Spain: no country for old-men-politics?

While male politicians occupy newspapers headlines, television and radio debates in Spain, at local and regional levels women for change are challenging austerity head on. Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism seriesEspañol

María José Gámez Fuentes Laura Castillo Mateu
26 May 2016

Flickr/BarcelonaEnComu. Some rights reserved.

Spain’s political landscape has undergone remarkable changes in the last few years. The coming together of the groups that gave rise to the 15M anti-austerity movement, and that led to the recently created party of Podemos followed by the progressive loss of popularity and credibility of the governing party, crystallized in December into a new parliament, with the traditional hegemonic parties, Partido Popular (PP) and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), suffering severe losses.

The current state of affairs could have been foreseen after the local and regional elections in May, when the two-party system that had ruled Spain for almost 40 years was overturned by the electoral gains made by Podemos and Ciudadanos, a different self-styled centre-right political movement.

In Madrid Manuela Carmena, the Ahora Madrid coalition’s candidate backed up by Podemos, won the mayoral race and currently runs the city. In Barcelona the candidate for Barcelona en Comú, Ada Colau, was elected mayoress despite - or perhaps due - to her humble beginnings as an anti-eviction activist. Her victory was described in terms of a David against Goliath struggle, after seeking a deal with PSOE and nationalist parties ERC and the CUP. In the Valencian region, the candidate from the left-wing nationalist coalition Compromís, Mónica Oltra, gained the vice-presidency of the regional government, thanks to successful negotiations with PSOE and Podemos.

These coalitions were formed on the assumption that the citizenship had to be given an account of the terms in which these agreements were made, which opened the way to rethink relations of accountability between politics and media. Contrary to Mariano Rajoy, who used to be mocked for engaging with journalists only through a plasma display, and distancing themselves even from Pablo Iglesias, whose discourse has been perceived as high-brow and focused on macro-structural issues, the explanations coming from Manuela Carmena, Ada Colau and Mónica Oltra’s administrations were not only dealing with everyday problems but were framed in a down-to-earth language. Their political performance has been situated within an effort to alleviate families from their everyday suffering while at the same explaining their policies clearly. 

As frequently happens when it comes to women and politics, sexism has been present in comments made about their image, their decorum and their professional capacities. Journalists have questioned Ada Colau’s humble origins and a member of the Spanish Academy felt the need to criticise her policies by suggesting that she would be better off selling fish. Mónica Oltra’s political career in the opposition of the Valencian parliament has been maligned by the press and often centred on her choice of t-shirts. Manuela Carmena’s ethics have been questioned by the conservative press regarding supposedly luxury vacations and for not firing her spokesperson after she was prosecuted and financially sanctioned for having marched against religious sexism in a university chapel while being a student.

However, despite these stereotypical representations, Manuela Carmena, Ada Colau and Mónica Oltra have managed to work in their respective strongholds and focused on the anti-austerity measures influencing their constituencies. Their policies have been mainly articulated through two welfare issues: housing and the politics of care, both personal and environmental. The first measure taken by Manuela Carmena in Madrid was the creation of a local anti-eviction office in charge of mediating with the banks. To combat the high level of pollution in Madrid, she has implemented a ban on cars parking in the city centre. In Barcelona, the administration of Ada Colau has proposed an alternative tourism model, listening to the complaints from neighbourhood assemblies. However, her most talked about measure has to do with the regulation of the activity of female prostitutes in the streets. Mónica Oltra has focused in matters of transparency in political institutions and the investigation of the previous administration in the Valencian Country. Following her efforts while in opposition, the current government in Valencia has settled all pending benefits claims with families with dependent members.

These extraordinary politicians have even attempted to go beyond their own regional frameworks by coming forward in the Refugees Welcome global initiatives. Their three cities have joined the network of communities where residents could register to have refugees stay in their homes.

In this context, it comes as no surprise that the press and media have constructed an image of a female triad and labelled them Las Mujeres del Cambio (Women of Change). The media has focused on the maternal connotations that these women and their policies may embody and have been portrayed embracing, hugging or kissing. In a post-modernist twist, they have even been represented as superheroines.

However, and despite their achievements since coming into power, the efforts of Manuela Carmena, Ada Colau and Mónica Oltra have not been able to encourage or speed up the negotiations to form a national government. The male leaders of PSOE (Pedro Sánchez), Podemos (Pablo Iglesias) and Ciudadanos (Albert Rivera) have not been able to make concessions to form a coalitional government á la Borgen. The hopeful winds for change that the national poll results appeared to promise are to end up in new elections in June. Even Manuela Carmena, inadvertently projecting the maternal connotations assigned by some of the press, criticised the male candidates of PSOE and Podemos by saying that they were ‘acting like children’ when what they should be doing is making a national coalitional government possible.

Despite the political deadlock experienced in Spain, the appearance of these three female leaders in the Spanish institutional political arena, with their policy-making distanced from economist approaches on austerity, represents an approach that focuses on putting a new way of doing politics at the forefront of the administration. This is based on an ethics of relationality that delves into how to make life worth living and how to sustain it collectively. As if following the work of Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, they have introduced ‘ethics as a way of opening to new modes of political sociality’. This, at the same time, could be read in contemporary Spanish history as being the result of a long legacy of feminist and women’s struggles, whose recuperation has not been prioritised by institutional frameworks.

These three female politicians project an image of dialogue and accountability, unlike their counterparts -Pedro Sánchez, Pablo Iglesias and Albert Rivera, who, due in part to their egos and apparent unshakable principles, have been unable to reach common ground. The message coming from the work done by Manuela Carmena, Ada Colau and Mónica Oltra is that politics against austerity are possible. While male politicians occupy newspapers headlines and TV and radio debates, at local and regional levels things are happening and women for change are challenging austerity heads on.

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