Thoughts on May 24th 2015 Barcelona Municipal Elections

Thoughts on May 24th 2015 Barcelona Municipal Elections

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Following the Municipal Elections last Sunday, I was invited to give my views on the results by Virgil Simons of English Radio on Radio Kanal Barcelona. He sent me the questions the night before and here are my notes on possible answers. If you’d like to listen to what I actually said in the interview, please scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Q: While there are many residents, like yourself, who have lived in Catalunya many years, most of us are relatively recent arrivals who are still trying to discover the basics of life here. Can you give us a brief summary of the major political parties and what their stated missions are?

A: OK, let’s start with Barcelona, where there is an incredibly complex situation comprising seven different parties. Please bear in mind that the situation in the capital is not necessarily applicable to the whole of Catalonia or the rest of Spain.

You have to be aware that the Ajuntament de Barcelona has 41 regidors or councillors so you need 21 in order to have a majority. The two main parties are a long way from this so either coalitions are going to have to be negotiated or there’s going to be a mayor governing with a minority, as CiU’s Xavier Trias has done for the last 4 years.

The winning party with 11 regidors or councillors was Barcelona en Comú or Barcelona in Common, which is a new formation led by the former Plataforma Afectats per la Hipoteca leader Ada Colau and is a left-wing alliance of the PAH activists under the name of Guanyem Barcelona, the Barcelona Podemos franchise and the former communists, who now go call themselves ecosocialists, Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds. It also has the broad-support of other left-wing post Indignats groups, such as Procés Constituent led by the nun Teresa Forcades and economist Arcadi Oliveres.

The outgoing mayor is Xavier Trias of the centre-right Catalanist coalition Convergencia i Unio, who despite winning 10 regidors is unlikely to be able to form a majority, given the tension between left-wing and pro-independence forces. I think this is a complication for the pro-independence cause, by the way.

In third position, with 5 regidors, come another relatively new party Ciutadans, who were founded in 2006, and this is the first time they’ve had representation on the Ajuntament so this is a great result for them. They describe themselves as ‘progressive’ but I think they’re pretty right-wing and many of their candidates are ex-Partido Popular. They are also quite vociferously against Catalan independence so, although mainly drawing support from ex-Partido Popular supporters, they’ve probably also mopped up many stray unionist former PSC-PSOE supporters.

In fourth position also with 5 regidors we’ve got Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the Republican Left of Catalonia, and their name perfectly describes their ideological position. They’re the centre-left pro-independence party and as they’ve been around since 1931, they are historically the party which has always campaigned in favour of independence.

And now to the victims …

With 4 regidors, PSC-PSOE are the Partit dels Socialistes Catalans, the Catalan Socialist party, who are theoretically separate from but affiliated to PSOE, the Spanish socialist party, and both of which are kind of centre-left social democrat, a bit like the British labour party. They ran the Ajuntament de Barcelona from the Transition until 2011 and the famous PSC Mayor Pasqual Maragall brought the Olympics to Barcelona in 1992.

Since my arrival in Barcelona in 1988, the Generalitat had traditionally been Convergència i Unió and the Ajuntament was always PSC so when they only won 11 regidors in 2011 and lost the Mayorship to Xavier Trias everyone was surprised. The fact that they’ve now only got 4 regidors is a total disaster.

The reason for this is partly the breakdown of the two-party system but also because of PSC’s inability to position themselves on Catalan independence. This has meant that quite a few former members have either joined Esquerra Republicana or formed their own breakaway pro-independence parties, including Ernest Maragall, Pasqual’s brother.

With 3 regidors, Partido Popular, the right-wing conservative party that rules Spain. They’ve never been massively popular in Catalonia but they had 9 regidors and were the third party last time. The drop is partly down to the corruption scandals but also because the younger more dynamic Ciutadans are perceived as a stronger bet on anti-independence.

And finally, also with 3 regidors, the CUP, the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, the Candidacy of Popular Unity, who are a far left pro-Catalan independence party, who’ve actually been in existence since the late 1990s but have only really come to the forefront of Catalan politics since the 15-M/Indignats in 2011 and the Catalan independence movement really took off in 2012.

Q: The news reports have positioned the results of the last election as a major setback for the PP and signaling a shift in government to the radical left. What is your take on it?

A: On a national level, the result is definitely a setback for the PP, but I’m not sure if it really means a serious shift to the left. Although Podemos and their various white label franchises have got a lot of media attention, these elections have also seen the appearance of Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos on a national level. Across Spain Partido Popular were still the most voted party with 26.6% of the vote and PSOE came second with with 25.29%.

We haven’t even seen the complete breakdown of the two-party system. What we’ve seen is the irruption of two new forces, who are a little like baby brother’s to the two main political parties, and with 6.49% of the vote, by making a right-wing coalition with the PP in the general elections in November, Ciudadanos could easily keep Mariano Rajoy in power.

As Podemos haven’t fought the elections under their own name, there are no accurate stats for how many votes they’ve won but if the parallel autonomic elections, which were held in 13 or 14 communities are anything to go by, they won around 12% of the vote.

What I think has happened is the combination of crisis and corruption scandals has meant the voters want something new but it hasn’t actually meant a massive shift to the left.

Furthermore, I have my doubts as to whether Podemos and friends are really very significantly left-wing at all. They seem like personality cults to me. Pablo Iglesias is Podemos and Ada Colau is Barcelona en Comú, to such an extent that her face appeared on the election slips. I can’t remember who but a Podemos underling said recently that it’s like being back in 1982 again, which suggests that they see Pablo Iglesias as a young Felipe González and perhaps all they are is a rejuvenated PSOE.

Admittedly, they seem to inspired by the Venezuelan Chaves/Maduro, which is incidentally also based around personality politics and a single leader, but this just smacks of young people adopting a revolutionary chic. The idea of applying Venezuelan lessons (ie. an internationally isolated Latin American country with a largely rural population) to a modern industrial democracy, which is also a member of the European Union seems completely ridiculous to me so in my opinion very little has changed.

If there has been a swing to the left, it’s the typical response to the crisis, corruption and the fact that the PP have been in power. Par for the course.

Q: What implications does the result have for the government of Barcelona? ie. the pacts that will have to be reached in order to bring about a left-wing Ajuntament and how this might affect the city’s socio-economic model?

A: Well, as Ada Colau is a figurehead with very few clear policies beyond taking politics back to the people, it’s very hard to say. I know from friends that when she was with the PAH, she was an honest, no bullshit and extremely committed and effective activist but there’s a massive difference between grassroots campaigning and governing a major European capital city.

A lot depends on her real moral strength and how intelligent she shows herself to be. At this stage in the game, we don’t really know yet.

Barcelona en Comú is already a coalition made up of her own Guanyem Barcelona, Podemos, Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds, who are all nominally unionist-ish, and the pro-independence Procés Constiuent, with the nun Teresa Forcades and the economist Arcadi Oliveres.

I suspect that some of her current partners are there because they hope to be able to manipulate her in the future.

Now when it comes to actually governing Barcelona things get even more interesting. There’s still a possibility that Xavier Trias could get support from Esquerra Republicana and CUP for a pro-indy coalition but that’s an extremely long shot.

Apparently, Colau has already had talks with Alfred Bosch of Esquerra and Jaume Collboní of PSC, which would give her 20 regidors – one short of a majority. So she’ll be making moves towards CUP as well in order to form a solid left-wing majority.

Now this coalition is going to have an internal tension between unionists and pro-independence parties. PSC with four regidors are clearly unionist and ERC and CUP with 8 regidors between them are clearly pro-independence. It’s going to be interesting to see how each side exerts it’s influence. I’m optimistic that the Ajuntament de Barcelona will end up supporting independence but given that the Ayuntamiento de Madrid could well be governed by another Podemos franchise Ahora Madrid, there could well be a lot of pressure for Barcelona and Madrid to join forces to start building a ‘New Spain’, or some such similar fluffy rhetoric.

When it comes to socio-economic policy, I think there’ll be fewer changes than many people hope or fear. Ada Colau made some rather disingenuous statements during the campaign about not renewing the World Mobile Congress contract and being against Russian drug dealers having yachts in the Marina but it sounded like electioneering to me. Obviously, there needs to be a fairer redistribution of wealth but any direct attacks on Barcelona’s economic model, which is inevitably tourist-oriented, will mean less wealth so will adversely affect employment and investment etc.

In her possible team, she’s likely to have members of Iniciativa, PSC and Esquerra who have all had relatively recent experience in government so I expect to see some quite media-oriented attacks on banks, opening of cycle lanes and public transport projects and redistribution of money on free school meals for poor kids and the creation of nursery places, but on most key issues, it’ll be business as usual.

Q: How might the results affect Catalonia as a whole and how does the result in Catalonia affect the independence process?

A: Well, Convergencia i Unió were the most voted party in Catalunya with 21.49%, PSC came second with 17.06% and Esquerra Republicana came third with 16.39%.

I’ve got two comments on this firstly, it doesn’t look as if PSC have disappeared completely, does it?

Well that’s because there are really three Catalonia’s. The city of Barcelona, which is a law unto itself and and is relatively evenly balanced as far as the left-right/unionist-independence issues are concerned.

Then we we have the Area Metropolitana, the rest of El Barcelonés plus El Vallès and El Baix Llobregat, which is traditionally Spanish-speaking, more unionist than independentist and has always voted PSC. This hasn’t really changed although in the September Autonomic election, we might see a significant swing towards Podemos, they’ll remain left-wing and unionist.

The third Catalunya is deep-heart rural Catalonia, which has traditionally been the stronghold of Convergencia i Unió. Rural Catalunya seems to have swung to the left, with more councils controlled buy ERC and CUP but the remain strongly pro-independence.

In fact, 67% of the regidors in Catalonia come from pro-independence parties so with Barcelona in the balance, but with CUP, ERC and Procés Constiuent all likely to have there say, things are looking quite good for September 27th.

Q: Does the result in Spain as a whole give any indications about a possible November general election?

A: As I said before, I think there’s a right-wing block made up of PP and Ciudadanos and a left-wing block made up of PSOE and Podemos and any future government will end up being formed by one of these coalitions. The final result could go either way.

Q: Looking again at the election results we can see that women candidates seemed to have made major gains in political leadership – Ada Colau, Esperanza Aguirre and Manuela Carmena. Prior to the dictatorship of Franco, women held important legislative power. Do you see this is a time of a resurgence for women in politics?

A: I don’t agree with you, actually. Obviously, Franco’s religiously-inspired dictatorship was male-dominated. Dictatorships and the Catholic Church tend to be that way but since the return of democracy in the late-1970s more and more women have been involved in politics.

You’ve got Maria Dolores de Cospedal, Soraya Saenz de Santa Maria, Ana Pastor and a few other women ministers in the current PP government and Ana Botella has been Mayoress of Madrid until now. Of the three you mention, the only real newcomer is Ada Colau and she’s been in the limelight for 5 years or so. Esperanxa Aguirre was a minister under the Aznar PP government in the 1990s and has been president of the Community of Madrid and Manuela Carmena is a former high-profile judge or lawyer, I think, who’s gone into politics after retiring.

Obviously, society is male oriented but women have been making progress for a few decades and will continue to do so.

Q: There have been suggestions made based on global surveys that women can be more effective leaders than men because they tend not to be influenced to the same degree by corruption. Comments?

A: I’m quite feminist on this, actually, I think. I think the differences between men and women on this are quite superficial. Men organise their corrupt deals in Gentlemen’s Clubs and football stadiums whereas women set them up in Restaurants and Hairdressing Salons .. sorry! The reasons why most of the corrupt politicians are men is because most of  politicians until recently have been men but this, as I said before is changing.

Q: While we see many people and parties gaining new prominence, the question that we hear in the streets is – Do they have enough experience and/or the right connections to govern? What are your thoughts on the major players?

A: I think I explained my thoughts on Ada Colau earlier and I imagine Manuela Carmena will be much the same. I think what’s good about having new faces is that they break those old, often corrupt, connections and start their terms of office with a clean sweep because they really are idealistic. The truth is that most of the government mechanisms are already in place and Ada Colau will try to make things more transparent by publishing government figures and reducing the expense accounts of regidors, which can only be good, but most day to day government will continue as before.

As I also said before, she’s going to have to pact with lots of people to be able to become mayor and so there’ll plenty of experience politicians amongst her ranks.

Q: We are in the midst of what seems to be a major economic recovery here in Spain. Do you feel that any particular group has the strategy and infrastructure in place to be able to advance the issues of: lowering unemployment, increasing opportunities for small business, growing international collaborations, and overall improving the quality of life for the people?

A: It’s also worth remembering that we’re talking about town and city government not about making massive macro-economic and political changes on a national level. I know Barcelona is an important city but it’s still more about managing resources just like on any town council.

I think we’re coming out of the economic crisis anyway but it’s important not to mess things up and to continue attracting foreign and national investment. Ada Colau wants to crack down on big business tax evasion and aviodance of responsibilities. She just needs to be careful not to upset them so much that they take their business elsewhere.

She also wants to help the self-employed and small businesses, who have a very tough time in Spain, and I think that will do a lot to stimulate the legal economy and stop people doind so much on the black market.

On a national level, one of the big problems the left has is that as Spain is a member of the EU and the Eurozone, the government has no control over the interest rate so it’s very difficult to manipulate the economy to boost employment. As a left-winger, I believe that public investment stimulates the economy but the EU won’t allow Spain to get into debt and imposes austerity measures, which is one of the reasons why the crisis has gone on so long here.

Q: You’re not just a historian, Simon, but a commentator on the political and social scene. What are some of the positive and negative things happening in Barcelona that have drawn your attention?

A: Well, I’m very pleased to see the almost complete disappearance of the neo-fascist racist party Plataforma per Catalunya in these elections.

I’m a little concerned by the levels of pollution here in Barcelona so I’m glad that Ada Colau plans to invest more in public transport.

And finally, I’m over the moon about my beloved FC Barcelona winning La Liga,. We’re going to win the Copa del Rey on Saturday and then take the Champions League on June 6th. I’m a massive fan and when Barça are up, it really does have a positive effect on my state of mind. I feel I’m on a cloud at the moment. It’s great!

It’s also fantastic for the city. Both the city and club have an excellent image internationally.

Q: We have talked extensively with you in past shows on the subject of Catalan Independence. Do you think the results of the recent elections here and the U.K. have any portent for the future elections?

A: Well, I’m quietly optimistic about independence following the municipal election results. It’s not going to be easy and breaking away from Spain is going to take at least an 18-month period of negotiation but I think we will get the democratic mandate to get the ball rolling.

Regarding the British elections, it’s pleasing to see the rise of the Scottish National Party and their position as the third force in British politics but the two cases are very different. Firstly, they’ve had their referendum and lost so it’s going to be a few years before they have another one.

Secondly, the independence movement is centred on a single-party, the left-wing SNP, whereas here it’s much more plural running from the centre-right CiU through the centre-left Esquerra to the far left CUP. This has the advantage of appealing to very different sections of society but as we’ve seen means it’s difficult to coordinate the independence movement as a single united force.

So that’s what I planned to say and this is what I actually said!


Here’s a link to the podast:-


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