Compare these two scenes, which took place in Barcelona’s central St James Square after the election of the city’s mayor — the first, four years ago and the second on June 15.
In 2015, successful candidate Ada Colau, former spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) and leader of the radical mass-meeting based movement Barcelona Together (BeC), took ten minutes to lead the city’s 41 newly elected councillors on their traditional 200-metre walk across the square from the town hall to the Catalan government building.
To shouts of “Si, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”), an enthusiastic crowd pressed in on all sides to greet her, in celebration of Barcelona Council being won by BeC’s radical, anti-establishment, participatory, ecological and feminist municipalism.
Fast-forward to June. This time the newly successful Colau crosses the square to a chorus of whistles, boos and occasional sexist abuse. The group with her is one councillor short. Missing is Joaquim Forn, leader in the council of Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the party of exiled ex-president Carles Puigdemont.
Forn is one of nine Catalan leaders being held in preventive detention while the Spanish Supreme Court ponders their fate on charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement.
Brought under police guard from Madrid’s Soto de Real jail to attend the investiture, Forn was not allowed to join the other councillors crossing the square.
Previously, Forn’s speech to the council as JxCat group leader had stirred deafening applause and cries of “freedom” from a jam-packed square in which Catalan independence supporters outnumbered their BeC counterparts.
The last link in the chain of events that produced this astonishing scene was a June 13–14 consultation of BeC members, where they were asked to choose between two options to form government.
Option one was "an agreement for government between BeC and the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) with Ada Colau as mayor". Option two was "an agreement for government between BeC and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) with [lead candidate] Ernest Maragall as mayor".
If they voted for Maragall, election winner by just 4800 votes, the ten ERC councillors plus the ten BeC councillors would still fall one seat short of the 21-seat majority needed. However, provided no alternative majority was formed, the ERC’s Maragall would still win the mayoralty because Spanish electoral law awards it to the ticket gaining the highest vote.
As for a BeC-PSC alliance, it would guarantee Ada Colau only 18 seats — the BeC’s ten and the PSC’s eight. So why was she even bothering to stand?
The answer was that Colau had been assured the support of three other councillors from an unlikely source — the group of Manuel Valls, the former French prime minister now back in his Catalan birthplace after achieving record unpopularity levels in France.
Lent electoral registration by the new right Citizens and bankrolled by the big end of Barcelona, Valls had said during the election campaign that “Colau and Maragall are two sides of the same coin" and promised he would “never do any deal with Ada Colau’s populism”.
Valls represents everything BeC opposes. Enemy of the Catalan right to self-determination and champion of Spain’s monarchist state, he had promised in his campaign to recruit 1500 extra municipal police to sweep irregular African street sellers out of Barcelona.
But, as he explained on the day after the election when offering "without conditions" the three votes needed for Colau to retain the mayoralty: “This is an historic moment: either a pro-independence mayor or someone who isn’t [...] the priority is to stop Barcelona from becoming a lever for the Catalan Republic.”
Valls’ offer set off a stormy debate. Was it conceivable to accept the votes of this mate of the investment funds — which are buying up swathes of Barcelona real estate and evicting the very people Ada Colau used to defend when she was PAH spokesperson?
Asked during the election campaign about the scenario of Valls supporting her as a lesser evil to a pro-independence mayor, Ada Colau had said: “I won’t entertain any sort of weird alliance with Mr Valls.”
Yet Valls’ offer was precisely timed and targeted because it was the only way Colau could continue in the job. It also appealed to the strong sentiment within BeC that the continuing growth of its project — seen to be a global beacon of progressive municipalism — depended on her remaining in charge.
Colau’s return would also make BeC one of the few survivors of the "councils of change" that won major cities in 2015. Nearly all had now fallen, due to the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), and the case of Madrid and Zaragoza, to the People’s Party (PP), Citizens and the ultra-right Vox alliance.
Opening game of vetos
In opening negotiations, the issue of the mayoralty did not arise. The BeC proposed a tripartite ERC-BeC-PSC administration. This would be, as Colau wrote in a May 31 open letter, "a broad agreement of the left forces of Barcelona so as to together build a shared project for the city, with each contributing its own trajectory and nuances and putting Barcelona at the centre of our priorities”.
Such a governing alliance could also be a way out of the conflict between pro-independence and Spanish-unionist forces: "We are making a commitment to overcoming the vetos among progressive forces and to finding political instead of judicial solutions.”
Yet Colau had vetos of her own: “In no case will I open negotiations for an agreement with Mr Valls or Mrs Artadi, given that they represent city models counterposed to what we have been advancing in the council over the past four years.”
In bracketing Valls with Elsa Artadi, leader of the JxCat group with Forn in prison, Colau was voicing the ruling BeC view that Spanish unionism and the Catalan independence movement represent equal and opposite blocs needing to be broken down for social progress to happen.
Colau was also making it clear that BeC would not accept an ERC-BeC-JxCat coalition.
PSC council leader Jaume Collboni’s position was to exclude the ERC and JxCat from any alliance. The PSC would, in the words of leader Miquel Iceta, “do whatever it takes to stop Barcelona having a pro-independence mayor”.
These mutual prohibitions could not last, and the ERC shifted stance first. On June 3, Maragall dropped the insistence on including JxCat and proposed a ERC-BeC administration in which Colau would be deputy-mayor and portfolios shared half and half.
However, Colau maintained the campaign for a three-party coalition of the left. In a June 4 YouTube message she said: “The majority of Barcelona citizens are clearly calling for an end to the politics of exclusions, vetos and lines in the sand, and that we begin a new stage of dialogue and non-confrontation […] The grounds for agreement over practical policies exist.”
This was, at best, disingenuous. Collboni had already refused ERC’s request for a meeting a day earlier, stating that his party had begun negotiations with BeC over a council administration that would “not be subordinated to the [independence] process”.
Barcelona citizens, according to a June 4 poll for the pro-independence El Nacional were 54% in favour of an ERC-BeC governing coalition as against 35% for a BeC-PSC alliance backed by Valls. Two-thirds of BeC voters (67%) supported an ERC-BeC pact and only 20% were in favour of an alliance with the PSC.
On June 5, Maragall announced a pause in negotiations, calling on BeC to address the ERC proposal seriously. BeC then countered with the announcement that Colau would be standing for mayor.
This move was also directed at forcing the PSC to drop its condition of a prior BeC-PSC agreement over council positions. Now Collboni would have to vote for Colau to avoid the ERC taking Barcelona.
A meeting of BeC activists on June 7 voted 457 to 27 in favour of Colau’s return as Mayor. It was now crystal clear that she was prepared to accept the votes of Valls to win re-election.
Announcing the BeC members poll on June 13, the outgoing mayor admitted as much: “For us the difference isn’t between the ERC and PSC. It’s about holding the mayoralty. That’s very important for setting priorities.”
The result of the BeC poll was 71.4% to 28.6% in favour of the Valls-supported deal with the PSC — making the scenes in St James Square on June 15 inevitable.
The BeC leadership is hoping that the ugly scene of Valls telling Colau “I made you mayor” will fade under the impact of new rounds of progressive policies.
But having burnt bridges with the ERC — closest to BeC in program — Colau will now be a permanent hostage to the PSC and Valls, both of whom have described her ideas for Barcelona “disastrous”. Hanging over her head will be the threat of a no-confidence motion if these “supporters” think she is being too radical.
Of course, she may adjust her behaviour to avoid that fate, but whose mayor would she be then?
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A member of Barcelona Together, he voted for it to administer the city in coalition with the ERC. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear on the website of Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]