A commentator for the mainstream Barcelona daily La Vanguardia reported on May 9 on a conversation he overheard in a lift between two “executives of a certain age”.
They were talking about an opinion poll giving the radical, movement-based ticket Barcelona Together the lead in the March 24 election for Barcelona City Council.
Executive A: “Have you seen that [incumbent Barcelona mayor Xavier] Trias is losing?”
Executive B: “Yes, [lead candidate for Barcelona Together Ada] Colau is winning.”
Executive A: “Trias doesn’t listen. He says yes to everything and then goes his own way.”
Executive B: “Trias will win, but he’s had a shock-and-a-half today.”
Executive A: “And if Colau wins, Barcelona’s sunk.”
That is what moneyed Barcelona says when it thinks no one is listening.
A similar note of panic appeared in a May 12 speech that Trias gave in the well-off suburb of Sarria: “Come on people, concentrate! If we go on like this, we could get a surprise that nobody wants!”
For Trias, the only guarantee against “the surprise that nobody wants” was to stop dispersion of the conservative vote, and back his right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) that governs in Catalonia. The right vote is being split between the Popular Party that governs nationally, the new Spanish centralist outfit Citizens and the CiU.
Barcelona's vote coincides with elections in all municipalities in the Spanish state and with elections in 13 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities (states). A May 10 GESOP poll put CiU back in the lead over Barcelona Together, but only by 22.6% to 18.9%.
The Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), Catalan sister organisation of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) was on 14.6%, the PP on 12.6% and Citizens on 12.1%. The centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) was on 10.2%, and the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies on 5%.
However, Trias has no room for complacency, with 25.7% of the electorate yet to decide whether to vote. Colau consistently registers as the most popular candidate and Barcelona Together’s public meetings have been drawing the biggest, and most enthusiastic, crowds.
Barcelona Together arose from the same need as the radical national party Podemos. It aspires to give political voice to Barcelona’s many protest movements against austerity and poverty, neglect of working-class neighbourhoods, privatisation of council services and rising pollution.
It stands for a people-driven, democratically determined model of urbanisation against the present CiU scheme of mass tourism, real estate speculation and playgrounds for the rich.
Colau, its candidate for mayor, is the highly respected former spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH), one of the most powerful social movements in the Spanish state. Partly because of Colau’s authority, Barcelona Together has advanced left and progressive unity.
Its party affiliates are Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (which held five seats in the old council), the United and Alternative Left (EUiA, the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left), Podemos (which is not standing in its own name), Equo (the all-Spanish greens party), and Constituent Process.
There are a string of similar tickets running in other centres. Barcelona Together has “twinned” itself with 37 similar lists, the best known of which are Madrid Now!, Valencia Together, Zaragoza Together, Aranzadi Pamplona, the Atlantic Tide (in Galician capital A Coruna) and Seville Participates.
Colau said the twinning was on the basis of “those candidacies driven by the people, that have advanced on the basis of some type of citizen support, that have elected their candidates through primaries open to the citizens, who have a code of ethics and who endorse Barcelona Together’s manifesto and minimum positions”.
Opinion polls are showing possible victories on May 24 for tickets to the left of the PSOE in A Coruna, Valencia and the autonomous community of Navarra and its capital Pamplona, as well as in many smaller centres.
In many cities and towns where the PSOE seems set to regain control from a PP shattered by corruption scandals, it will face stronger forces to its left.
Some idea of the concern this prospect is producing in the PP can be gauged from a May 10 quote from Esteban Gonzalez Pons, leader of the PP fraction in the European Parliament.
Sent to alert the people of Navarra to the looming disaster, Gonzalez Pons said: “Everyone who doesn’t want an extreme left government knows that there are two options here: in these elections you have to choose between PP and popular front.
“The one meaning concord, progress and Europe and the other malice, revenge and the probability that Spain will end up looking like Greece — a political crisis that could lead to a new economic crisis.”
Before May 24, CiU, the ERC and the PSC are flat out in their campaigns to stop Barcelona Together.
For their part, the PP and Citizens, while not in the least soft on Barcelona Together, are more focused on their own scrap for the anti-Catalan independence vote.
Citizens, for instance, has launched a legal case to stop the Catalan national movement from using a major Barcelona road at its next Catalan national day rally on September 11.
The PP then trumped Citizens with a renewed attack on the use of Catalan as a teaching language in Catalan schools: a conservative court ruled that 25% of teaching has to be in Castilian (Spanish) in two high schools because one family in each school had so requested.
Then national PP minister for education and culture Jose Ignacio Wert told reporters “off the record” that he thought Catalonia’s treatment of Castilian as a “foreign language” was equivalent to the suppression of Catalan under the Franco dictatorship.
The CiU campaign is just crude blackmail. It insists Barcelona Together will drive away the private investment the city needs if jobs are to be created, poverty cut and social services funded.
Trias's campaign has consisted of announcing new grand projects for Barcelona, challenging rival candidates to support them and then implying that they are job-destroyers if they don’t.
The PSC campaign has focused on trying to expose Barcelona Together as a “dreamers’ party”, as opposed to the practical and experienced PSC, which ruled Barcelona for 32 years.
The PSC, which has lost its Catalanist wing to various splits in recent years, is also trying to stir the tensions within the ICV, which for many years was its partner in governing the Catalan capital.
Many ICV members feel the party had been too defensive about its record, and too silent when unjustly branded as being part of the political “caste”.
Nonetheless, PSC attempts to stir discontent within the ICV over being part of Barcelona Together — which the PSC portrays as an alliance between Colau and Podemos at the expense of the ICV — have had no effect.
For its part, the ERC is presenting May 24 mainly as an election over preparing Barcelona to be the capital of an independent Catalonia. It has struggled to find a believable pretext for preferring CiU to Barcelona Together.
The minority CiU Catalan government relies for its survival on a non-aggression pact with the ERC. The CiU and ERC are also, so far, the only parties to have signed up to the road map to Catalan independence worked out between the main Catalan nationalist groups.
The ERC’s mayoral candidate, Alfred Bosch, said: “What I want to know is who is determining Ada Colau’s policy on Catalonia’s national rights, [national coordinator of the all-Spanish United Left] Cayo Lara, Pablo Iglesias [the Podemos leader who has been evasive over Podemos's stance on Catalan independence] or [ICV joint co-ordinator] Joan Herrera?”
Bosch got his answer at Colau’s May 8 mass rally with Iglesias, when she turned to the Podemos leader and said before the crowd: “We demand our right to decide [on independence] and we want to exercise it now. We do not want to wait any longer.”
Next, at a May 13 rally with Catalan Process's Teresa Forcades, Colau endorsed the Constituent Process’s formula of “a Catalan Republic of the 99%”.
All this, however, was not enough for Bosch. The next day, the ERC candidate ruled out any alliance with Barcelona Together unless it specifically committed to voting for Catalan independence.
It is questionable whether such a stance will win the ERC support. Many working people in Barcelona support Catalonia's right to decide and even the formation of a Catalan state, but remain wary of taking the final step to independence before seeing how politics evolves in the rest of Spain.
As the campaign entered its final week, Barcelona Together was focusing a lot of effort in those working-class and popular suburbs where abstention has been highest in previous municipal polls. Will they find the support there to pull off a victory that would reverberate beyond Catalonia and even Spain?
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A longer version of this article will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]