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From common sense to power: municipal politics in Madrid

Ana Méndez de Andés describes how a new kind of electoral alliance is taking back power—one city at a time—in Spain

October 28, 2016
8 min read

This article is taken from the current issue of Red Pepper, produced in partnership with The World Transformed – get a subscription now.Manuela1_0This is the story of how a bunch of book-sellers and squatters managed to generate a process that put to an end to 25 years of uninterrupted conservative rule of one of the biggest municipal authorities in Europe. It will also put the electoral process of Ahora Madrid – the name of our social movement/electoral alliance – in the context of the production of common services and spaces by the state institutions and the social movements that nurture the commons.

On 13 June 2015, just 11 months after its formation and with one-tenth of the campaign budget of the ruling right-wing party, Ahora Madrid won the municipal election in Spain’s capital and formed its first local government. Born of an agreement between Ganemos Madrid (‘We will win Madrid’) and the local branch of Podemos, it brought together a vigorous and imaginative citizens’ campaign. A former judge, Manuela Carmena, became mayor and a heterogeneous mix of city councillors came from old and new parties, social movements and other organisations.

To understand what these new local platforms represent – and they have enjoyed success in other Spanish cities, not just Madrid – we must look well beyond the electoral process. It all began long before the first meeting in June 2014 that launched the proposal for a citizen-led platform to enter Madrid’s local elections the following year. And it involved a great variety of people, gathered around the idea of a ‘confluence’. For many of us it only made sense because there were similar candidacies in other cities, towns and villages nationwide. As well as Madrid and Barcelona, they occurred in important regional centres such as Zaragoza, A Coruña, Valencia and towns and villages of few thousands (or hundreds) of inhabitants across the country.


The cultural, social and political transformation that led to the recognition of the need for new ways of governing common affairs originated with the social cooperation and cultural and political imagination of the movements that mobilised over various issues during the past decade or so. These included the campaign against the political system’s lack of transparency and democracy, and the impunity of its decisions, during the Prestige oil spill in Galicia in 2002, the Spanish support for intervention in Iraq (opposed by the majority of the population), and the real estate and housing bubble and subsequent crash. The responses to these crises through movements organised around the slogans Nunca Mais, No a la Guerra and V de Vivienda (‘No More’, ‘No to War’ and ‘V for Housing’) created new modes of communication, cultural references and self-convening non-party political mobilisations.

They emerged through social networks that appealed to those affected by intersecting issues such as the environment and subsistence, peace and security, and basic human needs that were excluded by the existing political consensus created during the transition from dictatorship and dominated by the two-party monopoly. In spite of their apparent absence from institutional and electoral politics, these movements created new means of communication, organisation and mobilisation that in May 2011 took to the public squares.

Nothing would have been possible without the new ‘common sense’ formulated and shared from the squares. Through the effective mass communication of this common sense, 90 per cent of Spanish society agreed with the main claims of the 15M movement: ‘They call it democracy and it isn’t’, ‘It’s not a crisis but a scam’ and ‘We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers’.

The mobilisations were organised in ‘human tides’ against the privatisation of public health and education, austerity in the public sector, the commercialisation/enclosure of public urban space, and, most powefully, housing foreclosures and evictions. The movement resisting the exclusion of undocumented migrants, the ecologist movement, the feminist movement, and many more also filled up the streets with demonstrations, gathered signatures on petitions and initiated court cases.

Wide social base

Together they expanded the nature of the public realm. Appealing to a wide social base, beyond simply the demands of labour over working conditions, they aimed to reclaim a sense of the ‘public’ that resonated with the concept of ‘commons’ in terms of what the public realm should be: radically universal, democratic, sustainable and inalienable. This implied the need for institutions that should take care of everyone, individually and together, impossible to privatise, based on popular participation and sustained without being plundered.

Although these struggles obtained some significant victories (the withdrawal of the new abortion law and halting privatisations in Madrid, to name just two), there was a growing sense of their limits. First, the old presumption no longer held that if social movements could build enough pressure with strong arguments, gaining broad public support, then this would lead the government to change its policies.manuela2Second, in some cases the magnitude of the problem was such that even the most successful and exemplary mode of autonomous social organisation, such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, the Platform of Mortgage Victims) found it couldn’t reach the level of power it needed to halt evictions. The PAH has stopped more than 2,000 evictions and rehoused 2,500 people in reappropriated buildings since the crisis started. But there were at least 700,000 mortgage foreclosures altogether up to to 2015.

Common approach

In January 2015, therefore, influenced by the ‘spirit of the confluence’, the informal network of affinity groups and individuals belonging to old and new parties, social movements and civil organisations that formed Ganemos Madrid joined with Podemos in an electoral coalition that shared a political approach with different initiatives across Spain. They worked under under different, locally-decided names – Ganemos, Ahora, En Comú, Mareas, Aranzadi – to present lists of candidates in the 2015 local elections.

Their common approach can be summarised in five points:

1) A political programme drawn up through popular participation. In Madrid, hundreds of people from different organisations took part in working sessions that outlined the main objectives and agreed guidelines that were then discussed and prioritised by thousands more through an online platform and finally validated by 15,000 people.

2) An open electoral list decided through primaries. The Dowdall ranked voting system adopted (after much discussion) by Ahora Madrid produced an outright proportional list where all the different groups and sensibilities were represented.

3) A code of ethics limiting salaries of politicians and public officials, and restricting the number of times they can run for office, plus measures against corruption and misbehaviour.

4) Citizen funding of the electoral campaign through crowdfunding, so that they are independent of major donors or the banking system. The total budget of Ahora Madrid, as published, was €159,824.45 (£135,000).

5) Citizen validation prior to the presentation of the initiative. Before the formalisation of the proposal to Podemos, Ganemos Madrid gathered 30,000 signatures of support to a ‘citizen confluence’ electoral list.

In January 2015, polls predicted 8-10 seats out of the municipality’s 57 seats for the new party (before its name was known). In February it was 10-12 seats. As Ahora Madrid, the beginning of the electoral campaign showed the possibility of 15 seats and second place after the ruling right-wing party. Then, in the last week of the campaign, and in truly 15M mode, Manuela Carmena was adopted as the symbol of a change that pitched a new kind of politics against the old corrupted system. Graphic designers made posters and t-shirts; all kind of songs and videos were produced in support of her candidacy as mayor. Ahora Madrid won 500,000 votes and 20 seats, and one month later formed a minority government supported by the Socialist Party.

Titanic challenge

As diverse experiences have shown, in order to win the government doesn’t need to take formal power. The nation-state institutions effectively perpetuate their hierarchical and exclusionary foundations. Moreover, there are many legislative constraints on what can be done by municipalities. The effort required to balance public efficiency and political transformation is nothing less than titanic.

The challenges confronted by the Ahora Madrid administration, with a party/movement structure under construction, a highly heterogeneous composition of forces and a technocratic-juridical core, require a new kind of governance. It replaces the old inside-outside dichotomy with a new set of tensions that is often seen as chaotic. Nevertheless, the ending of a neoliberal municipal government has facilitated an impressive list of changes: the ending of many austerity measures, the halting and sometime reversal of privatisation, the introduction of social criteria in public contracts, a growing number of participatory processes, and more to come.

Photos: Ahora Madrid encouraged activists to produce ‘open source’ posters for the campaign – these are a few examples. The top poster shows Carmena as Catwoman

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