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Occupy the Institutions – The Spanish Experience

By Ludovic Lamant

Spain’s ‘Cities of Change’ emerged as citizen-led electoral platforms took over over many municipalities in 2015, from Barcelona to Cádiz. Despite being rooted in their local communities, a network that grown to support each other in creating a new vision of politics that puts the needs of ordinary citizens before those of the financial and political elites, and which aligns them with national forces such as Podemos.

In mid-August, the attacks in Catalonia, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, placed security issues back at the heart of the Spanish political agenda. Until then, summer in Spain had been dominated by a new debate around the damage caused by mass tourism. The controversial neologism ‘tourism-phobia’ was coined, to describe the total exasperation of local people in the face of rocketing rents, disappearing local shops, increasingly precarious work, and the strain on city water supplies. Barcelona saw the most dramatic action, with the July 27 attack on a tourist bus by young Catalan anti-capitalists and independence activists. Having slashed the tires of the public bus, they daubed ‘Tourism kills local communities’ on the side, describing the attack as ‘self-defence’ against mass tourism.

With a certain lack of haste, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, a former housing rights campaigner (who, when younger, rubbed shoulders with activists from the CUP, the radical left independence party linked to the bus attack), condemned the action on Twitter. Not surprisingly, she was immediately criticised by the right-wing opposition, Catalan business-owners, and much of the Madrid press, for not coming down harder. She was then accused not only of failing to take steps to prevent future similar incidents, but also of having played a role herself in developing the concept of ‘tourism-phobia’ that led to these stunts. However, in an interview at the beginning of July, she rejected the use of the term, explaining that there was clearly no question of ending tourism, but rather of developing a more sustainable tourism model, at the right scale for the city, which shared its benefits around the neighbourhoods, including the most deprived.

These debates around the impact of tourism have been going on a long time. In Barcelona they were already taking place at the time of the 1992 Olympic Games. But Ada Colau, and the electoral platform ‘Barcelona en Comú’ (‘Barcelona in Common’), created in 2014, are a step ahead; they were the first to have made this issue one of their priorities, in their May 2015 local election manifesto. This election campaign warned against the creation of a ‘second bubble’ in Spain: after the property bubble would come the tourism bubble, also threatening to burst. At the time, no-one took much notice. “When we took our seats on the council, people just thought we were crazy communists, because we wanted to regulate tourism … today there is a broad consensus on the issue”, Colau now says.

Since becoming mayor, Colau has adopted policies to tackle the excesses of mass tourism, such as the 2015 moratorium on opening new hotels in the centre, and fines for Airbnb when inspectors find they are competing with hotels and don’t have tourism permits – a technique since adopted by other cities, including Paris. But the scale of the problem means there is still a long way to go; municipal powers are limited in this area, and Barcelona en Comú’s political majority in the city council is fragile. But other cities in Spain have been inspired by the initiatives underway in Barcelona.

Cities of change

The battle against mass tourism is a revealing example of how what are known as ‘Cities of Change’ are using their positions of power, and their flexible approach, to frame local issues and national debates.

The experience Spain has gone through since May 2015 is unique in Europe. Since 2014 the media spotlight has focussed on the emergence of Podemos, the anti-austerity movement led by Pablo Iglesias, which has taken on the mantle of the ‘Indignados’ (the ‘Outraged’), which the Spanish know as the ’15-M’, having emerged on May 15 2011 on the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. But Podemos has not yet managed to make up a majority in elections. In contrast, citizen platforms, bringing together activists, simple ‘neighbours’, and former members of traditional parties who have agreed to put aside their partisan identity, often brought along by women, have opted for the local. They were convinced that the political legacy of 15-M (struggling against corruption in politics, critiquing austerity, and working for a more participative approach to politics) would more easily find its expression at a municipal level. The gamble paid off: five of the seventeen Spanish regional capitals, including the largest, Madrid and Barcelona, are now led by these citizen platforms. In total more than six million Spaniards have been experimenting with this alternative way of doing politics, with all its ups and downs, for three years now.

Madrid has Manuela Carmena running the city, a retired judge who was 71 on the day she was elected and is respected for her anti-Franco activism towards the end of the regime. The mayor of Saragossa, Aragon, is Pedro Santisteve, a former law professor known in particular for creating an association for prisoners. In A Coruña the mayor is a magistrate known for his involvement in student union activism and the solidarity movements that sprung up following the ‘Prestige’ tanker oil-spill off the coast of Galicia in 2002. In Cádiz, right in the south, the mayor is a history professor, also known for being one of the singers who sets the Andalusian city alight during its February festival. The reasons for their success in 2015 are varied, but it is important to stress one aspect in particular, which is highly instructive for the rest of the continent: all of them used their grounding in the local community to show their more ‘abstentionist’ neighbours, and those who were sick of the old politics (the ‘caste system’ Podemos spoke of in 2014), that they were ready to do things differently once in power. Through their commitment to social movements, they showed that it was still possible to beat the powers that be, whether financial (the bankers who shared responsibility for the financial crisis), or political (the corrupt conservatives and socialists).

Before becoming mayor of Barcelona, from 2009 onwards, Ada Colau helped create the PAH, an anti-eviction movement, bringing together housing rights activists, specialist property lawyers, and households threatened with eviction. During the harshest periods of crisis the PAH became a parallel public service. It managed to prevent thousands of evictions all over Spain, engaging in legal battles with the banks responsible for the evictions. This was made possible by initiating, well before the birth of 15-M, an effective way of working: district assemblies, which brought together a wide range of people: middle class people who had ‘lost out’, Latin-American and African migrants, both undocumented and with papers, who spoke together for the first time, as well as activists with a housing rights background, who were more used to political battles. During a weekly ‘great assembly’, sometimes organised in hangars lent by local authorities, people about to be evicted would stand up one by one to describe their situation. The neighbours present, most of whom had themselves been through the eviction process, listened and discussed, to arrive at a solution by directing them to the legal commission most appropriate for their case. During these frequently moving assemblies one could hear the suffering of people in crisis, and mutual help pathways were drawn up, all together, to enable them to survive. These empowerment processes have been reproduced everywhere in the poorest parts of Spanish society, leading to victims of toxic bank loans regaining a taste for politics. At the national level, the PAH has also led a campaign to have MPs in Madrid vote for a general moratorium on evictions, which, although failing to come to fruition, has had a lasting impact.

At its launch in summer 2014, ready for municipal elections the following year, the platform Barcelona en Comú, which included some members who had come from the Catalan PAH, took up this technique of assemblies to develop its municipal programme. It expanded these participatory meetings into the poorest districts of the Catalan capital, and Barcelona en Comú ended up winning the May 2015 election with 25% of the votes. The overall turnout in Barcelona was nearly 60%, seven points more than for the previous election in 2011. Interestingly, it was the residents of Barcelona’s poorest districts (Nou Barris, Sans-Montjuïc, etc) who turned out to vote more than usual. These are also the districts where Ada Colau’s PAH had been most active, trying to rebuild local solidarity networks. Colau “was able to politicise and build on this legacy of struggle, transforming a ‘social coalition into a political coalition’”, concludes the Italian academic Beppe Caccia.

In A Coruña the same processes were at work. This elegant town in Galicia (north-west Spain), hosts the head offices of most regional banks, and the textile giant Inditex (Zara). It is also where the ‘Atlantic Tide’ – the name of the local Indignados platform – was formed in 2015 to run the council, mobilising voters in the poorest parts of town and students. This was the result of the 15-M shock wave, but its momentum can be traced back well before this: to the mobilisation of young people against the 2003 Iraq War, and, above all, to the associations created following the 2002 Prestige oil spill off the Galician coast, which rallied under the banner ‘Nunca Mais’ (‘Never Again’, in Galician). There again, this social movement proved to local people that they could fight and win; not only did civil society organise to clean the contaminated coastline, but it also demanded judicial sanctions against the giant Total. It was in ‘Nunca Mais’ that the mayor of A Coruña, Martiño Noriega, made his political debut, as did most of his Galician colleagues in elected office, and it is largely because of this that local people saw him, along with his platform, as a different kind of candidate.

Linking the local

If Podemos and the Cities of Change are in theory political allies, the former targeting national government and the latter local, their campaign methods are very different. The founders of Podemos are first and foremost brilliant academics (Pablo Iglesias, Íñigo Errejón, etc), and former strategists from traditional parties (Juan Carlos Monedero), passionate about political theory. They were never in the forefront of social movements. In their eyes, 15-M above all opened up an amazing window of opportunity, to test a range of political hypotheses about the future of the Left in Spain and Europe. This had nothing to do with the core group who, following the ‘Indignation’, tried to win councils in 2015, and who have been more involved in the everyday work of social movements which, having operated behind the scenes for more than a decade, were suddenly made visible by 15-M.

Since taking power in summer 2015 the ‘Cities of Change’ have been struggling to maintain their local footholds. They are trying to ‘occupy the institutions’, as, before them, the Indignados occupied the public squares. They are promising to give the institutions back to the citizens, through a variety of means, some more original than others: referenda on planning decisions, participatory budgets, strengthening of citizen oversight of elected representatives, etc. But some are also seeking to avoid being confined to a kind of fetishising of the local, along the lines of ‘Small is Beautiful’, in which local government is the answer to all ills, from climate and energy crises to surges of the extreme right. This, without a doubt, is where the Spanish municipal experience is most stimulating: the way in which newly elected officials are involved at all levels of intervention (local, national, European, and/or international). In the guise of pragmatism – most still claim to be of ‘neither the right nor the left’ – they are shaking up the political agenda of their country, which has been governed by an authoritarian right wing since 2012.

The Municipal Network Against Illegitimate Debt provides a prime example of this. Many small towns now run by citizens’ platforms are undergoing serious budget difficulties, partly caused by the ‘Montoro Law’, named after the current Finance Minister, Cristóbal Montoro. This 2013 law limits the budgetary leeway of city councils. In the name of ‘discipline’, it notably forces local authorities to – before all else – pay back the interest on their debts. This to the extent that certain cities are feeling throttled by the Madrid government. The situation is all the more infuriating for councillors from the ‘Indignados’ movement, in that it is mostly right-wing (PP) and PSOE (socialist) councils who accumulated the debt over the decades.

In response, a network of some forty cities around the country was created, holding meetings and conferences throughout the year to conduct public debt audits. It wants to do away with the Montoro Law and is demanding the re-writing of Article 135 of the constitution, which, since a decision made in 2011 by Zapatero’s socialist government, has included the famous ‘Golden Rule’ of public accounts, imposing a certain balance on the accounts. From an extremely local start – the small-town budgets that were affected – the movement has grown into one of the most vocal groups denouncing government austerity and the failures of its economic policy.

The reasoning is more or less identical for migration issues: here again, it’s a matter of challenging national political choices from the ground up. A network of ‘refuge cities’ was started in summer 2015, even though local powers in this area are limited. Beyond the message of hospitality, there was a two-fold objective: to facilitate the sharing of experiences in welcoming refugees, and above all to put pressure on Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government to raise the EU’s refugee quota for Spain. In 2016 Barcelona city council tried in vain to twin their city with Athens, to welcome migrants stuck in the Greek capital, and get round the opposition of the EU Member States. In 2017, with the aid of local associations, Madrid’s municipal staff developed a roadmap denouncing the running of state-run detention centres for foreigners, and trying to build alternatives at the level of the capital. Each time, these initiatives make the headlines, and force Mariano Rajoy’s executive to – at the very least – respond to its critics.

Fearless cities

A final example of these multi-level initiatives, this time linking the local with the international, is the Barcelona launch of the ‘Fearless Cities’ network in Spring 2017. This arose from the conviction that “As long as states fail to respond to major international challenges, we, in the cities, must be an alternative”, as Ada Colau explained on the first evening of the summit, which welcomed representatives from more than fifty cities from every continent. In the face of the ‘fear’ which undermines states and fuels nationalist resurgences, from Brexit to Trump, cities would embody ‘hope’ and hospitality, thanks to the closeness of their relationship with local citizens. “Towns, cities and the commons must unite, like the nodes of a self-governing network. They must bring into being federations, alliances and leagues to break down the filters imposed by nation states, and open up channels of direct communication with EU institutions”, enthuses Francesco Brancaccio, one of the organisers of the network Diritto alla Città (Right to the City) in Rome, which is very involved in defending the Italian capital’s social centres, and follows the Spanish municipal experience very closely. For Colau, inspiring ideas such as ‘Fearless Cities’ are also about finding a new discourse that can mobilise people, and prepare the next steps, in particular the 2019 municipal election campaign.

The basic intention is not without its weaknesses. It is clearly easier to build progressive majorities, and make declarations about ‘citizen leadership’, in large urban centres, than in rural or suburban areas hit by de-industrialisation; this is one of the lessons of the 2016 Brexit vote. But it is worrying to note that today in Spain opposition to Mariano Rajoy is expressed less through the parliamentary achievements of Podemos MPs (in the Madrid Congress), than through the day-to-day work of the ‘Changemaker Councils’. The latter seek to make visible the alternatives, and to be part of debates, from migrants to austerity, over which they in theory have almost no legal powers, and where they are not expected to appear. In brief, they want to demonstrate a new kind of flexibility, and to rethink politics at every level.

Occupy the Institutions – The Spanish Experience