Losing Barcelona

Ada Colau’s defeat in Barcelona was the low point of a disastrous election for the Catalan left. After a decade of powerful challenges to neoliberalism, the old parties are reasserting their dominance.

Ada Colau on May 5, 2018. Ajuntament Barcelona / Flickr

The heavy setbacks for the Left in the local and European elections held on May 26 mark the end of a political era in Catalunya. The disappointing results were most emblematically expressed in the defeat of Barcelona’s radical mayor Ada Colau. Dropping 4.5 percent of her vote compared to 2015, she was edged out by Ernest Maragall of the soft-left, pro-independence ERC.

As the parties negotiate a new majority in city hall over coming days, it is possible that Colau could remain in office. But all the signs are that such a majority would rely on major concessions toward the Spanish-unionist parties. Her fate depends on a pact with not only the social-liberal PSC but also Manuel Valls — candidate for the center-right Ciudadanos.

That such an arrangement is even being contemplated highlights a grim shift in Catalunya’s politics. Over the last decade, it has seen powerful movements, galvanized by the social and national questions as well as the feminist upsurge. This cycle of struggle included high points like the indignados movement, the rise of municipal socialism, widespread housing occupations, and the millions-strong independence protests that led to the referendum of October 1, 2017.

The triumph for the establishment parties at the May 26 election provided a blunt illustration that this period of promise is over. The noise of the windows of opportunity closing is almost deafening. And the wider setbacks for the Spanish and European left don’t make things any easier, either. The Catalan left needs to think long and hard about how all this has come to pass. If not, the difficult period ahead will be nothing more than a long journey across the desert.

The Defeat

A closer look at the election results shows just how far the established parties are reasserting themselves. In the local elections, victory in the large majority of municipalities went to Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a pro-independence, social democratic party which often displays its affiliation to the liberal center. The oldest single party, in these contests it won major cities like Barcelona and Lleida for the first time since before Franco’s dictatorship, as well as 23.5 percent of the vote across Catalunya.

Second-placed was the phoenix-like Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC), the Catalan wing of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s center-left PSOE. It won back a large part of the Spanish-unionist vote which had gone to the center-right Ciudadanos in the last Catalan elections. Its resurgence included victory in five of the largest ten towns, and it strongly improved its scores in big cities like Barcelona. Its calls for Spanish unity, “calm,” and “stability” with Sánchez’s government, as well as its prior success in the April 28 Spanish general election, all aided this unexpected advance.

Junts per Catalunya — still led from Brussels by president-in-exile Carles Puigdemont — came only third in terms of votes, though thanks to its success in small towns it won the most councils. This party corresponds to the political space once represented by the Catalan-autonomist Convergència i Unió, until recently the main political representation of the bourgeoisie. As well as sweeping up votes in small towns, this center-right party won Girona, of which Puigdemont was once mayor. Bringing together a large part of the Catalan-nationalist and local-clientelist vote, it showed its ability to resist the shift toward ERC we have seen in recent months.

Yet in all this, the big losers were the Left. Catalunya en Comú, the left-wing coalition including Iniciativa per Catalunya (the former Communist Party), Podem, Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (equivalent to Spain’s Izquierda Unida) and independents, lost control of Barcelona, with Ada Colau pushed back into second place. The coalition also lost thirteen of the twenty mayoralties it had won in 2015 and 111 councilors, as its vote dropped by over fifty thousand.

There was a similar setback for the pro-independence radical left, as the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular lost fifty-thousand votes and forty-seven councilors. It rose from fourteen to sixteen mayoralties but lost councilors in key cities like Barcelona and Lleida as well as other big towns like Terrassa and Mataró, as well as its presence in province-level institutions such as the Diputación Provincial de Barcelona.

On a brighter note, the forces of the Spanish-chauvinist right have shown that they are unable to do more than promote nationalist discourse, and when it comes to offering policies at the local level they are unable to inspire support. Indeed, Ciudadanos, the traditional conservative Partido Popular, and the far-right Vox together secured barely 10 percent of the vote in Catalunya.

While in the elections to the Catalan parliament Ciudadanos had been the biggest single force, strong on the Spanish-unionist vote, in this contest it did not elect any mayors and got only 246 councilors (less than the anticapitalist CUP), while the PP elected only four mayors (three of which remain in doubt) and sixty-seven councilors. Vox elected just three councilors, as its racist message fell flat in a region where many inhabitants are of migrant background.

Especially striking was Ciudadanos’s loss of support: if on December 21 it won the Catalan elections with 1.1 million votes, by the April 28 general election this had fallen to 477,000, and on May 26 it took around 300,000 votes in the European elections and 180,000 in local contests. Its constant and harsh anti-Catalan line appears to be alienating its more moderate electorate.

The Left: Down and on the Right

In bars around Catalunya and Spain, the toilets in bars can often be found “down and on the right.” Back in 2011, one witty slogan from the indignados movement in Plaza Catalunya suggested the political left could be found in a similar position. Yet if back then the Catalan parties and coalitions to the left of the PSC identified with this movement, today it is they who find themselves down and out. The absolute numbers in the May 26 election were bad, but not as bad as the symbolism of losing office in such cities as Barcelona, Badalona, and Cerdanyola.

These municipalities, formerly in the hands of the Left, are the very places where the greater part of the Catalan working class is concentrated. The defeats thus produced widespread shock among the parties of the organized left, as well as among the activist milieu more generally.

There was little comfort from the rest of Spain either: Unidas Podemos lost six of the seven large cities it controlled, including Madrid. The only exception anywhere in Spain were the very good results for EH Bildu, the coalition of the pro-independence Basque left.

Looking for a Way Out

If we are to confront the looming right-wing offensive and, perhaps most importantly, the threat from neoliberal social democracy (as expressed by ERC and PSC) we need to understand why the Left slumped to such a defeat.

First, we have seen the exhaustion of the cycle of mobilizations that began in 2008 with the fight against the Bologna Process (a Europe-wide package of measures pushing the privatization of higher education) and continued through the indignados movement starting in 2011, the fight against home foreclosures in 2012-14 and the independence process of 2012-19.

Although living conditions and the levels of exploitation seem to be worsening for ever more people, there is also a sort of collective illusion that after the worst point of the crisis things are stabilizing and will not deteriorate any further. This has produced a more conformist electorate, at the same time as social mobilizations have weakened.

The independence process has moreover produced anti-bodies among the layers of the population who most support the maintenance of the “1978 regime,” the institutional order inherited from the transition from Francoism. At the same time, we have seen the recovery of a kind of rentier middle class linked to tourism and property ownership.

Simultaneously, we can see ever larger proportions of workers (especially migrants) falling into a highly atomized form of pauperization, within new employment relations (such as ride-hailing and food delivery apps) which make it hard to organize in class terms. Moreover, even insofar as this urban proletariat does adopt new forms of organization, it is totally indifferent to the electoral calendar and the left-wing parties.

What Is(n’t) to Be Done?

Since their electoral breakthrough in 2015, progressive local governments around Catalunya have done a lot of good things. There has been progress in terms of social rights, LGBTQ rights, municipal-controlled companies, and so on. Yet these gains should also be weighed against things that didn’t work or which have produced tensions narrowing the Left’s room for maneuver (insofar as this even exists within a capitalist framework).

When left-wing administrations reached office in the main towns and cities in the Barcelona metropolitan area, they drew large numbers of political cadres from social movements and integrated them into government.

This use of activists however considerably weakened the movements, and threw up obstacles to local governments and the movements acting jointly. Moreover, as these cadres were absorbed by the dynamics of administrative process, they were drawn into conflict with the spaces in which they were hitherto active as militants.

During these years, in Barcelona in particular the Left has suffered at the hands of the right-wing controlled media which have made a song and dance about episodes of conflict (the offensive against street-selling by migrants, or the issue of security in the center of Barcelona). Meanwhile, the administration’s response to other important problems to which it has devoted a great deal of effort, especially the housing question, have been perceived as weak.

Indeed, even as the Left was making headway electorally, we did not see the emergence of new communications and propaganda platforms hegemonized by left-wing ideas and able to compete with the mass media. Nor has the Left been able to create a web of spaces of counter-power, with a conflictual approach able to lay the bases for resistance across the coming period.

The Ghostly PSC

At the same time, the Left’s need to make pacts with other forces has served to demobilize its own base. Deals with forces like the PSC (the unionist, social-liberal version of social democracy) or ERC (the same, but pro-independence) have in many cases put the backs on social advances.

Worse, this has fed the impression that the real forces guiding local governments led by the radical left were the more moderate parties, already familiar with the capitalist management of institutions. Such deals, and the concomitant whitewashing of social-liberalism, have led a large part of the popular classes to see forces like PSC and ERC as better and more reliable administrators.

This whitewashing of social-liberalism by the Left has offered PSC and ERC a platform to get across their message from the regional as well as the national level. Meanwhile the lukewarm approach coming from the Left has not helped voters to see in what way they are really different. When Pablo Iglesias insists from Madrid that Podemos is the necessary support for a PSOE government, making almost no criticism of this latter party, many people prefer to vote for the original rather than the imitation.

The Old Mole: The National Questions

In Catalunya, however, there is also another important problem. For the national question is a bit like the old mole described by Karl Marx, constantly burrowing away only occasionally to raise its head. Voters on both the pro-independence and unionist sides seem fed up with a headache of a problem lacking in any resolution and have turned to forces adopting more moderate stances. In the May 26 election this helped both ERC and PSC to hegemonize their own camps.

Despite this, Catalunya en Comú’s own stance — adopting an equidistant position between the two sides — has only weakened it, generating constant tensions among its different internal factions. This has led to the departure of Sobiranistes — the most left-wing, pro-self-determination wing of the coalition — in favor of ERC, and the coalition has also lost votes on both sides of the national question.

Thus far we have not said much about the anticapitalist, pro-independence CUP. This was the force that made the biggest splash in Catalan politics in the previous cycle, forcing the self-determination referendum of October 1, 2017 and in many cases drawing Ada Colau’s policies toward the left. One of its campaign slogans was — quite appropriately — “When the CUP is around, stuff happens.” But it seems that recently there has been little sense that CUP was indeed making things happen.

A kind of strategic rudderlessness — combined with its fear of shifting position, and indeed an organizational model that demands a lot of internal energy is expended before it can do so — all led much of the CUP electorate to withdraw their trust in the party. Part of its former base doubtless went to ERC, and it is possible that the more movementist layers did not vote at all. CUP was also hit hard by its non-participation in the Spanish general elections of April 28. This helped give the impression that it is unwilling to intervene in a political way, embrace contradictions and operate outside of its own comfort zone.

But more concretely, CUP also suffered from its rhetorical radicalism, which sparked incomprehension among its social base. This was particularly evident in its all-or-nothing approach to the question of taking companies into municipal control, offering no intelligent or concrete response to Colau’s own hesitations. Indeed, it seems that a key factor in CUP’s setbacks was its highly ideologized discourse, lacking either the capacity to educate voters or to provide concrete solutions. In those local contexts where the CUP made more effort to listen to voters and sink roots in the wider body of society, it received better electoral results than the general negative picture.

At the same time, even in its own self-presentation CUP tended to adopt a position subaltern to other political forces, as if its role was to be a magnet pulling other parties to the Left. Not grounded in any clear alternative of its own, it suffered the same fate as Catalunya en Comú, as people preferred to vote for the original than the imitation.

After the Vote, the Negotiations

As we write, the ultimate outcome of the elections remains in doubt. In fact, it is even possible that Ada Colau will remain mayor of Barcelona despite her defeat in the May 26 election (the same is also true of Manuela Carmena in Madrid).

This is because the local governments around Spain will be formed in the second week of June, after the organization of local-level pacts. It is possible that left-wing forces may decide to make deals with social-liberal parties in order to maintain some small measure of institutional power. This would however hamper any bid to draw lessons from the experience of recent years.

This situation is particularly pointed in Barcelona, where city hall is highly fragmented: ERC and Colau’s Barcelona En Comú have ten seats each, PSC has eight, Ciudadanos (which backed former French prime minister Manuel Valls for mayor) has six, Junts per Catalunya has five and the right-wing Partido Popular has two. Since it takes twenty-one councilors to form a majority, an alliance of at least three of these will be needed.

If Ada Colau wants to remain mayor and keep her progressive project going at all costs, then there are really only two options: and both demand that she clearly take sides on the national question, unlike her approach so far. Barcelona En Comú would have to either make a pact with the ERC, with the external support of Junts, or else make a deal with PSC’s Jaume Collboni, with the external support of Valls and Ciudadanos. On June 6, Colau announced that she intended to make a bid to remain as mayor, on the basis of this latter set of allies.

The result remains uncertain. While Valls has said he wants to stop the pro-independence parties at all costs, Ciudadanos itself has ruled out a deal with Colau. And Barcelona en Comú is itself divided. Various important cadres linked to the former Iniciativa per Catalunya, such as former MPs Raimundo Viejo and Lluis Rabell, favor a pact with Valls. Yet fellow ex-parliamentarians like former Barcelona en Comú national spokesman Xavier Doménech and former ERC MP Joan Tardà called for a progressive Catalan-sovereigntist government uniting Barcelona en Comú and the ERC.

Various social-movement activists have criticized the idea of an arrangement with Valls, highlighting his own past record as French prime minister and his controversial attacks on Roma people. To paraphrase Irish socialist James Connolly, you don’t get to heaven walking hand-in-hand with the devil. And while Valls’s offer of support is outwardly “unconditional,” it is difficult to believe that there will indeed be no strings attached. The coming days will be full of rumor and pressure from all sides.

The Need for Catharsis

Without doubt, Barcelona en Comú will be at the center of the negotiations; for now, the situation remains uncertain. But beyond such combinations, which threaten only to pull the Left deeper into its existing problems, we need to set out some of the key elements that can help it out of its strategic impasse. Decisive, here, is a renewed ability to build around the core axes of conflict, be that the fight against poverty, Catalan self-determination, or the feminist movement.

To confront the challenges ahead the Left has to be able to stop and look at itself and the majority of society, going back to listening again — being “more people” and “less structure.” The task is to build a political space that is popularly rooted but not emptily populist, and which brings together majorities even as it fights for minorities.

It must be a left that builds cultural hegemony even without giving up its heritage of struggle, to create leadership but also a solid social base, and a politics that works both within and outside institutions. It must operate effectively in the mass media and also be able to build its own alternative spaces — and be where the popular classes are rather than shrink back into the middle classes, speaking like the people rather than academics. This will all be a painful process of catharsis. But it is also a necessary one.