“These elections can spearhead a profound change—a democratic revolution,” predicted Ada Colau in early May. Her words recalled the historic municipal vote in 1931 that sent the king packing and turned Spain into a republic overnight. Three weeks later, history repeated itself: Colau, the face of Spain’s anti-eviction movement and a tireless campaigner against austerity, won Barcelona’s elections and will become the city’s new mayor.
Something very similar occurred in Madrid. Manuela Carmena, a retired judge who is also known for her anti-eviction work—as well as for her underground activism as a labor lawyer during the Franco years—came in a close second in the capital’s municipal elections. On the verge of an agreement with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), she is the favorite to wrest the town from a quarter-century of conservative rule by the so-called Popular Party (PP). This time around, the municipal vote ousted not a king but “the Countess”: right-wing icon Esperanza Aguirre, who’s come to embody the arrogance of a quasi-aristocratic political class that has outstayed its welcome.
Led by Spain’s two largest cities, the local and regional elections on May 24 have changed the country’s political landscape beyond recognition. A left-wing tide has swept across municipalities from Valladolid to A Coruña and regions from Castilla-La Mancha to Valencia. The unprecedented rise of new parties—Podemos (“We Can”) on the left, Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) on the right—means that cities and regions will no longer bow to the absolute majority rule of either the PP or the PSOE, the two parties that have dominated Spanish politics for the last 30 years.
Instead, coalition governments will be the new norm. Now more than ever, parties will have to negotiate with one another to build governing majorities. This will take some getting used to in a political culture that has never been strong on dialogue and that tends to equate compromise with defeat. The looming national elections this fall will not make the negotiations any easier.
The reason for Spain’s leftward shift in these elections is clear: Neither of the two major parties has adequately responded to the Great Recession, which hit Spain harder than most other countries in Europe. The PSOE government, in power when the crisis first hit, buckled to European Union–imposed austerity measures and even changed the Constitution to prioritize debt payments over social spending. The PP, which won the 2011 elections with an absolute majority, then cranked austerity up a notch, combining relentless cutbacks with a massive privatization of public services. Poverty and unemployment rates soared, while evictions and emigration hit all-time highs—as did income inequality. The PP today points to macroeconomic figures to tout Spain’s steady “recovery”—driven by an uptick in low-paying temporary jobs—but most Spaniards have yet to notice any improvement in their lives.