In May 2017, Croatia held local elections for the city and municipal councils. The outcome could have been described as business-as-usual, had it not been for one noteworthy, refreshing exception. In Zagreb, a newly established Green-left political platform – ‘Zagreb is OURS!’ – surprised many by gaining four seats in the city assembly through a prompt and effective grassroots campaign.

Inspired by the recent successes of new municipal movements, such as ‘Barcelona en Comú’, a broad group of citizens (activists, cultural workers, trade unionists, social entrepreneurs etc) formed ‘Zagreb is OURS!’ (Zagreb je NAŠ!) in February 2017 in order to contest the local elections. After many years of advocating for the implementation of much needed progressive policies through various social movements, the decision was made to attempt to catalyse these reforms from within the political institutions. In less than three short months, a self-funded and volunteer-run grassroots campaign surpassed expectations, and together with their coalition partners won 7.6% of the vote, thereby gaining four seats in the city assembly. While this result on its own might not seem spectacular, the political climate, short time frame, the methods employed, as well as the ideas promoted by the platform, give cause for celebration. Moreover, the story of ‘Zagreb is OURS!’ provides another example of how ‘new municipalist’ movements might serve as roadmaps for dealing with the multitude of ecological, political, and economic problems that we are facing in Europe today.

The political climate – a toxic mix

To be able to fully grasp the significance of this electoral result, it is important to know that Zagreb has been in the hands of one mayor for most of the last 17 years. During this time, there have been only two distinct periods when Milan Bandić was not officially the mayor. The first occurred in 2002 following his drunk-driving and attempted bribery incident. As a result, he was technically demoted to deputy-mayor, while in practice retaining immense control over the city. The other instance took place in 2014, after his arrest on charges of corruption and abuse of office. Once again, his removal from the mayorship was merely symbolic and temporary. Far from these being the only controversies that he has been involved in, Bandić has throughout his tenure amassed an almost impressive number of scandals – ranging from petty name-calling of political opponents all the way through to impropriety and authoritarianism in dealing with city assets in order to secure personal financial gain and political power.

Even while proclaiming to be a social democrat and having an ostensibly communist background, Bandić has never shied away from flirting with right-wing populism in order to ensure his political advancement and survival – a strategy that has served him well in his myriad legal entanglements. Many of the policies he has advanced were simply designed to create a wide network of loyal supporters, mostly by using city coffers for personal favours and hiring followers into the city administration. Arguably, though, an even bigger reason for the lack of a truly reformist agenda has been the ideological disorientation of the Croatian Left following the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia. The abdication of core principles, in favour of neoliberal economic prescriptions of privatisation and reduction of regulations, has led to numerous damaging deals involving utility companies in Zagreb. It has also spawned a proclivity for granting contracts on an ad hoc basis to shady investors with projects of dubious social value, and has generally left the city lacking a clear strategy of development. Rather predictably, the consequences of such policies have led to widespread feelings of frustration, resentment, and disempowerment. These have only been exasperated by the failed EU-wide austerity programme, implemented to address the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, the simplistic narratives and scapegoating strategies of right-wing populism have gained further traction in Croatia in general, and Zagreb in particular. While reminiscent of the wider European resurgence of the far-right, this trend has an especially insidious character here, given the recent wars that were fought along national lines.

The beginnings of a movement

It was in this unlikely and stifling atmosphere that ‘Zagreb is OURS!’ sprouted. Most of the founders and participants of the platform were involved for many years in resisting the destructive projects and policies of the infamous mayor, designed to benefit the wealthy and well-connected, at the expense of the vast majority of city-dwellers. However, as important as these campaigns were in awareness-raising and capacity-building, they lacked a bigger impact because they weren’t designed to tackle the underlying systemic issues. The mounting problems and the failure of the regular political process in addressing them – as a result of the inability and unwillingness of the opposition to check abuses of power, an increasingly authoritarian-style rule of the mayor and his clique, and understandable voter apathy – lead to the conclusion that to effectively challenge the existing structures a new strategy was needed. A strategy that didn’t focus exclusively on pressuring political institutions from without, but which combined this tactic with the attempt to transform them from within. It is a strategy which is sometimes colloquially summed up by the expression “one foot in the institutions, the other on the streets”. The underlying motivation is simple: by gaining a foothold in the city administration there would be a higher chance of laying the necessary groundwork for catalysing systemic change. This groundwork consists of decentralising decision-making power, increasing oversight and control of the city budget, and ensuring citizen participation in planning and executing city-wide reforms.

Zagreb (is OURS!) rises

In February 2017, ‘Zagreb is OURS!’ was established after intense deliberations among a core group of activists. Encouraged by a rising tide of new municipal movements, the decision was made to contest the local elections in a way that challenged the glaring failures of party politics from the get-go. Namely, by building a citizen platform through which a broad base of support and engagement could be established, and which would allow for a crowd-sourced articulation of a clear alternative vision for the city.

One of the first steps in this process was the creation of a political programme in a highly participative manner. The basic principles were formulated following a discussion process involving more than a hundred activists and supporters in assemblies. Subsequently, initial proposals and priorities were decided upon in a decentralised way (through thematic workgroups), which involved the input of ‘expert’ and other concerned communities in the different programme areas; such as education, health, transport, and economic policies. Shortly thereafter, a website was created by a small team of volunteer programmers which allowed for wide-ranging participation of the public in commenting on, and redefining, proposals, as well as voting for priorities.

Common people create common-sense policies

The final outcome was a programme based on principles of equality, sustainability, and participation. It addressed the dismal record that Zagreb holds as the worst EU capital in terms of waste recycling by proposing innovative solutions in waste-management; for example door-to-door collection, building a new waste sorting and composting plant instead of an incinerator, and reducing waste generation through more incentivised pricing policies (e.g. pay-as-you-throw) as well as public education schemes. On top of this, and following the good examples of other European cities such as Ljubljana and Helsinki, the programme also stressed the need for public ownership and oversight as guarantors of the provision of high-quality and affordable waste-management services. In the area of transport, the citizens opted for extending the neglected public transport system, as well as improving the cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Similarly, common-sense guidelines were formed in all of the other policy areas. Underpinning these proposals is the demand for increased autonomy of the district and neighbourhood councils, as a first step in empowering the inhabitants to collectively make decisions concerning their immediate environments. Combined with tools like participative budgeting – which is another cornerstone of the programme – such policies could radically transform the way people view, and engage with, the political process.

Grassroots campaigning

The principles on which the programme was formulated also guided the electoral campaign. ‘Zagreb is OURS!’ had no major donors or political backers; the entire political campaign was self-funded with many small donations from sympathisers, and all of the campaign-related activities were carried out on a volunteer basis. As expected, the limited funding and the novelty of the platform led to low visibility in major media outlets. Nevertheless, the skilled use of alternative communication strategies – such as a particularly effective social media campaign, as well as direct on-the-street contact with voters – and the general enthusiasm surrounding the platform, translated into steadily growing support in opinion polls. This in turn led to appearances in a few significant televised debates. More importantly, the clarity of the programme and efficacy of communication also seem to have had an effect on the discourse surrounding the election. Even though the media coverage was once again predominantly focused on national politics rather than local issues, there was a noticeable trend of debate moderators insisting on topics such as waste-management and transport, which meant that all major opponents had to, in the very least, pay lip-service to proposals originating from ‘Zagreb is OURS!’.

Practice what you preach

The insistence on engagement and cooperation as cornerstones of a positive societal transformation was also reflected in some of the very first political decisions of the platform. Most notably, in the formation of a broad coalition with four relatively new Green and Left parties. The differences in their focus and approach notwithstanding, these parties are united by underlying principles of egalitarianism, sustainability, and opposition (of various intensities) to social hierarchy. However, whenever such political organisations arose in Croatia in the past they were quickly consumed by ideological infighting and bickering, and generally had failed to produce a significant and long-lasting impact on Zagreb’s political landscape. The story changed with ‘Zagreb is OURS!’. By directing efforts towards a positive campaign proposing clear solutions and genuine citizen-engagement, the ground was laid for cooperation to emerge with the other Green-left forces in the city. This ushered onto the scene a truly united progressive left alternative which was able to capture the imagination of a significant enough part of the electorate to be able to break through the electoral threshold (5%), thus obtaining a foothold in the city assembly.

Encouraging results

The four seats (out of 50) in the assembly, won by ‘Zagreb is OURS!’ and its coalition partners by gaining 7.6% of the vote, cannot be classified as an overwhelming triumph, but they nonetheless represent a significant victory. The result surpassed almost all predictions by political analysts and opinion polls, which had suggested that support fluctuated around 5% and a high probability that ultimately no seats would be secured. Add to this the short timespan in which the platform had to be created, the lack of major funding sources and political backers, as well as the hostile environment in which it had to operate, and the magnitude of such a result becomes more obvious.

Moreover, on lower administrative levels even bigger gains were made, with 21 seats secured in city districts (averaging 10% of the vote in contested districts) and 41 seats in local (neighbourhood) councils (averaging 16% of the vote in contested neighbourhoods). Since a major component of the electoral programme was returning decision-making power to the inhabitants, securing support on these lower levels, where the most direct contact with citizens can be established, was especially encouraging. What is more, many of the newly elected representatives are young people who have previously not been engaged in institutional politics, bringing much needed dynamism, energy, and optimism into the political structures.

Combined, these results are heartening and necessary for further galvanising much needed policy changes. The unexpected success of such an unorthodox political project, and the positive commentary it received following the elections from many media outlets, brought the spotlight onto issues crucial for Green-left movements, which otherwise tend to be drowned out by the cacophony of political grandstanding. It has also created the foundation upon which the continued development of the platform can be based, and has amplified the momentum of support for various interconnected local struggles– both of which have intensified in the months since the election.

Municipalism for the future

Additionally, the success of the campaign has placed Zagreb on the map as one of a growing number of cities with noteworthy movements that are turning to local politics as a means of countering the alarming effects of prevailing neoliberal and authoritarian policies of exclusion and displacement. Frequently grouped under the banner of ‘New Municipalism’, these movements focus on regaining control of local governance so that inhabitants can have the power to find and implement solutions to their collective problems. In so doing, they hope to wrestle some of the power back from increasingly unaccountable multinational corporations and bureaucratised (trans)national governments.

The most prominent (and successful) example in recent years of municipalism in action has already been mentioned. Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), a citizen platform which served as a direct inspiration for ‘Zagreb is OURS!’, has been governing the City of Barcelona since 2015 and implementing a range of progressive policies. Yet municipalist movements have lately multiplied to such an extent that in June 2017 a first of its kind International Municipalist Summit (Fearless Cities) was held in Barcelona – a gathering of over 700 participants from five continents and more than 40 countries, many of whom are mayors and municipal council members that are involved in democratising politics at the local level.

By addressing issues of local importance, which often get side-lined or ignored in the standard political process, such movements have the potential to spark renewed interest in people who have become jaded by the ineptitude of regular procedures at addressing common societal ailments. The successes of locally-grounded municipal movements seem to lie in their ability of making politics concrete and personal, where one can identify with the problems and solutions, and not only abstract principles. The values espoused become almost tangible, and alternatives achievable.

Likewise, the continuous engagement of the electorate in proposing and demanding farsighted and novel solutions to everyday problems has an empowering effect which emboldens people to take a more active part in their communities. This is invaluable for Green progressive movements, which are generally based on principles of cooperation, mutual aid, and bottom-up politics, and which thrive when people are actively involved in collective governance.

From Grenoble’s imposition of an advertising ban, Belgrade’s resistance to unbridled and corrupt waterfront development, to other cities where Green and progressives forces are present or in government, such examples and small victories serve as a reminder that emancipatory alternatives are still possible. With looming political, economic, and ecological crises on the European horizon, especially on its periphery, municipal movements offer a guideline on how to prepare for and face such immense challenges – together with a common vision, one small step at a time.

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