Municipal elections take place on Sunday in Catalonia in uncertain and agitated atmosphere
Catalans are holding their municipal elections on Sunday, while the elections to the Catalan Parliament are to be held in September, as opposed to other parts of Spain, where they are voting for their regional parliaments on Sunday. These municipal elections come after 7 years of economic crisis and also with very uncertain political horizons. Two debates have dominated the campaign: Catalonia’s independence and the rise of new or secondary parties that promise to change the current model. For many people in Catalonia, Sunday’s elections will be a first stage of the ‘de facto’ plebiscite on independence that is going to take place with the Catalan elections on 27 September. It is also the opportunity to support changing the current political, economic and social model, with the rise of alternative left coalitions. Furthermore, majorities and town halls go through significant changes, particularly in Barcelona and the cities of its Metropolitan Area, where there are no clear winners forecast and surprises are likely to happen.
Barcelona (ACN).- Catalans are holding their municipal elections on Sunday, which take place every 4 years. The elections to the Catalan Parliament are to be held at a different time, as opposed to other parts of Spain, where they are also voting for their regional parliaments on Sunday. 5.38 million Catalans, including 63,000 foreign-nationals, are entitled to elect the new municipal councils, which will then in turn elect the mayor and the local government. These municipal councils will also elect the representatives sitting in the County and Provincial councils, the other governing bodies at local level. These local elections come after 7 years of economic crisis, with high unemployment levels, lower salaries and a high number of home evictions, and also with very uncertain political horizons, due to the corruption scandals, the difficulties faced by traditional parties, the rise of new political actors and the independence debate. Two main issues have dominated the electoral campaign: Catalonia’s independence and the rise of new or secondary parties that promise to change the current system.
For many people in Catalonia, Sunday’s elections will be a first stage of the ‘de facto’ plebiscite on independence that is going to take place on 27 September with the Catalan elections. This ‘de facto’ vote on independence comes after two-and-a-half years of the Spanish Government totally opposing any talks or concessions concerning Catalonia’s right to self-determination, even though this claim was explicitly supported by a wide majority of Catalans in the November 2012 elections and has been expressed through massive and entirely peaceful demonstrations. After rejecting any negotiation to make holding a mutually-agreed self-determination vote in Catalonia possible, the Catalan Parliament elections is the only way left to hold a free and democratic vote on this issue, in which citizens and the parties running will transform them into an independence plebiscite if pro-independence parties win September’s elections.
Alternative left parties and Ciutadans
However, Sunday’s elections are also an opportunity to support a change of the current political, economic and social model for many people. There has been a rise in the popularity of alternative left coalitions but also in that of the anti-Catalan nationalism party Ciutadans (C’s). These two forces are likely to evoke a political earthquake in many parts of Spain, even changing Autonomous Community governments; and in Catalonia, they are also likely to have a strong impact in some municipal councils.
In fact, majorities and town halls are likely to shift in some towns and cities, and many incumbent mayors are far from having guaranteed their re-election. This is particularly the case in the city of Barcelona, where the incumbent Mayor Xavier Trias, from the centre-right pro-Catalan State coalition CiU – which also runs the Catalan Government – could come second to Ada Colau, the civil society leader running in the alternative left coalition Barcelona en Comú. Colau is running with the Catalan green Socialist and post-Communist Coalition ICV-EUiA, which was part of Barcelona city governments throughout the 1990s and 2000s. She is also running with the Spanish alternative left party Podemos, which was the greatest surprise in Spain in the European Elections a year ago. Podemos is not running alone in Catalonia in these elections, but rather is running in coalition with other alternative left parties.
Furthermore, the town halls of the Catalan capital’s Metropolitan Area, and Barcelona’s in particular, could also witness the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) collapsing in some cities, where traditionally it has held absolute majorities since the first municipal elections in 1979 (in the current democratic period). PSC voters may now support C’s and alternative left coalitions, and, to a lesser extent, the left-wing Catalan independence party ERC. Many former PSC voters who now support independence or self-determination have already abandoned the Socialist Party in recent elections, but many of them did not do this in the last municipal elections in 2011 or at least they were not supporting the ERC back then, which was going through difficult times and a leadership transition process. However, the ERC recovered very fast, boosted by the independence debate and a new leadership. By mid-2014, it looked like the party with the brightest future in Catalonia according to the polls, but in the last half a year its support seems to have decreased if the surveys are right due to controversies about how to carry out the self-determination process and the independence road map.
The PP focused its campaign on immigration
The campaign started with the controversy caused by the People’s Party (PP) – which runs the Spanish Government – and its electoral posters in some cities of Catalonia, which were considered to be xenophobic by most of the other parties. In Rubí, a small city of 75,000 inhabitants, the PP candidate ran with a poster which read: “Those from home, first”. This was an identical motto to the one used throughout Catalonia in 2011 by the extreme-right, Spanish nationalist and xenophobic party Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC), which has minimal representation in Catalonia (holding a few seats in a very small number of town halls and being absent from the Catalan Parliament).
However, the greatest controversy was caused by the PP’s candidate and incumbent Mayor in Badalona, Xavier García Albiol. Badalona, with some 220,000 inhabitants, is Catalonia’s third-largest city and is literally attached to Barcelona’s municipality, being at the core of the Metropolitan Area. In 2011, García Albiol and the PP were already being accused of xenophobia by some parties, as they were distributing leaflets portraying immigration and crime side by side. In addition, the PP’s leader in Catalonia, Alícia Sánchez-Camacho, was the main character of a video arcade game designed by the Conservative party for the 2011 campaign in which she was eliminating “illegal immigrants”. This time, the PP’s motto for the municipal elections was “Cleaning up Badalona”. The rest of the parties greatly protested and García Albiol defended himself saying it was a general statement, not explicitly referring to immigration. On top of this, the PP’s candidate in Barcelona, Alberto Fernández Díaz (who happens to be the brother of the Spanish Home Affairs Minister, in charge of police and immigration policies), also used immigration as one of his main topics during the campaign, saying he would ban the use of the burka and niqab in Barcelona and saying that “illegal immigrants, on top of being illegal” do not adapt to Western culture and values.
Temperatures rise and nuns enter the campaign
In the second week of the campaign, as polls were indicating no big changes from a month previous, candidates started to look for confrontation. Alternative left candidates, both from Barcelona en Comú or similar coalitions in other towns and from the radical independence and alternative left party CUP accused candidates from the centre-right pro-Catalan State coalition CiU of “running government as a mafia”, privileging the wealthy and big companies over the general interest and the people. This was Ada Colau’s accusation of Xavier Trias. Barcelona’s incumbent Mayor replied that if somebody knows about an offence, they should take it to court, otherwise they are just “dirtying up everything”. Trias went on to attack Colau’s lack of experience.
The PSC candidate for Barcelona Mayor, Jaume Collboni, also tried to find a place between Trias and Colau, attacking the lack of experience of the latter and the privatisation policies of the former. The ERC’s candidate Alfred Bosch tried to make the Barcelona campaign be about independence and September’s vote, as well as proposing a new way of ruling the city. Much more radical was the CUP candidate Maria José Lecha, who promised great change in the city council and its policies. Finally, the C’s candidate, Carina Mejías, started the campaign by saying she would ban massive pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona and carried on by saying she would demolish El Born cultural centre, which showcases ruins from the early 18th century, when the Bourbon troops demolished an entire neighbourhood after Barcelona’s siege, and explains how Catalonia lost its self-rule institutions back then.
As an anecdote in Ada Colau’s coalition there is a small alternative left and pro-independence party called Procés Constituent which is led by a philosophy professor and a nun, called Teresa Forcades. Although she is not running in the municipal elections, Forcades announced she would run in the Catalan elections in September, as the candidate for Catalan President of her party. Coinciding with this announcement, another nun, Lucía Caram, who has been quite famous over the last years for her social care work and her raising awareness of poverty and inequalities, has also entered the campaign. Caram was awarded the title ‘Catalan of the Year’ by one of the main Barcelona-based left-wing newspapers a couple of months ago. Now, the she is campaigning for the CiU and has explicitly supported Trias and the current Catalan President, Artur Mas.
On top of this, the Vatican announced it was launching an investigation into Caram and Forcades for their political activism and to decide whether this is compatible with their vows as nuns. Both nuns complained of pressure from the Spanish Government on the Vatican. In the days after, the Conservative PP, which has strong ties to the Church and many of its leaders are Opus Dei members, openly and strongly criticised the two sisters; a quite surprising fact that has been the ultimate detail in one of the most strange and uncertain campaigns ever experienced in Catalonia.