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Rebel cities: the citizen platforms in power

Kate Shea Baird reports on the successes, limitations and possibilities of citizen platforms after their first months in power in cities across Spain

December 17, 2015
7 min read

adacolauBarcelona’s new mayor, former housing rights activist Ada Colau, has compared the experience of winning the city election this spring to giving birth for the first time. As she explained at a public meeting in the Raval neighbourhood, shortly after taking office: ‘Everyone talks about the day of the birth, and there’s all this expectation placed on this big moment, but then, suddenly, you have a child and you realise it’s just the beginning. That’s when the real work starts.’

This metaphor for the victory of Barcelona en Comú and the other citizen platforms that have been catapulted into government in Spain’s major cities is particularly apt. The platforms had a gestation period of little over nine months between their launch in the summer of 2014 and election night on 24 May 2015. Almost overnight, many of their candidates went from demonstrating in the squares outside their city halls to (legally) occupying the offices within.

This outsider status and unfamiliarity with the machinations of institutional politics is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the citizen platforms in government. It gives them the freedom to disregard traditional assumptions, but it also implies a vertiginous learning curve for mayors and councillors who have never held elected office before. With their first 100 days in government behind them, the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for Spain’s ‘rebel cities’ are starting to become clear.

What is a citizen platform?

Most of Spain’s major cities, including Madrid and Barcelona, are currently governed by citizen platforms. These loose alliances of citizens and progressive political parties were devised and driven by activists from social movements, with political parties lending their support subsequently. The platforms are thus rather different from traditional party coalitions, and they are proving a fertile testing ground for new forms of citizen-led politics.

Though the names and composition of the platforms vary from city to city, they have a common philosophy and way of working. At their heart is a commitment to participatory decision-making; they use assemblies and digital participation tools to decide everything from their policy agenda to their organisational structure.

Beyond the specifics of the programmes in each city, the shared aspiration of this new municipal movement is nothing less than to break apart the post-Franco political structures by constructing new, radically democratic forms of governance from below.

The first 100 days

The citizen platforms have enjoyed a number of victories during their first months in office, preventing evictions, halting the privatisation of public services and increasing public investment in social programmes. They are also experimenting with new forms of participation in local decision-making. Madrid has launched an online platform where residents can share their ideas for the city, Coruña has created a ‘citizen’s’ seat’ in council meetings to allow ordinary people to speak there for the first time, and Barcelona has launched a participatory process to reassess the city’s tourism strategy.

Despite their early achievements, however, the citizen platforms are finding themselves constrained by the limits of municipal power. Over recent years, the Spanish government has imposed significant recentralisation measures and budget cuts on local governments, reducing their already limited ability to pursue alternatives to austerity. In addition, many of the goals of the movement, from protecting the human rights of migrants to building economic alternatives to financialised capitalism, are heavily determined by factors at European and global levels.

The new city governments have developed a number of strategies to challenge these limits. The first is to join forces, creating municipal alliances in pursuit of their shared priorities. Examples include the network of ‘refuge cities’ across Spain, and the new network of Catalan cities committed to promoting the social economy. Such networks allow the cities to share knowledge and resources horizontally, and to start to build alternative social and economic models from the bottom up.

The administrations have also sought to increase their influence by engaging in political debate in creative new ways. For example, the Barcelona council has passed a motion declaring the city a TTIP-free zone, while Madrid has declared its support for feminist demonstrations in the capital. These moves have led to accusations of ‘gesture politics’ by among others the deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, and to claims that the citizen platforms prefer the politics of protest to the nitty-gritty of governing.

As controversial as they may be, such declarations of intent are giving visibility to issues that would otherwise be sidelined. A poll conducted after the May elections revealed that Ada Colau and Madrid’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, were the most popular political leaders in Spain. In a context of limited local powers and resources, mayors and councillors are harnessing their political capital to change the terms of the national conversation.

The electoral leap: worth the gamble?

Winning elections is not the same as winning back the city. Indeed, the wisdom of making the move from the squares to the polls has been the subject of fraught debate within Spanish social movements since the eruption of the indignados occupations in 2011. One of the most mimetic indignado slogans, ‘No nos representan’ (they don’t represent us), was just as much a critique of representative politics itself as of the parties in power. The questions the indignados raised about the risks of standing for office, both for those who do so and for the social movements they seek to represent, are more relevant than ever.

The first danger is that activists voted into elected office will be tamed by the institutions they seek to change. The citizen platforms have sought to mitigate this by committing to strict ethical codes that impose salary and term limits on their representatives, and tie their hands from seeking financing from banks or corporations. The hope is that this will allow them to change the rules of the political game altogether, rather than just replace one group of politicians with another.

The second, even greater, concern is that the electoral turn will weaken the social movements the citizen platforms seek to defend. As well as losing some of their most politically experienced members to public office, social movements risk seeing their autonomy compromised by their ties with local institutions. According to public debt activist Iolanda Fresnillo, social movements ‘must find a balance between head-on opposition to the new governments and uncritical collaborationism. We’ve got to harness opportunities while pointing out contradictions, share proposals, make demands and insist on having our own space to express them.’

The municipal movement is, and must remain, a dynamic ecosystem that includes rebel city governments, citizen platforms and social movements. If it is to have any chance of achieving its paradigm-shifting agenda it must learn which of its goals can be facilitated by local institutions and which initiatives must be implemented outside them. It must harness the political clout of its most visible leaders while keeping decision-making in the hands of the invisible thousands. It must support progressive political projects at regional and state level without abandoning its local calling.

All this with no rulebook to follow. It will be up to the municipal movement in Spain to write the how-to guide to winning back the 21st-century city through its action, day by day, over the years to come.

Kate Shea Baird tweets @KateSB and writes on Catalan and Spanish politics. She is a member of the coordination team of Barcelona en Comú

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