“It’s the victory of David over Goliath,” said Ada Colau in front of an ecstatic crowd just before midnight on May 24. Colau, the former spokesperson of Spain’s anti-eviction movement (PAH) and the country’s most visible face of popular outrage against austerity, is likely to be the new mayor of Barcelona.
Spain’s local and regional elections have changed the country’s political landscape beyond recognition. Marking an end to thirty years of two-party dominance, they have shifted majorities everywhere to the left. The unprecedented rise of two new political forces—Podemos (“We can”) on the left, and Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) on the right—has siphoned traditional votes from the Socialist Party (PSOE) and, especially, the ruling Popular Party (PP). The PP, although it remained the largest party, lost some 2.5 million votes and, with them, the ability to govern in the majority of Spain’s autonomous regions as well as the cities of Madrid, Valladolid, and Valencia. The PSOE, for its part, has positively spun its otherwise unremarkable electoral showing by proclaiming itself the “top political force on the left.” Among the casualties of the seismic shift are a handful of longstanding smaller groups, including the United Left (Izquierda Unida).
To be sure, the new situation will take some getting used to. Spain now has four major national parties. Throughout the country, coalition governments will be the new norm. And looming over the difficult negotiations to build governing majorities are this fall’s national elections. Spain’s future hangs in the balance, and any misstep could prove costly.
The story of the election centers on the two progressive women who are poised to take charge of the country’s two largest cities. In Barcelona, Colau emerged triumphant as the head of the leftist coalition Barcelona en Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). In the national capital, it was Manuela Carmena, representing another leftist coalition, Ahora Madrid (“Now Madrid”), who will likely become the city’s new mayor. Both women come from humble, activist origins. Colau, a 41-year-old longtime social activist, in 2009 helped found the grassroots organization PAH to fight evictions—initially in her native city, and later across Spain. Carmena, the 71-year-old “miracle grandmother,” is a retired judge who during the Franco era was involved in the clandestine activism of labor lawyers and, more recently, has defended the rights of Spain’s prisoners and worked to secure social housing for those evicted in Madrid. Beyond their opposition to austerity, they share a belief in the public good and an understanding of democracy as a system that shouldn’t be left to the whims of so-called professionals. If these elections are any indication, local governments across the country are ripe for a progressive rethinking of the status quo, led by a change of the political guard. The new mottos are confluencia and transparencia: people and parties joining forces in order to end the corrupt, paternalistic politics of backroom deals, self-enrichment, and hacer la vista gorda (“turning a blind eye”).