Spanish local elections: Sí, se puede! Yes, you can!

by Dick Nichols, in Barcelona

Well before the polling stations closed we knew that something special was happening in the May 24 Spanish elections for local councils and for 13 of the country’s 17 regional governments. Working people, people on welfare, young people without a future were coming out to have their say.

They were doing it not by voting for the traditional majority party of the working class vote–the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), the Catalan affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE)–but for Barcelona Together.

Barcelona Together is a citizen’s election platform supported by the majority of the radical left in Catalonia–new force Podemos, the more traditional Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), the Spanish green party Equo and Constituent Process, a movement to develop a constitution for a “Catalan republic of the 99 per cent”.

Its figurehead and candidate for mayoress is Ada Colau, probably Spain’s most respected social activist in her former role as spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform, the movement against evictions and for housing justice.

Barcelona Together brought together the political and social left, and in the process revived and attracted the activism of thousands. Its program and activities were developed “from the bottom up”, indignado-style. It held hundreds of street meetings in the working-class neighbourhoods in the knowledge that its chances of winning depended on convincing people indifferent to “politics” that this time was different.

The result was that feared by the ruling elites, Catalan and Spanish.

Barcelona Together took the city by defeating the right-nationalist mayoralty of Convergence and Union (CiU), also governing in Catalonia as a whole.

Its win was accompanied by a rise in the overall left vote, as the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) increased its council representation and the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) entered the 41-seat council for the first time.

This left surge also shifted the balance within the bloc of Catalan pro-independence parties, the ERC, CUP and CiU. When joined by Barcelona Together forces supporting a Catalan right to decide have a decisive majority on Barcelona city council for the first time ever.

Barcelona Together was not alone on May 24. Similar citizen’s movements backed by left coalitions won the city councils of Madrid, where retired judge and former labour rights lawyer Manuela Carmena, candidate of Madrid Now!, will be the new mayoress.

A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Zaragoza in Aragon and Cadiz in Andalusia saw similar wins.

Those breakthroughs have stirred up politics in Spain like nothing since the birth of the indignados movement in May 2011. The right-wing media headlines read: “Indignados take Madrid” and “Colau okupies Barcelona City Council”. (In Spanish an okupa is an anti-eviction squatter).
In the celebrations on victory night a popular chant–along with “Si, se puede!” [Yes, we can!]–was “Yes, you do represent us!”, a positive reworking of the indignado chant first heard in May 2011: “They don’t represent us!”

The wins represent the high-tide mark of an election that has seen the ruling People’s Party (PP) vote fall to 27 per cent (from 37.54 per cent in 2011) and the opposition PSOE vote drop to 25 per cent (from 27.03 per cent). The all-of-Spain vote for Citizens, the right wing “anti-Podemos”, was only 6.55 per cent.

At the same time, in the 13 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities (states) where elections were also held, Podemos made its debut in national Spanish politics with a vote of between 8.83 per cent and 20.5 per cent, averaging 14.46 per cent. (In the local government elections, Podemos did not stand in its own name, but as part of broader coalitions.)

Nonetheless, a majority of the country’s provincial capitals and 11 of the 13 autonomous communities will continue to be run by either the PP or PSOE. This result comes from the unevenness of the leftward shift. It has been strong enough to wipe out all the PP’s previous absolute majorities, but not so powerful as to lift the radical left above the PSOE except in a minority of cases.

At the level of the Spanish state, the vote to the left of the PSOE was between 20 per cent and 25 per cent.

Podemos managed to overtake the PSOE in only one autonomous community, Navarra, although it also beat the PSOE in sub-regional elections in the Basque Country (Euskadi).

Podemos came closest to the PSOE in Aragon (20.5 per cent to 21.4 per cent for the PSOE), the Balearic Islands (14.7 per cent to 18.95 per cent) and the Madrid region (18.6 per cent to 25.5 per cent). In Asturias, the combined United Left (IU) and Podemos vote (30.9 per cent) was greater than the PSOE’s (26.4 per cent).

In the race for the 57-seat Madrid city council, Madrid Now!, in which Podemos merged with a series of splits from IU, won 31.8 per cent of the vote (20 seats). The Madrid Now! vote more than doubled that of the PSOE (15.2 per cent).

May 24 was a disaster for the PP. It lost Extremadura, the Valencian Community and the Balearic Islands. Depending on what alliance can be built to its left, it also stands to lose Castilla-la Mancha, Aragon and Cantabria. Its reactionary regional ally in Navarra, the UPN, could fall to an alliance of left and left-nationalist forces.

The PSOE leadership knows which way the wind is blowing and so it is talking left. “The PSOE will participate in the creation of left governments that will be the beginning of the end of the PP nightmare”, said leader Pedro Sánchez after the party leadership had studied the results of May 24.

Also, because the PSOE vote declined less than the PP’s it has been possible to present its result as a victory. However, it has serious problems in the regions where the leftward shift was greatest. On Barcelona city council, which it administered for 32 years, and where it was still the second party in 2011, it is now fifth.

While the result of Podemos was not the huge leap hoped for when it led in some Spanish opinion polls at the beginning of the year, it is still represents a big advance for the left as a whole.
However, the result does leave Podemos with an urgent debate about how it can best contribute to building a more powerful anti-austerity left. Should it continue to run its own name, or aim to extend the Barcelona Together example to other political contests?

This is also a question for IU, which, despite all its difficulties, held up at the municipal level. Alberto Garzon, the IU’s lead candidate in the forthcoming national elections commented: “Change will not be possible without popular unity. That is the obvious lesson.”

Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly and Links – International Journal of Socialist Renewal.