Barcelona Chose The Left At The Polls. Now It’s Up To The Left To Choose Barcelona.
by Kate Shea Baird (@KateSB) on June 10, 2019



The results of the recent municipal elections in Barcelona would be deemed a triumph for the left in any normal context. Not only did 64% of voters opt for progressive candidates, but the top three parties were all on the left of the political spectrum: Barcelona En Comú and Republican Left tied with 10 seats and the Catalan Socialists won 8. The fact that the Spanish franchise of Europe’s far-right multinational, Vox, failed to make the smallest of inroads, garnering a measly 1.16% of the vote, should be cause for celebration.

But Barcelona isn’t just any city. It’s the capital of a nation, Catalonia, that has been subject to deep political turmoil over the past four years; a conflict between the Catalan government and the Spanish state that has left both physical scars and a collective emotional trauma in its wake.

According to the prevailing narrative of national polarization, the idea that left-wing parties divided on independence could translate their 28 seat left majority on the 41 seat council into a progressive government, is for the birds. Indeed, it was no surprise on election night when Republican Left candidate, Ernest Maragall, declared victory in the name of the independence movement. In parallel, the socialist leader, Jaume Collboni, reiterated his will to act as a bulwark against independence, based on the fact that only 40% of voters had supported pro-independence parties.

The assumption was that Ada Colau would have to choose between these two national blocks, between ‘the victims or the jailers’ in the words of Maragall, in reference to Catalan politicians facing trial for rebellion and sedition. From the get-go, Colau was been under immense pressure to accept being the subordinate partner in an independence-focused government led by Maragall, or to lead an anti-independence front with the votes of the Socialists.

But Colau, with her characteristic audacity, has refused to accept this dichotomy. She has gone out on a limb and called for a three-party, left-wing coalition to bridge national divisions and put transformative urban policies first. It’s a potential game-changer. The move has forced Maragall to back down from his proposal to replicate the nationalist coalition that has paralyzed the Catalan government in Barcelona. Colau has also called out the absurdity of Maragall and Collboni’s refusal to meet one another for coalition talks. Little by little, the idea of a left-wing coalition is regaining credibility in the public imagination. What seemed a chimera two weeks ago is becoming widely recognized as a desirable and even a realistic option, at least in the medium term.

What is clear is that, because of the mutual veto between Maragall and Collboni, any such government would have to be led by Barcelona en Comú, with Ada Colau as mayor. Indeed, Barcelona En Comú is the only political party in the city that has members and voters who both support and oppose the independence cause and, as such, has a unique capacity for empathy, dialogue and consensus-building around this question.

But Barcelona doesn’t just need a government capable of healing the national divide. It also needs bold leadership on the urgent daily challenges faced by its residents. While supporters of Republican Left and the Socialists are quick to question one another’s left-wing credentials, the truth is that neither party has an impeccable track record in this regard. The speculative urban economy in Barcelona, where just 1% of the housing stock is publicly owned, was developed under decades of socialist rule. For its part, Republican Left has consistently blocked progressive policies and stifled public spending that would improve economic and environmental conditions in Barcelona over recent years. By contrast, Barcelona En Comú has made Barcelona an international example of the potential of transformative municipalism. The party has managed to provoke a radical shift in the political conversation in Barcelona, together with the city’s social movements, putting issues like the rental crisis, sustainable transport, feminism and direct democracy at the centre of the agenda. While on paper both the Republican Left and the Socialists are in agreement, experience shows that they’ll drag their feet when it comes to taking action if they can get away with it.

Whether Ada Colau will secure the 21 votes on the city council that she needs to hold the mayoralty on June 15 remains to be seen, as does the willingness of Republican Left and the Socialists to compromise and contemplate joining a government led by Colau. But, whoever ends up forming a government, the future of Barcelona will depend on all three parties working together over the next four years. While the national conflict staggers on, gentrification is forcing people out of their neighbourhoods and unravelling community ties. While politicians exchange insults in a to-and-fro of press conferences, there’s a multinational, Suez Environnement, that’s waging a ferocious campaign to prevent the re-municipalization of the city’s illegally privatized water company. While parties calculate how any decision in Barcelona will affect their electoral prospects in Catalonia, taxi drivers, hotel cleaners and care workers find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly precarious labour market.

Our city needs and deserves a government with the courage to stand up to vested interests and make tangible changes that improve people’s lives. On May 26th, Barcelona voted en masse for the left. It would be a grave irresponsibility for the left to turn its back on Barcelona once in office.


author

Kate Shea Baird (@KateSB)

Kate Shea Baird lives in Barcelona and works in advocacy for local democracy and decentralisation

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