a total inversion of one made popular by the 15-M: que no, que no, ¡que no nos representan! (they do NOT represent us!) had been the rallying cry back in 2011; this time it was que sí, que sí, ¡que sí nos representa! (s/he DOES represent us!).
The road from successful street protest in 2011 to institutional power in 2015 has not been a straightforward one, and the achievements are by no means permanent. But the savvy way in which old and new civic activists channeled the surge of political energy that exploded in the squares of Spain into constructive political action and lasting impact on the overall configuration of power constitutes an enduring lesson about the ways in which politics can be done differently.
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