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Barcelona’s local elections in the global spotlight

May 29, 2015

Less than a week ago, on 24 May 2015, local and regional elections were held across Spain. In Barcelona, Madrid and other major cities, new anti-establishment candidates either won or came very close to winning, signalling a major change in the country’s political landscape. These events are being followed with great interest around the world. Here is a quick round-up of some of the reports coming out of Barcelona. Screen-Shot-2015-05-26-at-1.36.52-PM

Image by Maria Castelló Solbés via Popular Resistance

Soon after midnight, the Diagonal news site already reported (in Spanish) that ‘the citizen candidatures have overturned the political panorama’, with the grassroots coalition Barcelona en Comú, led by the anti-eviction activist Ada Colau, ‘making history’ with its Barcelona victory. “A victory of David against Goliath”, as Colau put it. “We had a historic opportunity and took advantage of it. Like so often before, the common people have risen”.

Meanwhile, Xavi Herrero and Lali Sandiumenge reported (in Catalan) from the winner’s camp that ‘the 15M [indignados] citizen mobilisation will run the municipality’.

— Really? We’ve won?

— We’ve won the fucking elections!

For the green activist David Cid, this was “the left’s most important political victory since 1931”.

Communication and ‘the common people’

Writing on 27 May about ‘the common people’ behind Ada Colau (in English), Kate Shea Baird points out that ‘since the launch of Barcelona en Comú less than a year ago, Colau has taken pains to emphasize that she is just the most visible face of a movement that is horizontal in structure and collective in spirit’.Their electoral programme was drafted by over 5000 people, ‘with contributions made in open assemblies and online, and the strategic and political decisions of the platform are made by the ʻplenaryʼ assembly, held twice a month’.

The new platform also gave birth to SomComuns, a network of internet activists campaigning on social media, as well as a collective made up designers and artists called The Movement for The Graphic Liberation of Barcelona.

For the Dublin-based Municipal Revolution research group, writing on their website soon after the results were announced, the Spanish citizen platforms ‘were doing something that resonated with people. If [you are] doing something people don’t really care about, then whatever way you communicate it people still won’t really care about it’. Communication was, nevertheless, key to their success. This took on two main forms:

Firstly, the platforms used the lexicon and the ‘vibe’ of the 15M movement – this is all about people, the 99%, against corrupt and incompetent political elites who had facilitated public institutions being held hostage by private interests. It was about getting involved, participating, having your voice heard. It was positive, creative and confident – the emphasis wasn’t only on how much the people are suffering or how bad the other guys are, but on the fact that there’s more of us and we’re smarter and more intelligent than the elite. …[T]his message was communicated online and through various media (image, video, music), as well as through traditional media (TV). Secondly, beyond the campaigns run by the platforms themselves, there were spontaneous art and images produced by individuals and artist collectives, especially clear in the case of Manuela Carmena, who heads up Ahora Madrid (check out the Madrid for Manuela Tumblr).

Colau’s digital guerrilla

The El Periodico journalist Saul Gordillo perceives a powerful confluence between ‘the real Barcelona’ and ‘Twitter Barcelona’ as one of the keys to understanding Barcelona en Comú impressive results (in Spanish).

While the ‘spin doctors’ analysed the candidates’ clothes and appearance, or the appropriateness of this or that soundbite, [Ada Colau] played an understated role that was inversely proportional to the 2.0 buzz. The nationalist trolls merely confirmed that Colau was the queen of the Twitter trending topic. The squares and streets were converging in the networks.

Gordillo anticipates novelties in the digital realm should the winners continue to link politics with transparency. In this spirit of openness, he promises to monitor the new councillors’ digital activities lest they fall into the tired old patterns of their predecessors.

Writing on the eve of the elections (in Spanish), Lali Sandiumenge highlighted the ‘intensive, creative and collaborative use of technology’ as an integral part of Colau’s campaign. As a result, the then candidate ‘was taking social media by storm’ (arrasa en las redes). Quoting the data researcher Pablo Aragón, Sandiumenge refers to the platform’s ‘technopolitical’ approach as consisting of ‘harnessing the potential of the new technologies to connect and coordinate like-minded multitudes without the need to organise closed structures such as political parties’ (see also Monterde et al 2015).

SomComuns participants are free to experiment with language and media formats. As one political technologist put it, ‘If a message works, we promote it, regardless of who created it. In fact, some of our top virals were made by anonymous people’. An example of this ‘new electoral narrative’ is the video “El run run” (The buzz), featuring a joyful Ada Colau. This idea was put forth by the musician Ivan Lagarto, who had already been a YouTube sensation with his song “El Caloret” (The warmth), a remix dedicated to Valencia’s mayor, Rita Barberá. Not only did “El run run” strike a chord with the campaigners, it also found its way into the mainstream media.

A new municipal agenda in Spain

The activist and writer Jerome Roos believes the Barcelona election has put social movements ‘in control of the city’. Quoting the ROAR editor Carlos Delclós, he adds: “Barcelona has decided that for the next four years it will be governed not by a party, but by the legitimacy we built as a radical democratic movement.” For the first time, argues Roos, ‘a major political project revolving around the commons has claimed an electoral victory in Europe’. This author regards the commons as a ‘radical alternative’ to the obsolescent state vs. market dichotomy.

In a separate piece (in English), Delclós discusses the rise of a ‘new municipal agenda’ in Spain. This agenda echoes the ideas of the founding father of libertarian municipalism, Murray Bookchin, who ‘outlined four main coordinates: a revival of the citizens’ assembly, the need for confederation with other municipalities, grassroots politics as a school of genuine citizenship and the municipalisation of the economy.

Underlying all of these coordinates is “a recovery of a new participatory politics structured around free, self-empowered and active citizens”. To understand some of the challenges ahead for Colau and her fellow activist-politicians, Delclós recommends the documentary Municipal Recipes, in which some of the candidates ‘discuss the thought process that led them to make the jump into the electoral arena, how they hope to care for the city, how to make it liveable, the relationship between citizens, social movements and institutions, and the pitfalls of representative democracy, among other key issues’.

Update 1 June 2015 Seguir fluyendo – 24M: Una victoria del 15M. Carta abierta a lxs compañerxs de Podemos (in Spanish) [The flow must go on – 24M [local elections in Spain]: A 15M [indignados] victory. An open letter to our Podemos colleagues]

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