Spain’s democratic spring: how the movements stood for mayor – and won

Oscar Reyes looks at how citizens' movements with roots in the indignados movement went from protest to power in town halls in Barcelona, Madrid and other major cities in Spain

July 1, 2015 · 28 min read

adacolauAda Colau, the new mayor of Barcelona, on a ‘stop evictions’ protest.

Imagine the Occupy movement stood for election in London and won – or that anti-gentrification activists took over the city hall in Manchester. That’s what has just happened in Spain, where citizens’ groups with roots in the indignados movement performed so well in recent municipal elections that they are now the leading groups in the government of a number of the country’s major cities.

The epicentre of this political earthquake is Barcelona, where the new mayor is Ada Colau, former spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, PAH). She stood as the candidate for a newly formed citizens’ platform called Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), whose immediate priorities for the city are to stop evictions and implement a plan to open up thousands of empty properties for social housing. In her first day on the job, she intervened to stop an eviction, while promising to look for ‘a more stable solution’. She has also appointed a new city police chief (whose predecessor resigned in response to the election) with a mandate to reform the ‘bad practices’ of the city police force, and promised to review the contracts of multinational service providers.

In the capital, Madrid, which has been governed by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) for 24 years, another citizens’ platform, Ahora Madrid, came a close second to PP grandee Esperanza Aguirre but will run the city government after reaching an agreement with the third-placed PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Spain’s Labour-type party). The new mayor is Manuela Carmena, a 71-year old former judge who cut her political teeth opposing the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s. Campaigning on a shoestring budget, she eschewed political rallies (‘one person going blah, blah, blah and then leaving’) in favour of neighbourhood meetings, as well as inspiring a huge a creative response on social media. Ahora Madrid’s immediate priorities include stopping home evictions and halting the privatisation of public services. It also promises to stop electricity and water companies from cutting off supplies to households that can no longer afford them. Similar pledges are shared by the radical mayors who now lead city administrations in Valencia (Spain’s third city), Zaragoza, A Coruña, Pamplona, Cádiz and Santiago de Compostela.

The election results confirm the decline of Spain’s two-party system, which had seen power alternate between the PP and the PSOE since the country’s transition to democracy in 1978. These two parties used to gather around 80 per cent of the vote – this time, the figure was closer to 50 per cent. The PP lost 2.5 million votes compared to the previous regional elections in 2011, and the PSOE a further 700,000, although they remained the largest two parties. At the same time, the election results confirmed the rise of Podemos, an anti-austerity party founded in 2014, which formed part (but far from the whole of) Barcelona en Comú, Ahora Madrid and similar coalitions. A right-wing populist party called Ciudadanos (Citizens, or C’s) emerged as a fourth contender on the national scene, having previously existed only as a minor regional player.

Regional left parties, some seeking independence from Spain, also performed very well, although most media have overlooked their success. These include Compromis, which now leads the government in Spain’s third largest city Valencia as well as joining the regional government there, and the CUP (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, Popular Unity Candidates), a far-left Catalan formation that won close to 400 council seats and is now the region’s fourth largest party.

Sources of discontent

It is not hard to find the sources of Spain’s current discontent. The booming economy of the first years of this century, fueled by a housing bubble that saw the spread of sub-prime mortgages, was marked by significant economic growth but stagnant wages. The problem was particularly acute amongst younger workers – dubbed mileuristas to describe their earnings of 1000 euros a month or less – whose entry to the labour market coincided with the spread of short-term contracts and depressed wages. At the same time, the conversion from pesetas to the euro sent the prices of everyday goods soaring.

With the onset of the economic crisis, the housing market collapsed. The construction industry ground to a halt, leaving over three million empty properties and many more half-finished, which precipitated the collapse of many of the banks that had financed Spain’s building boom. As unemployment spread and house prices fell, hundreds of thousands of people were left unable to pay their mortgages, resulting in close to half a million home evictions since 2007. People now earn less and are more insecure about their prospects, with average household income 13 per cent lower than it was in 2008.

After a short experiment with economic stimulus, pressure from financial markets, ratings agencies and several of Spain’s Eurozone partners saw successive centre-left (PSOE) and right (PP) governments unleash severe austerity programs. These included significant hikes in VAT, wage freezes for state employees and pensions, and massive cuts to regional budgets that have resulted in the closure and overloading of hospitals, schools and child services. An additional three million people were driven into poverty as a result, while many long-term unemployed people and immigrants were excluded from health services altogether.

In Spain, as elsewhere, austerity crushed economic productivity to such an extent that public debt – a product of bank bailouts – rose still further. At the same time, the labour market fell off a cliff, with unemployment peaking at close to 27 per cent in 2013. Almost a quarter of Spaniards remain unemployed today, while over half of the under-25s who remain in the country are without work (many have emigrated). Minor improvements in the last year have sparked government talk of a recovery, but labour reforms have served to further increase the proportion of jobs that are casualised, poorly paid, and temporary. A staggering 92 per cent of the jobs created in the first quarter of 2015 had only temporary contracts.

Inequality in Spain – already amongst the worst in Europe – rose faster than anywhere else on the continent. The problem is most acute in Barcelona and Madrid, where average incomes in the richest neighbourhoods are several times higher than those of the poorest – a gap that has grown by 50 per cent since 2008. Perhaps predictably, this rich/poor split was reflected in how votes were cast. Barcelona en Comú received its highest share of the vote (40 per cent) in Vallbona – the city’s poorest neighbourhood, known locally as ‘eviction city’ – and its worst (5 per cent) in Les Tres Torres, the richest. A similar divide could be seen in Madrid, with Ahora Madrid sweeping the board in the poorer south of the city while the PP led the polls in the north.

The ruling elite

Spain’s economic crisis has been accompanied by a collapse of trust in politicians. ‘They don’t represent us!’ was one of the most oft-repeated slogans of the indignados movement, expressing the sense that different rules apply to a rich, politically connected elite and the rest of society. Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, famously dubbed this group la casta, while Ada Colau has repeatedly described them as ‘mafia-like’.

The laundry list of corruption scandals runs to several pages, headed by the PP but encompassing all of Spain’s major political parties, the royal family, and some trade union leaders. These typically involve the payment of massive bribes for the award of government contracts – as was the case in Madrid, where many key figures from the regional government formerly headed by Esperanza Aguirre now face corruption charges.

The most noteworthy cases include the revelation that the PP ran an illegal slush fund (funded by construction companies) that paid out to senior party members, allegedly including the current prime minister. Just this year Rodrigo Rato, a former PP economy minister and IMF chief who was appointed by the PSOE government to head Bankia (a conglomerate of seven bailed out banks), was indicted on corruption and money laundering charges.

Regional parties are far from immune, either. In Barcelona, the outgoing, centre-right CiU government was implicated in a construction scandal that saw millions in illegal commissions paid to politicians and their allies. The party was further discredited by the revelation in July 2014 that Jordi Pujol, one of its founding fathers who ran Catalonia for 23 years, had accumulated millions of euros that are now held in tax havens, often through public contracts that were awarded to companies linked to his family.

The toxic mix of cuts and corruption provided a fertile ground for new parties and coalitions promising radical change. But those conditions alone cannot explain why the response in Spain has been dominated by radically progressive, democratic initiatives rather than, as elsewhere in Europe, the rise of a xenophobic, populist right.

The indignados’ legacy

The indignados occupation of squares across Spain in May 2011 – the 15-M movement that was a precursor to the Occupy movement – is the most obvious reference point for the success of Barcelona en Comú and other citizens’ coalitions running in municipal elections.

The initiative for 15-M came from free culture (copyleft) movements, neighbourhood associations and a platform called ¡Democracia Real YA! (Real Democracy Now!). Many of the initial actors, including Ada Colau, had been politicised during the alter-globalisation and anti-war movements of the start of the century – although participation in the protests across Spain quickly outstripped this activist base.

15-M’s key contribution was to popularise a new way of seeing the social and economic situation. It crystallised widespread disaffection with the country’s political and economic elites, and highlighted – amongst other things – the curse of job insecurity, the housing crisis and young people’s emigration, which activists re-cast as a form of exile.

But the 15-M movement failed to make any impact on the electoral map or the programmes of the major parties, despite contemporary polling that showed a majority of people in favour of its core demands. With protesters still camped out on squares, the PP took control of almost all of Spain’s regional governments, as well as most city and local governments. In November 2011, the PP won an absolute majority in parliament.

The elements of the 15-M movement dispersed in the years that followed, but the wave of protest they unleashed didn’t entirely dissipate. These included actions to surround the Spanish parliament and that of Catalonia, and a successful feminist-led mobilisation against a controversial abortion law. Most notably, a series of mobilisations dubbed mareas (tides) were launched to resist cuts to health and public education, as well as to stop evictions. The last of these was led by the PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or Mortgage Victims Platform).

Faced with evictions on an industrial scale, and a housing law that generally requires mortgages to be repaid even after the property is relinquished, the PAH adopted militant tactics: physically blocking evictions, occupying bank branches, surrounding the homes and workplaces of politicians (escraches, a tactic borrowed from Latin American activists) and squatting empty housing developments. Since its inception, the PAH has successfully blocked over 1,000 evictions and negotiated debt cancellations for many households.

Through these tactics, as well as a legislative initiative and legal challenges that petitioned the Spanish parliament and EU courts to change the country’s mortgage and eviction laws, the PAH succeeded in transforming the housing debate into one concerning basic human needs. Along the way, the PAH’s spokesperson Ada Colau shot to fame for branding the head of the Spanish Bankers’ Association a ‘criminal’ during a parliamentary hearing, the video of which went viral.

‘I think what surprised people, and what generated a media phenomenon… was that someone was talking about reality inside parliament,’ said Ada Colau, reflecting on the incident in a recent interview for Democracy Now. ‘Sadly, this was something that hadn’t happened in a long time.’

That willingness to bring a radical voice into political institutions, in turn, led to thoughts of electoral politics – previously anathema amongst social movement activists.

The Podemos precedent

Podemos is the most visible manifestation of the indignados’ legacy in the electoral sphere in Spain, although it stems from quite different roots. Founded in January 2014 by a small group of professors and researchers at Madrid’s Complutense University, Podemos was inspired initially by the ‘pink tide’ of left governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Some of its founders were tangentially involved in the networks that called for the taking of Spain’s squares – notably a group called Juventud sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future) – but not instrumental to them.

The rise of Podemos has been little short of remarkable. It first stood in European parliament elections in May 2014 with little funding and only the loosest of organisational structures, but gained 1.25 million votes (8 per cent) and 5 seats. By the end of 2014, Podemos was leading in national opinion polls.

Other political parties quickly started trying to outflank their upstart rival. Most attempted to copy its style and methods, embracing social media and, in the case of PSOE, choosing a younger leader who dressed more informally. Ciudadanos, a regional Catalan party relaunched nationally as a ‘Podemos of the right’, took the imitation game still further, borrowing the language of rejecting corruption and renewing democracy, but blending that with a low tax, anti-immigrant agenda.

At the same time, the other political parties and their supporters in the media ferociously attacked Podemos, alleging tax or employment irregularities amongst its leading figures, and claiming that the party was founded with the clandestine financial support of the Venezuelan government (for whom one of its founders had conducted consultancy work).

These attacks – loudly announced and quietly disproven – caused some damage to Podemos, which was compounded by the emergence of strategic divisions within the new party. For the party’s founders, focussing attention on television debates is close to an article of faith. Television’s reach makes it ‘the central ideological apparatus in our societies,’ according to Pablo Iglesias, the space where political concepts enter into ordinary usage. Intervening on talk shows, he stresses, is a way ‘to define the political battlefield to our advantage’.

The high value that the founders of Podemos place on television talk shows reflects the fact that they originally convened around the production of an ultra-low-budget TV debate program, before Iglesias broke through to become a well-known figure on more mainstream talk shows. They capitalised on his image as ‘the pony-tailed professor’ by putting Iglesias’ face on the ballot in the European elections, securing votes for the guy from the TV despite the fact that many people had not even heard of Podemos at that point. The trick proved so successful that it was repeated by Barcelona en Comú, whose ballots featured the face of Ada Colau.

But the similarity should not be overstated. Colau’s celebrity was accidental and viral and, along with Manuela Carmena in Madrid, their slightly unpolished political style seemed to help them connect as ‘ordinary’ people. This was accompanied by a focus on hyper-local, neighbourhood organising – similar in form to the local and thematic ‘circles’ that the Podemos leadership had deliberately stepped away from.

In the elections on 24 May, radical municipal coalitions consistently out-performed regional election candidates standing under the Podemos brand. Notably, over half a million people voted for Ahora Madrid while only 285,000 voted for Podemos candidates in the same day’s elections for the Madrid regional government. The stark contrast has strengthened the hand of the party’s internal critics, who argue for a return to the spirit of the 15-M movement, with its politics of tweets and streets. ‘We have to be present on TV and in the social networks, but also have to tread the streets of towns and neighbourhoods forgotten by the current political-economic model,’ wrote 23 prominent party activists in an open letter distributed on 10 June.

There have also been calls from prominent social movement activists for an improved spirit of engagement from a Podemos leadership that sometimes appears to shun them. ‘If Podemos truly wants to be an instrument of popular will, of the spirit of the indignados, it should also celebrate the success of others,’ according to Simona Levi, a prominent free culture activist who was active in the 15-M movement. ‘Podemos alone cannot and should not represent Everything.’

Reclaiming the city

The polling success of Podemos was vital proof of the Spanish people’s collapsing faith in the traditional parties. Its strategic decision to stand aside from local elections, citing a lack of capacity to vet thousands of candidates, was also a key element in creating the political space for the formation of Barcelona en Comú and similar ‘popular unity’ coalitions. But Podemos was neither the founder nor main organising force within those groupings, which are far more closely rooted in the legacy of the 15-M movements.

The initial call to ‘win back Barcelona’ (Guanyem, as the citizens’ initiative was originally titled) came from a group of activists, intellectuals and cultural workers active in the city’s social movements, notably the PAH. In June 2014, they put out a written call stating their intention ‘to take back the institutions and put them to work for the majority’ – starting with ‘the municipal sphere, our city, our neighbourhoods’.

An initial 30,000 signatures were sought in support of this document, a target that was quickly reached. There followed a series of neighbourhood assemblies across Barcelona, sometimes inviting people to diagnose particular issues on local maps, as well as meetings of thematic groups on specific issues affecting the city, such as housing, health, education and culture. Over 1,600 proposals were gathered, which were then whittled down and prioritised using online discussion tools and, eventually, a vote to determine key priorities for the city and each neighbourhood.

At the same time, negotiations with existing political forces saw Guanyem forge an electoral pact to run on a common platform with the Catalan Greens-United Left party (ICV-EUIA, which had been a junior coalition partner in the city government until 2011), Podemos, Equo (an environmentalist party) and Procés Constituent (a grassroots movement led by a charismatic nun, Teresa Forcades, that calls for a ‘Catalan Republic of the 99%’). As a condition of this pact, the leadership of these initiatives proposed a common candidates’ list in online primaries, with Ada Colau unopposed as mayor, which easily beat off alternative candidacies.

Barcelona en Comú also crowdsourced proposals for a code of ethics (called ‘governing by obeying’), which commits candidates and representatives to full transparency in decision-making, as well as setting term limits for elected officials and a maximum net salary. As mayor, Colau will take home €2,200 per month (£1,500, including expenses), compared with the €8,800 paid to her predecessor Xavier Trias. In Madrid, Manuela Carmena promised to halve the €100,000 salary of her predecessor.

The new coalitions also ran their campaigns at a fraction of the budget of their mainstream rivals. Barcelona en Comú raised €90,000 in crowdfunding, the majority of its campaign budget. Ahora Madrid, following the practice of Podemos in regional elections, created a system of micro-credits supplied by individual voters (under Spanish law public funding is then allocated to parties according to the number of seats won). It raised close to €200,000 by this means, 10 times less than the €20 million the PP spent on its campaign in the city.

Engaging poor neighbourhoods

Despite being massively outspent by their rivals, Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid managed to set the agenda in their respective campaigns. In Barcelona, the incumbent CiU (centre-right nationalist) and their regional coalition partners ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a centre-left nationalist party) attempted to frame municipal elections as a proxy independence referendum, after the Spanish constitutional court outlawed the regional parliament’s attempt to stage a vote on statehood last November. Barcelona en Comú, by contrast, succeeded in focussing on social issues.

‘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,’ explained Ada Colau in an article for OpenDemocracy. ‘But many of our concerns, like rising inequalities and a professional political class tainted by corruption, are shared by people in cities all over Europe and much of the rest of the world.’

Barcelona en Comú campaigned on a platform of tackling the ‘social emergency’, spreading this message via local assemblies and rallies that were concentrated in the poorest parts of the city. These neighbourhoods once formed the electoral heartland of the PSC (Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, the Catalan affiliate of the main social-democrat opposition PSOE), which ruled Barcelona for 32 consecutive years until 2011.

Like its social democrat allies across Europe, PSC-PSOE embraced ‘centrist’ policies that abandoned its working class base, at the same time as that class was fragmenting as a result of deindustrialisation. From a peak of 45 per cent in 1999, the PSC-PSOE vote declined to 30 per cent in 2007, shedding further support to poll just 22 per cent in 2011 as the party became associated with unpopular austerity policies. It received just 9.5 per cent of the vote in 2015 – with Barcelona en Comú picking up most of the slack, in part through increasing turnout in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.

A similar pattern can be observed – if a little less dramatically – in Madrid, where Ahora Madrid led the popular vote in every one of the poorer districts to the south of the city, gaining 32 per cent of the popular vote. In the process, it made heavy gains from both the PSOE and Izquierda Unida (the United Left), which lost most of its voters to Ahora Madrid after its leadership defied the majority of party members and decided not to join the coalition.

Ahora Madrid also made gains directly from the PP, which ran a disastrous campaign that saw it lose a poll lead of 15 percentage points in a matter of weeks. PP candidate Esperanza Aguirre labelled Manuela Carmena an ETA (Basque terrorist) sympathiser in a televised debate before the vote, and ran for election on an electoral programme that consisted of just 10 short, non-specific bullet points. Ahora Madrid, by contrast, developed a detailed, 70-page electoral platform through a participatory process similar to that used by its counterpart in Barcelona.

Media, social and otherwise

The depth of engagement in the online platforms used by Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú in creating their electoral programs was reflected, too, in their presence on social media. A constant stream of creative memes were spread through Twitter and Facebook, or shared via Whatsapp (Spain’s favourite smartphone app), a number of them created by the Movements for the Graphic Liberation of Madrid (Movimiento de Liberación Gráfica Madrid) and Barcelona, which pooled the efforts of local artists and designers. The Barcelona en Comú campaign song, featuring an autotuned Ada Colau promising to ‘defend the common good’, received over a quarter of a million views on YouTube.

The social media reach of Spain’s citizens’ coalitions – helped by a series of heavily subscribed Twitter accounts and Facebook pages still active from the 15-M movement – went some way to compensating for the hostility of mainstream print media and television with close ties to the old parties of the centre-left and right.

Media coverage of the new citizens’ coalitions followed a familiar pattern: first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win. As such, a near blackout was observed until such time as Guanyem (by then re-named Barcelona en Comú) was already leading in opinion polls.

The attacks that followed saw the new coalitions routinely labelled as populist, soft on terrorists, disrespectful of the law, and lacking political experience. A typical trope was to identify the new coalitions with Podemos and Podemos with the government of Venezuela, before drawing the inference that they were seeking to recreate Venezuela in Spain. Another variant saw Barcelona en Comú cast as a trojan horse for the ICV, which has its roots in Spain’s communist party. Much was made, too, of Manuela Carmena’s communist past – dating from a time when it was the main opposition to a fascist dictatorship. In one particularly comic turn, the right-leaning Catalan daily La Vanguardia even made pointed reference to the fact that the works of Noam Chomsky, who had publicly supported Ada Colau, appeared on the bookshelves of Osama Bin Laden.

There is little evidence that these attacks did much damage, with the most egregious claims turned back into new memes to support Ahora Madrid and Barcelona En Comú. The new coalitions were helped, too, by the rapidly changing media landscape in Spain, which has seen the emergence of numerous online newspapers staffed by ex-editors and journalists laid-off or frustrated by the direction of the print dailies. The most successful of these (El Diario and El Confidencial) now reach millions of readers, to whom they offered extensive and generally more sympathetic coverage of the new municipal candidacies.

From winning elections to taking power

The euphoria of victory on 24 May quickly gave way to talk of coalition pacts, red lines and minority government. Gaining control of the Barcelona mayor’s office is an undisputed prize, but is accompanied by the unenviable task of having to govern issue by issue. Barcelona en Comú holds just 11 seats in the 41-member city council, ahead of CiU with 10. There are strong ideological alignments with the CUP, which holds a further 3 seats but refuses to enter a coalition – but that leaves Barcelona en Comú dependent upon the support of the centre-left ERC (5 seats) and PSC (4 seats) to pass legislative measures.

The electoral arithmetic in Madrid is somewhat easier: Ahora Madrid (20 seats) could see its candidate elected mayor with the support of the 9 PSOE members of the city council. As the reality of this likely coalition sunk in, the PP’s Esperanza Aguirre launched increasingly desperate appeals to the PSOE to align with her party, warning that Ahora Madrid would use the mayor’s office as ‘a springboard to destroy the western democratic system as we know it’. Quickly rebuffed, she then promoted the idea of a unity government involving all parties, including Ahora Madrid, as long as it dropped its (non-existent) plan to create ‘soviets’ in every neighbourhood. Spanish comedians and Twitter wits had a field day, while Carmena likened the remarks to the ‘tantrum of a spoiled child’.

In the end, the PSOE agreed to support Ahora Madrid’s candidacy in a 13 June vote to determine the city’s mayor. Similar electoral coalitions were stitched together across much of Spain, mostly resulting in minority governments that will govern issue by issue. That is likely to make governing a slow and difficult process.

One advantage of building an electoral coalition out of a social movement basis is that it lends itself to a more nuanced conception of power than just the forging of political pacts. In her first press conference after the election, Ada Colau affirmed that she would talk to all left and centre-left parties, but stressed that ‘The main pact that we seek now is with the FAVB [Federation of Neighbourhood Associations of Barcelona], la ANC [Catalan National Assembly], trade unions and other social agents.’

The clear message is that Barcelona en Comú will look to active social movements and associations as a means to win legitimacy for its proposals, which would then put pressure on other parties to allow it to pass legislation. That’s a marked shift from the usual model of horse trading between parties behind closed doors. The strategy already yielded its first, partial result when the nationalist ANC movement forced ERC to rethink its insistence that Barcelona en Comú sign up to a pro-independence document that it had co-authored with CiU.

An emergency plan

Barcelona en Comú has already announced an ’emergency plan’, setting expectations for its first months in office. The flagship measures include a review of contracts for subcontractors working for the municipality (whose terms of work are often highly precarious), handing out fines to banks that leave multiple properties empty, refusing to grant new hotel licenses, and subsidising energy and transport costs for the unemployed and those earning under the minimum wage. The new council will also employ fewer political appointees at lower salaries than their predecessors.

Passing these measures through a council that requires cross-party support won’t be easy, not least in the case of promises that require new spending commitments. The outgoing administration has also sought to limit Barcelona en Comú’s room for manoeuver by locking the city council into a series of long-term contracts with private service providers.

But Colau’s first interventions since the election have already symbolised a clear break with the pro-business, tourism-at-all-costs ‘global city’ model of previous administrations. She made international headlines by promising to withdraw a €4 million subsidy given to the race circuit that hosts the Spanish Grand Prix, suggesting that the money could instead restore school meal subsidies for poor families. Barcelona en Comú has also promised to review the lease of the Port Vell Marina, which has recently been converted to accommodate the luxury yachts of the world’s super-rich in the heart of the city. In Madrid, meanwhile, scenes of panic were reported at the Club de Campo Villa de Madrid, a high-society country club built on city-owned property, when Manuela Carmena promised to re-designate the area as a public park.

The prospect of radical new governments in Barcelona and Madrid has already had a discernible impact on the activities of international property speculators, too. The day after the election, a private investment firm that less than a year ago spent €90 million on the purchase of the site of a proposed Four Seasons hotel in Barcelona announced that it was abandoning its plans.

Then, on 30 May, a high-level conference of bankers, private equity and investment funds in Madrid was reported to have become an impromptu debrief for firms concerned about the future of their Spanish investments. The new mayors of Barcelona and Madrid have backed the PAH in pledging to fight off vulture funds that have bought up large portfolios of rented properties from the city council and bailed-out banks, hiking up rents and evicting tenants.

A political springboard

Taking control of Spain’s largest cities is just the start of a journey that leads to general elections in November. Along the way, Barcelona will go to the polls again in September, when regional elections are expected to be held in Catalonia. The current regional government, a nationalist coalition led by CiU, is well-placed to block attempts by Barcelona en Comú to expand public health and education facilities in poorer neighbourhoods, since it plays the lead role in providing these services.

Success in regional elections would also open the way to a bigger prize. A strong showing for the left in Catalonia, Spain’s second most populous region and a former stronghold of the social democrats, is vital if the left is to triumph nationally. Polling conducted this year has not been encouraging on that score, with anti-austerity parties (Podemos, ICV and CUP) performing poorly, and the incumbent nationalists expected to retain their majority, having declared the regional elections to be a de facto referendum on Catalan independence.

The success of Barcelona en Comú could change that picture, though. CiU and ERC were wounded by the failure of their attempt to frame the Barcelona poll as about independence. This has led sections of Unió (the conservative half of the CiU coalition) to break cover and question the call for independence. At the same time, the left parties (including CUP, which normally eschews coalitions) have shown an increased willingness to forge a popular unity list that could challenge to become the largest bloc in the regional parliament.

The prospect of a popular unity platform for Spain’s general elections is also now being openly discussed. The leadership of the United Left, wiped out when standing against popular unity coalitions but increasing its representation when incorporated within them, is virtually pleading for a pact. Equo, the country’s Green party, is similarly open to a common list.

These calls are increasingly find an echo within Podemos, too. Juan Carlos Monedero, a Podemos co-founder who resigned his leadership position but remains influential, has called upon the party to allow joint candidacies with other parties. Pablo Echenique, one of the party’s first MEPs and its regional leader in Aragón, and 22 prominent activists have also called on Podemos to embrace pluralism and open the party to electoral pacts in the general election.

Calls for unity are obviously far easier to make than to achieve, but the prize is significant: an increased likelihood of outperforming the PSOE in the general election. That would be enough to fundamentally reshape the politics of Spain, claims Pablo Iglesias. Even if the PP remained the largest single party, Podemos could negotiate from a position of strength with a PSOE that was forced into a choice of either ‘undertaking a 180-degree turn and rejecting austerity policies, so that we could reach an understanding with them… or commit political suicide by submitting to [the leadership] of the PP.’

It’s a tantalising prospect for the autumn, but for now Spain is reveling in its democratic spring.

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