Local power building: the participatory candidacy of Valparaíso

The Valparaiso Citizen Movement won the elections against all odds through a candidacy full of strength, values and participation. Jorge Sharp explained how they achieved it during the meeting "Cities without fear" in Barcelona. Español

Jorge Sharp
23 August 2017

Ballot box for Mayors and Councilmembers in the municipal elections in Chile on October 26, 2008. Photo: Richard Espinoza. CC BY 3.0. Some rights reserved.

(Summary text of the intervention)

"For us, from our experience, municipalism consists of exercising local power by building and recovering sovereignty, the power that has been taken away from citizens. And then produce a new way of living in the city. But why is it important to raise the central problem of municipalism in terms of building local power? Because if there is real local power, what’s done from the municipal level, from city hall, from the institutional space is replicated in the streets, in social movements, in the neighborhood. It’s this relationship between the institutional and the non-institutional that we must keep in mind as it is key to social and political progress.

Both dimensions (institutional and street) share the need to build this municipality, known as local power, and act in parallel, or, as some would say, dialectically. But local power building emphasizes one or another dimension according to the political-institutional context of each country. For example, in the Spanish institutional structure, the city council is a powerful instrument in terms of its faculties. They have many resources, have very important regulatory powers and, therefore, manage to make the city council an actor in the city. This represents a great difference with the Chilean model where the city council is an appendage of the central State. It has very few faculties. 

I run a municipality that is broken, which has what I consider the most important financial deficit of all the municipalities in Chile. The example I always use is that if the municipality were a company, you would be talking to a guy who comes to liquidate the institution. That quality is shared by all municipalities in Chile, which have very few faculties. Therefore, in the local power building dimension, the street, the territory – that is, the non-institutional dimension – is very important. Even more important than the institutional dimension because we have greater leeway there.

Then, for us, the city council is an instrument, a tool at the service of a socio-political actor. In some places, it will be an actor of transformation and change, and in other cases that instrument will be at the service of restoration projects. Therefore, the city council is, as an institutional space, a space of permanent dispute. There are no comfort zones; there is no guarantee that things will go as we predict. It is a permanent dispute against those who want to make you fall. But we must never forget that the city council is an instrument of an actor.

Jorge Sharp_0.jpg

Jorge Sharp (centre). Photo: Ministerio Secretaría General de Gobierno. CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved.

The construction of a participatory candidacy

However, to become an actor you must first win elections and do it with the participation of the people. How, then, do you build a participatory candidacy? 

There are three precautions. The first is to understand that building a participatory candidacy is not a marketing issue. Although marketing is important in building a candidacy, the issue is political. Second idea: it is not a matter of forming a discourse based on a bet, but rather of putting forward a discourse that engages the majority of citizens based on a project of change. Third precaution: a winning candidacy is not one that masters electoral techniques, but rather one that finds a way to represent concrete, real, material social actors living in cities with political traditions rooted in neoliberalism. That's the problem.

After these precautions, we believe there are four concepts needed to build a participatory candidacy. First is the idea of coalition. The idea of coalition allows us to talk about an electoral impact and confluence, and about an electoral initiative that we call an alliance. So, to build a participatory candidacy is, unarguably, to face the challenge of putting in place a political, social and civic alliance that supports the project of democratic change in the city. And that alliance is needed to win the mayoralty. But another thing is to govern. They are two completely different things. 

In our case, the confluence, or alliance, that we set up is articulated around emerging political movements of a new type, such as the one I belong to, the Autonomist Movement, along with local political movements that operate only within the city. Then there are the movements, organizations, and social leaders of all kinds, such as trade unions, cultural movements, feminists, environmentalists, independent citizens, and people who contribute, including critical intellectuals like university professors, or other knowledge sources produced in cities. Valparaíso is the second most important city in Chile and one of the main university centers; consequently, there is a well-rooted critical intellectuality that also contributes to the process. In this alliance, even sectors of local commerce are represented. Examples of these sectors include those linked to the tourism sector, or to the small commerce sector, which is crucial since 55% of employment in Valparaiso comes from small commerce, known as neighborhood shops.

We define what we want and who we are by the edges, by the periphery.

This coalition was named the Valparaiso Citizen Movement, and was basically built around four ideas. The key idea behind the articulation of this alliance was the breadth. The breath has to do with defining who we are and what we want. Instead of focusing around a hard, central, one-dimensional definition, we define what we want and who we are by the edges, by the periphery. Since we needed to have a majority, we built a broad diverse alliance. So, what was the anchor concept, the one that united us all? The recognition that the city needed an alternative to traditional parties, capable of overcoming them, and able of solving the precarious state of Valparaiso – its current situation of abandonment. 

Valparaiso is an unequal city. For example: 89% of young women in Valparaíso (between 18 and 29 years) do not study or work. Another fact: only 1 in 10 public school graduates is admitted into a public university. Valparaiso is also a city that burns, literally. We had a fire in 2014 that burned 15% of the city and left 10,000 people homeless. There was another big fire in 2017. And the central problem is housing. In the Greater Valparaíso area, which is a larger administrative unit than the commune of which I am mayor, there are 10,500 people in camp sites, that is, without a home.

A second important idea for the articulation of the alliance is vocation. The vocation, the calling of this candidacy, of the campaign was to summon those who “are not”. Citizens are far removed from politics, particularly from formal political processes, such as the municipality or town hall, since traditional parties do not represent the interests of the people. We then address both those who do not vote and those who vote for traditional options, as well as those who are more excluded, more exploited, more forgotten, that is, young people, older people (Valparaiso is one of the Cities with more seniors in Chile), to those in the peripheries that catch fire. That was the vocation. The fact that we have achieved it is a different matter, but our vocation has been to build a popular majority. 

Here, there was an interesting concept – that of radicality. I think we were deeply radical in what we did because we did two things: we left the comfort zones of the Chilean left. And secondly, we also went beyond the social sectors in which people live with some level of comfort. For example, we didn’t only reach out to the critical intellectual sector or the middle-class sector of Valparaiso; we tried to reach out to the people, the population in general. And that, I think, was extremely important, and has been maintained in our management of town hall. That is, we went after the general public of Valparaiso with a new and hopeful speech.

In our case, we had to face the problem of being new and unknown. Citizens didn’t know us.

And a third concept was that, if we wanted to build a different local government, the candidacy should also reflect it. This is what some call prefigurative politics. The difficulty was the participation bit, figuring out what kind of participation we wanted. This is the most important question. In the implementation of the participation, there was a substantive exercise of real incidence, not a pre-established candidacy. What is the most important? What is the most substantive definition? Who will be the candidate of the project? 

In order to define the project’s candidate, we performed what was called the citizen primaries. But these primaries were to be different from the exercise of traditional parties, which serves as a kind of symbolic ritual. Here, the primary was a political exercise inviting society to regain politics, to exercise the power that had been expropriated. With this definition, what we tried to do in Valparaiso in 2016 was to build a political practice that emerged against what was established. It was tremendous democratic radicality of a freshness that managed "to change the centrality of the political chessboard", as they say in Spain. That's what we tried to do. Here the State was not present, this process was self-managed, and the polls were in the student federations, in the unions, in parks, in business corners, in public squares, which operated under standards of transparency and democracy. About 5,200 people voted. We won the primaries, and we were the ones that came from emerging national political movements. With a national-local vision – not just local – and with the idea that what the cities need is to promote a democratic transformation.

And the fourth and last idea behind building a participatory candidacy is something that every candidate has to answer: what is the central problem of each campaign? In some places, it can be a money problem, in other places the problem is the lack of a collective infrastructure. And so, in the quest for a response, everything is focused on the level of leadership. That can be an advantage, but it is also a disadvantage because, if you lose that leader, everything collapses. In our case, we had to face the problem of being new and unknown. Citizens didn’t know us. Even though we had a primary, which gave us media coverage, citizens still didn’t know us. So, we had to resort to the disruptive, the new, the joyful, the fresh, the novel, to video production, for example. For a city as neglected as Valparaiso, our campaign was a beam of hope, of change. And so, we won.

Building a participatory candidacy is not easy, but here I leave these four concepts: breadth, vocation to reach all citizens, hold a primary in which everyone can come together to choose the candidate, and break the barrier of being unknown by doing something disruptive. With these four ideas we were able to innovate and bring fresh air and a politics to Valparaiso."

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