It was clear early on that something special was happening in the May 24 local government and regional elections across the Spanish state.
In Spanish elections, the voter participation rate gets announced at 1pm and 6pm — while voting is still taking place. Well before the polling stations closed, the news was that participation was up about 5% in Catalonia and about 8% in the working-class districts of Barcelona.
A leftward-moving tide was forming. Working people on shrinking wages, people on miserable emergency welfare payments, young people without a future, impoverished small business people — all victims of six years of grinding economic crisis — had decided to have their say.
They were doing it not by supporting the party that traditionally wins most working class votes — the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), the Catalan affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Instead, they would do it by voting for the left-wing Barcelona Together ticket.
Barcelona Together is a citizen’s election platform supported by the majority of the radical left. It involves the Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) and its ally the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left, new anti-austerity party Podemos, the green party Equo and Constituent Process, a movement to develop the constitution for a “Catalan republic of the 99%”.
Its figurehead and victorious mayoral candidate is Ada Colau, probably Spain’s most respected social activist. She is popular for her former role as spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform, the movement against evictions and for housing justice.
Subtitled speech by Ada Colau
Barcelona Together united most of the city’s political and social left, and in the process revived and attracted the activism of thousands. Its program and activities were developed “from the bottom up”, through open local mass meetings.
It held hundreds of street meetings in Barcelona’s working-class neighbourhoods. It knew it could only win by convincing people usually indifferent to “politics” that this time was different.
It succeeded. Barcelona Together won 25.2% of the vote and 11 seats on the 41-seat Barcelona city council. It beat the right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU), the party of outgoing mayor Xavier Trias, which came second with 22.7% and 10 seats.
The remaining seats were distributed between Citizens, the new “squeaky-clean” party of Spanish centralism (11%, five seats), the centre-left nationalist Republic Left of Catalonia (ERC, 11%, five seats) and the PSC (9.6%, four seats).
The conservative People’s Party (PP), which rules in the Spanish state won 8.7% and three seats, while the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (PUC) also won three seats and 7.4%.
In the six of Barcelona’s 10 districts where it won, Barcelona Together scored 35-40% of the vote. It reached 48.43% in working-class Nou Barris.
The faces at its election night party showed why — joining in the celebration were not only traditional Catalan and Spanish-immigrant voters, but Latin American, North African and Sub-Saharan migrants, the working people and poor of Barcelona.
The left surge
This result was the high-tide mark in a leftward surge that engulfed the whole Spanish state.
In the Catalan capital, Spain’s most left-wing city, the total vote to the left of the PSC leaped from 17.93% in the 2011 council poll to 43.64% combined for Barcelona Together, ERC and CUP. The combined vote of the PSC and PP fell from 39.38% to 18.33%.
The leftward surge also affected the balance of forces within the bloc of parties championing Catalan independence. The right-nationalist CiU fell from 15 seats to 10 while the left-nationalist ERC rose from two to five.
There were also five councilors representing the alliance between ICV-EUiA, which ran on the Barcelona Together ticket. The ICV-EUiA supports Catalonia's right to decide and the formation of a Catalan state, but not necessarily Catalan independence.
When Barcelona Together’s 11 councillors are added to the Catalan nationalist bloc of 18 councillors, the forces supporting a Catalan right to decide have a decisive majority on Barcelona city council for the first time.
The left breakthrough did not stop there. Movements similar to Barcelona Together won the city councils of Madrid as well as A Coruna and Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Zaragoza in Aragon and Cadiz in Andalusia.
In the race for Madrid city council, the left platform Madrid Now! won 31.8% of the vote, more than doubling that of the PSOE (15.2%). The ticket included Podemos and several splits from the United Left. As a result, former labour rights lawyer Manuela Carmena will be the new mayor.
In Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, Zaragoza Together won 24.5%. It brought together Podemos and United Left, as well as many non-aligned activists. It will win control of this important industrial city if, as seems likely, it convinces the PSOE and the left-nationalist Aragonist Union to give support.
In Cadiz, the Podemos-inspired ticket For Cadiz, Yes We Can! won 27.9% of the vote. Combined with the PSOE (17.3%) and the United Left-inspired Winning Cadiz Together (8.4%), this is enough to end the 20-year rule of the PP.
In Galicia, the most stunning victory was that of Atlantic Tide in A Coruna, which won 31% of the vote to the PP’s 30.9%.
This overturns the traditional Galician pattern of a PP majority being opposed by a minority made up of the PSOE’s Galician affiliate, Party of Socialists of Galicia, and the Galician Nationalist Bloc.
Atlantic Tide was supported by United Left, Podemos, the left-nationalist ANOVA, the centre-left nationalist Commitment to Galicia, Equo, the Galician Ecosocialist Space and the Humanist Party. This created what was probably the broadest organised left backing for a citizens’ electoral platform in the Spanish state.
Another important win in Galicia was in Santiago de Compostela. ANOVA spokesperson Martino Noriega led the Open Compostela platform to a 34.58% vote, while the Party of Socialists of Galicia fell from 30.96% to 14. 65%.
Two-party system totters
These breakthroughs have stirred up politics in Spain like nothing since the birth of the mass indignado movement in May 2011, which exploded into the squares of cities across Spain in opposition to austerity and the “political caste”.
The right-wing media headlines read: “Indignados take Madrid” and “Colau ‘okupies’ Barcelona City Council”. (In Spanish an okupa is an anti-eviction squatter).
In the victory celebrations, a frequent chant — along with “Yes, we can!” — was “Yes, you do represent us!”. This is a positive reworking of the popular indignado chant: “They don’t represent us!”
Across Spain, the PP vote fell from 37.54% in the 2011 council election to 27%. The PSOE vote dropped to 25% from 27%. Since 2011, the PP has lost about 2.5 million votes, while the PSOE has lost 700,000. Most, but not all, of the departing PP vote went to Citizens, which scored 6.55%.
The Podemos vote, in the 13 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities (states) where elections were also held on May 24, was between 8.83% and 20.5%, averaging 14.46%. In the local government elections, Podemos did not stand in its own name, but as part of broader coalitions.
This result was not the huge leap hoped for when Podemos led in some Spanish opinion polls at the start of the year. But it still represents a big advance for the left as a whole, consolidating Podemos as Spain’s third party.
Podemos managed to overtake the PSOE in only one autonomous community, Navarra. However, it also beat the PSOE in the Basque Country, where it came in third behind the ruling right-nationalist Basque Nationalist Party and left-nationalist EH Bildu in the elections for the Basque Country's three districts.
Podemos came closest to the PSOE in Aragon (20.5% to the PSOE’s 21.4% ), the Balearic Islands (14.7% to 18.95%) and the Madrid region (18.6% to 25.5%). In Asturias, the combined United Left and Podemos vote (30.9%) was greater than the PSOE’s (26.4%).
Across the Spanish state, the overall vote to the left of the PSOE was between 20% to 25%. This figure is based on the 4.76% vote for United Left in the municipal elections, the 9.9% for various left and centre-left nationalist and regionalist parties and the green party Equo, and some part of the 15.36% won by “others”, which covers some of the citizens’ lists representing some degree of left unity and bottom-up organising.
The left advance was strongest in regions home to the most struggle against austerity: notably in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and in Madrid, where the struggle of health workers nearly completely stopped hospital privatisations.
The other regions of left advance and PP retreat were those where the stench of PP corruption was most intense — Madrid, Valencia and Galicia.
Nonetheless, a majority of the country’s provincial capitals and 11 of the 13 autonomous communities will continue to be run by either the PP or PSOE.
The possible exceptions are the Canary Islands and Navarra, where the local branch of Podemos holds the key to whether a four-party left and centre-left coalition can be built to replace the corrupt and reactionary regime of incumbent PP ally, the Union of the People of Navarra (UPN).
The result reflects the unevenness of the leftward swing, strongest in the big cities but weaker in the regions. It has been strong enough to wipe out all previous PP absolute majorities, but not so strong as to remove the PP as the party with most relative majorities in 37 of the country’s 50 provincial capitals. Nor has it lifted the radical left above the PSOE except in a minority of cases.
PP faces disaster, PSOE talks left
Nonetheless, the PP is now vulnerable to losing a string of regions and cities to left and centre-left coalitions, mostly with the PSOE as the leading partner. This is because its relative majorities mask the fact that a growing social majority opposes to it.
The result potentially spells the start of of the PP's downfall. This assessment is reflected by its losing regional “barons” who, rat-like, are already off to seek jobs in business.
The PP has already lost Extremadura, the Valencian Community and the Balearic Islands. Depending on what alliance can be built to its left, it stands to lose Castilla-la Mancha, Aragon and Cantabria. A similar fate hangs over it in about half of the provincial capitals where it retained a relative majority.
In the Madrid regional government, Castilla y Leon, Murcia and La Rioja, where the PP enjoyed absolute majorities before May 24, it will now depend on Citizens to keep power. But what price will Citizens extract for this support, given the new party is vulnerable to the jibe that it is just the PP with a new paint job?
As soon as it became clear that she was doomed after two decades of flamboyantly corrupt rule, the PP's Valencia mayor Rita Barbera issued a desperate plea to local PSOE leader Ximo Puig. Barbera appealed for a “grand alliance” against the “extremism” represented by Podemos and radical regionalist force Commitment.
Doomed Madrid mayor Esperanza Aguirre made a similar frantic call. She offered the mayoralty first to the PSOE, and then, on a personal basis, to Carmena, provided that Podemos people were kept out of running the council and no “soviets” were built in Madrid’s suburbs!
In Barcelona, the ultra-centralist PP even offered to support the hated Catalan nationalist Trias for mayor if he could cobble together a coalition to keep out Ada Colau.
However, PSOE knows that the tide of sentiment is flowing leftwards, and so is talking left. After May 24, PSOE secretary-general Pedro Sanchez said: “The PSOE will participate in the creation of left governments that will be the beginning of the end of the PP nightmare.”
After talking with Sanchez, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias announced on May 28 that his party would support PSOE administrations against the PP, but not take part in them.
Podemos and United Left
Finally, May 24 leaves the entire Spanish left with an urgent debate about how to generalise its best results for future elections. Should Podemos continue to run its own name, or look to extend the Barcelona Together example to other political contests?
Commenting on this question with regards to Catalonia, which will hold a September 27 vote on Catalan independence, local Podemos spokesperson Gemma Ubasart did not rule out participating in a “Catalonia Together”.
This is also a vital question for the United Left, which, despite all its difficulties, held up at the municipal level (losing only 24 of its 2249 councillors), even as it was nearly wiped out regionally, losing representation in four parliaments as well as 26 of its 35 regional MPs.
Alberto Garzon, the IU’s lead candidate for the November national elections summed up: “Change will not be possible without popular unity. That is the obvious lesson of May 24.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent. A more detailed version of this article can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]