SPAIN goes to the polls today to elect 13 regional governments and more than 8,000 town councils, including all the major cities.
With as many as 40 per cent of the electorate claiming to be undecided, the vote is a preview of the general election due at the end of the year – but all eyes are on the Catalan capital Barcelona, which looks set to elect a radical new mayor.
Ada Colau is a straight-talking, left-wing activist whose slim lead in the polls could make her Barcelona’s first female mayor, and its most radical since the Civil War. She leads Barcelona en Comú, an umbrella group that includes the Greens, Podemos and the group led by the radical Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades. Polls show them running neck and neck with the incumbent Xavier Trias’ CiU party.
Colau, 41, rose to national prominence as leader of the anti-eviction movement that forced both the government and the banks to take a softer line on mortgage defaulters. The campaign prevented more than 1,000 evictions from being carried out and was awarded the European Citizen Award in 2013.
Colau’s message is simple: Barcelona should be run by the people, not the elite – the 400 families who pull all the strings in Catalonia. While Catalonia is largely rural and instinctively conservative, Barcelona is its rebel heart, the rosa de foc (fiery rose) as it’s known, and at her rallies Colau appeals directly to this tradition of popular revolt.
“What we propose is just common sense,” she said. “A just and democratic city, free of corruption, that guarantees basic rights and a fair economic model,” adding that “it’s a sign of the times that common sense is seen as revolutionary”.
She campaigns on the street and through social networks. Although her platform is radical – no more evictions, more public housing, an end to privatisations, redistribution of the city’s considerable wealth and to “democratise democracy” – she has the gift of making people feel she’s ordinary like them, that she’s family.
She also talks a lot about transparency and has declared her personal assets – a rented flat and ¤4,900 in the bank – and promises that, if she is elected, the highest salary for an elected official will be ¤26,600 (the current mayor is paid ¤140,000).
A curious aspect of the campaign is that independence, which has dominated the political landscape for the past three years, barely features. Suddenly politicians who haven’t mentioned social issues in years are talking about the need for better education, public housing and health. Even Trias, the mayor whose party is committed to independence, has been lukewarm, commenting that “not everyone wants independence”.
Colau herself openly opposes independence, claiming it has been used by the conservative parties that govern both Catalonia and Madrid to distract people from social issues and to further the parties’ own interests. “I support the right to decide, not just on sovereignty but on all issues and in all of Spain,” she said.
If independence has been sidelined it’s because Colau has set the agenda, appealing to people on issues that affect them now: the jam today of jobs and housing rather than the milk and honey of distant sovereignty.
Like Podemos, Barcelona en Comú is the electoral expression of the youth-led indignados movement, but the crowds at Colau’s rallies are largely middle-aged and older, a generation that had high hopes for Spain’s new democracy and who are disillusioned with what they see as a self-serving and corrupt political class.
They are enraptured by Colau. Her meetings are part rallies, part love-ins. Ending her campaign at a rally in Plaça Catalunya, she told the crowd of some 5,000 people: “The world is not going to end on 24 May, but something unheard of is going to happen: for the first time in a long time the common people can win back their city. We who have never won can win.”