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Taking Back the City – Spain and its Changing Political Landscape

By Ada Colau , Susanne Rieger

First we take Barcelona… By Ada Colau

Just under a year ago, a group of activists, members of social movements, and progressive political forces in Barcelona, presented our plan to take back our city council for the people at the May 24 local elections. We’re Barcelona en Comú, and this Sunday we have a good chance of kicking out Mayor Xavier Trias and winning back our city for its people (and Ada Colau really did win the election, and she’s going to be the first female mayor of Barcelona – comment by the Green European Journal).

But from the start we’ve felt that our movement is about more than just Barcelona. Some of the problems we want to tackle are particular to our city, like scandalously high eviction rates and the pernicious effects of uncontrolled mass tourism. But many of our concerns, like rising inequalities, and an out-of-touch professional political class tainted by corruption, are shared by people in cities all over Europe and much of the rest of the world.

We’re told we live in a democracy, but many of the most important decisions affecting our lives have been taken out of our hands. We’re told to leave it to the experts, and that we don’t know what’s best for us.

The Spanish government denies the citizens of Catalonia our right to self-determination, the EU holds secret negotiations on TTIP, and international financial institutions play Russian roulette with our economies. But we can’t resign ourselves to this fate. The time has come to restore popular sovereignty and create a democracy worthy of the name. In Barcelona en Comú, we think that the best place to start this democratic revolution is from the bottom up, from our towns and cities.

It gives us great strength to know that we are not the only ones who feel this way. I visited Greece in January on the eve of their national elections, and was struck by the work that Syriza was already doing to improve people’s lives in cities like Ática. This week, Barcelona en Comú has received over one hundred international declarations support for our candidacy; intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek, activists and writers including Nawal El Saadawi and Zakes Mda, and political leaders like Natassa Theodorakopoulou of Syriza – all agree that a victory for Barcelona en Comú would have the potential to act as a model for similar movements in cities across the world.

But what does it mean for citizens to take back a city? The answer will vary from place to place, but one thing is clear: it isn’t enough just to win elections; we have to change the rules of the game. One of the first things we did in Barcelona en Comú was to crowdsource a code of political ethics for our candidates to make sure we meet the highest standards and to hold us accountable if we don’t. The code includes salary and term limits for elected officials, financial transparency requirements, and an end to the revolving door between public office and the boards of private companies. Only measures like this can prevent us from becoming the people we seek to replace.

Taking back a city also means putting decision-making in the hands of ordinary people. This doesn’t just mean letting citizens vote on proposals made from above, it also means giving them the power to launch new initiatives themselves. For us, a ‘Smart City’ is one that harnesses the collective intelligence of the people who live in it. We drew up our election manifesto in an open, participatory way. Over 5,000 people took part in its development, resulting in a programme focused on guaranteeing basic rights, making the city more liveable, and democratising public institutions.

It’s a living document: the start of a conversation with citizens that will continue over the next four years should we win the election.

Finally, taking back a city means taking it back by, and for, its women and girls. The feminisation of poverty and precarious labour in Barcelona must end, as must the exclusion of women from the spheres of political and economic power. I am immensely proud, not only that over half of the candidates on our electoral list are women, but that our programme is based on feminist principles that will put tackling gender inequalities at the centre of all our work.

We are proud of Barcelona’s history, both as a laboratory for rebellious citizen movements, and as a city open to the world. Now we want to make it the hub of an international network of fair and democratic cities. Taking back Barcelona is just the first step.

Ada Colau is the Mayor-Elect of Barcelona. Since June 2014 she has been the main spokesperson for Barcelona en Comú. This article was first published by openDemocracy.

Change and challenge… some comments by Susanne Rieger

The 24th of May was an important day for Spanish politics. Not only in Barcelona.

The whole of Spain has had local elections, and in some places also regional elections. And for the first time something has really fundamentally changed in the political panorama: the dominance of the two big parties, the PP (Partido Popular) and PSOE (socialist party) has been broken.

Following the elections, we witness that in bigger and smaller cities sometimes up to 8 political parties are represented. Thus, Spain will have to learn to find new coalitions.

Thanks to this election, there is another important change: the participation rate went up and new political groups that are now represented in local governments can try another kind of representative politics.

This is also the case for Barcelona. Here the coalition Barcelona en Comú is the most successful list and with its 11 elected councilors will have the right to form a government. Ada Colau, a social activist, was the candidate for this group, of which also Iniciativa per Catalunya is part of, and of which six women and five men have been elected to run the metropolitan city. They have a mandate to find new ways for the tourism sector to function sustainably, to stop social exclusion in the city, to follow a green path and to promote a sustainable economic sector.

From the 13th of June, Ada Colau and her team will do this in a minority government, without including more parties, like the Esquerra (ERC, or Republican Left of Catalonia) or the PSC (Socialists’ Party of Catalonia) in their governing coalition.

Colau’s party didn’t manage to find a common position with Esquerra on the independence question, as Colau’s group is following the ICV (Initiative for Catalonia Greens) position that the people have the right to decide. Nevertheless they are not clearly supporting the path of independence.

They were unable to form a common stance on a lot of issues with the socialists, also due to the fact that they are part of the “old” system that is to blame for most of what went wrong in Spain. A coalition with this party would hardly work, as Barcelona en Comú wants to change a lot: Colau and her party want people to participate more and they want to achieve greater social justice.

Moreover, while governing, they will also encounter lots of challenges: many of their local councilors still have to learn the language of daily politics, with lots of debates in the coalition itself and with the high risks of pointing out too many problematic points at the same time.

What we’re facing in Barcelona, we’re also facing in Madrid, Valencia, Mallorca and many other parts of the country. Therefore, we are awaiting an interesting time of change, the formation of a new mindset and maybe real change in the way politics have been done in this country. Hopefully we can witness something new following years of corruption and nepotism.

So, let´s see where this journey takes us! For us Greens, it’s going to be a particularly interesting time as our own green parties, ICV and EQUO are also part of this process, and they themselves will have to find their place in this new leftist coalition that just got a chance from the voters to try and change politics. Now it’s their task to establish themselves in this coalition, and become a strong voice for green ideas and sustainable green politics.

Susanne Rieger, co-president of GEF, member of ICV and FNH (Fundacio Nous Horitzons, the Catalan Green foundation).

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