From social activism to political activism: citizen candidates to local elections in Spain
The Spanish citizenry has organised the so-called “convergence list of candidates” for the local elections in May 2015. These lists have integrated political parties, civil society and independent citizens aiming to regenerate the local policy from a political, social, economic and ecological point of view. What are the common points of such lists? How are they organised? What are the challenges they face in the next elections? Which impact will they have in the political system? These are some of the questions the authors aim to answer.
The great novelty of the May 2015 municipal elections in Spain have been the so-called “citizen convergence” candidacies stemming from the “Guanyem” initiative in Barcelona. This phenomenon has been replicated nationwide, involving citizens’ groups who have organised themselves to access municipal institutional power, mainly around the axis of “democratic regeneration”. The main characters are people (affiliated to political parties or not, local and social activists, non-aligned individuals who are not party militants nor belong to any organisation, with or without political ideology) who have initiated processes to set up political participation instruments, but without political parties in the background.
These movements emerging across the country arise from the political fatigue currently prevailing in Spain. Outrage turned to action through the 15-M movement. Since 2011, citizen empowerment has enabled many people to channel their social activism in citizen movements of all kinds (against evictions, for a new energy model, for a real democracy…), but also through new political parties committed to new ways of conducting politics (EQUO since 2011 and above all Podemos since the 2015 European elections where it channelled the cultural hegemony of the 15-M movement).
In recent years, more and more people have understood that action and transformation from below are essential for change. Similarly, the neglect and incompetence of the authorities in the face of a democratic, social and ecological emergency (paired with their collusion with the economic powers) have demonstrated that a political presence is equally indispensable. I.e. we need to have one foot in the street and the other in the institutions. The innovative aspect of these political participation movements is that they emerge as spaces of convergence between social and local activism and political activism.
In all of them we can identify a series of common aspects that form the backbone of all the citizens’ confluence initiatives and underpin the innovation of the processes. In particular:
- These socio-political movements, launched at local level, seek to regain the prominence of local politics and introduce deep changes. Local policies carried out in Spain have been characterised by million-euro investments in unsustainable projects with little or no social value, stressing economic interests above those of the population. The desire to recover politics for the people, addressing austerity policies and cutbacks, building sustainable municipalities and democratising local institutions are the common points that unite – to a greater or lesser extent – individuals from different backgrounds and different personal, social or political experiences. The goal: to “win” town halls and make a real impact on people’s lives.
- They embody the requirements for democratic regeneration that society is calling for. The distance between the political class and the citizenship, the hijacking of the general interest for the benefit of a few and the endless corruption scandals are all elements that the “new ways of conducting politics” want to banish. The demand for greater citizen participation and democratisation of decision-making processes and the inner workings of political parties has resulted in a horizontal organisation where decisions are made in an inclusive way and in which responsibilities are delegated according to strict processes of accountability. Electoral lists have been drawn up following open primaries and in accordance with the rules of parity where gender quotas have been prioritised. Individual candidates have signed codes of ethics that include aspects relating to citizen control, compliance with programs, regulation of income, recruitment of technical positions or participation in plenary sessions.
At this point we must stress the role played by EQUO in the construction of these movements, with a presence in practically all the convergence groups. From the outset, the support base of EQUO has opted for this participation model, precisely because it represents part of the green essence of participatory democracy and commitment to municipalism. On the one hand, we have contributed with practical experience in matters of internal democracy (primary organisation, accountability processes, etc.). On the other hand, and although in many cases it was not the initial concern of many convergence candidacies, nor the central point of convergence, we have incorporated ecological policies into local electoral agendas, through key issues for the greens such as sustainable urban development, energy efficiency and food self-sufficiency within municipalities, sustainable transport or the abolition of cruelty to animals.
It is difficult to make a precise calculation of the number of candidates who have stood for election, but they will amount to several hundred nationwide. Formal heterogeneity is the norm and there are aspects that vary greatly from one municipality to another: the legal form, the political parties involved, the mechanisms and methodologies for participation and organisation, the degree of support and participation of non-politicised citizens, media impact, etc. There are several reasons impeding the establishment of a standard model:
- The main social and sociological differences in the municipalities where the movements have emerged (from Madrid and Barcelona to small rural villages, passing through provincial capitals of all sizes)
- The diversity of profiles that have participated in their composition: parties, local associations, social movements, platforms of all kinds, collectives, non-affiliated individuals, etc.
- The characteristics of the political, associative and activist fabric of each place, which includes the pre-existing degree of collaboration and understanding between the different stakeholders, as well as the existence of strong political parties and a more or less organised and active civil society.
- The existence of prior socio-ecological conflicts rooted in the local territory.
- Political participation beyond political parties is very restricted in the Spanish political system, meaning that existing parties have played a prominent role in the confluence, contributing with experience and structure. In some cases this has led to different national/regional policy strategies becoming intertwined when establishing candidacies.
Different combinations and intensities of these factors have conditioned the processes and the result itself, with the consequent collapse of convergences that failed to integrate all the local transformation agents. However, and regardless of the individual results, the phenomenon has popularised and promoted a new way of understanding political alliances based on “common causes” and not “common houses”. Collaboration, networking and diversity are the elements of this new policy that has its own benchmarks. It is very relevant that the convergence candidacies for Barcelona and Madrid are headed by two women, Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena, without militancy in any party and with a long history of defending rights from their careers in activism and law respectively.
The electoral results of 24 May have mostly supported these municipalist convergence candidacies:
- In places where candidates worked in an open and collaborative manner from within (or with the help of) collective and social movements and where the candidacy included all the political parties in favour of convergence, the results have been spectacular, winning the most votes (Barcelona, A Coruña, Santiago de Compostela) or standing a clear chance of governing (Madrid, Zaragoza).
- In general, these lists obtained very good results, and in many provincial capitals will have more than one councillor, becoming crucial to ensure governance, or reshaping the municipal balance of power.
- Podemos, which did not run under that name in the municipal elections (supporting the convergence groups in the majority of cases), obtained good results under its own banner in the autonomous elections but was unable to fulfil the challenge of defeating the Socialist Party to become the main force of opposition against the PP. Moreover, the more powerful convergence candidacies won many more votes than Podemos. For example, “Ahora Madrid” received 519,210 votes while Podemos achieved 286,973 votes in the various districts of the capital. The hegemonic strategy based on the philosopher Laclau has clearly shown its first limitations.
- In this way, the convergence candidacies have highlighted that the instrumental efficiency, warlike rhetoric and hegemonic (and homogenising) strategies preached by Podemos as an “electoral war machine” are not the only alternatives to the current institutional power. The social and political alternative can flourish under the banner of cooperation, empathy, heterogeneity, and generosity. In fact, faced with the concept of “popular unity”, the European concepts of “unity in diversity” (used for example by Manuela Carmena in Madrid), overflow (allocating an important role to autonomy and collective intelligence) or the political cooperative, are gathering greater theoretical and practical force in the run-up to the general elections.
- Spanish bipartisanship is increasingly wounded but not yet dead. But, whatever happens, the new political cycle will be much more diverse and plural, which at the same time means it will be more difficult to form governments, thus leading to greater institutional instability.
- Finally, EQUO has obtained excellent results with more than 100 councillors, 16 of them in provincial capitals, and most of them from electoral lists with convergence or coalition movements or through electoral alliances.
Now it remains to be seen whether the political management of the convergence movements within the institutions will live up to the expectations of their ethical, transparency or accountability commitments. It will also be very important to examine how their relationship with the citizenry is expressed in terms of consultations and participatory democracy. Furthermore, it will be crucial to see how they put into practice their basic ecological policy proposals, beyond their formal inclusion in the electoral program.
At a more general level and throughout 2015 we will observe to what extreme this new way of conducting politics emerges from their organisation, discourse and conduct. It will be interesting to see if the level of interest and participation in local politics is maintained and if these movements have served to boost the organisation and empowerment of civil society in those places where citizens’ lists have prevailed. And of course, part of the interest will be to see, beyond local struggles, whether these candidatures will be able to weave a network between them and in addition to acting locally, to also think, act and change globally.
Translation: Carolina López
 See “Podemos: analysis of a mass political phenomenon” (Marcellesi, 2015): http://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/podemos-analysis-of-a-mass-political-phenomenon/
 Note of the Translator: the new political initiatives were using the verb “ganar” (to win, in Spanish) as their signature name
 Without a doubt, the libertarian municipalism and social ecology of Murray Bookchin have influenced this ecological approach.
 An approximate (and changing) guideline map of municipal candidates in Spain is shown here: https://www.diagonalperiodico.net/global/25880-mapa-estatal-del-asalto-municipalista.html
 See Marcellesi, F. (2015): “Podemos: analysis of a mass political phenomenon”, available at http://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/podemos-analysis-of-a-mass-political-phenomenon/
 More about the concept of overflow: http://www.eldiario.es/zonacritica/Perder-ganar_6_393420666.html
 More about the concept of political cooperative: http://florentmarcellesi.eu/2011/03/06/trucos-de-cocina-para-el-movimiento-verde-del-siglo-xxi-la-cooperativa-politica/
 The initiative Barcelona en comú (originally Guanyem) has launched a list of candidacies for the “Democratic Revolution” that it recognizes as sibling movements: https://barcelonaencomu.cat/ca/premsa/barcelona-en-comu-sagermana-amb-37-candidatures-ciutadanes-arreu-de-lestat-perque-el-poder