Barcelona's decisive local elections: four main contenders with different city proposals

Current mayor Ada Colau faces re-election race against former coalition partner, ex-mayor, and veteran politician

Mayoral candidates in Barcelona, Ada Colau, Jaume Collboni, Ernest Maragall, Xavier Trias
Mayoral candidates in Barcelona, Ada Colau, Jaume Collboni, Ernest Maragall, Xavier Trias / Blanca Blay
Gerard Escaich Folch

Gerard Escaich Folch | @gescaichfolch | Barcelona

May 14, 2023 10:49 AM

May 14, 2023 11:09 AM

Yes or no to cruises? Yes or no to superblocks? Yes or no to a tram connection on Avinguda Diagonal? There are many questions for Barcelona's next mayor, and for voters during this election campaign to decide who to give their support to.

The Catalan capital, for the first time in years, has four main contenders that could become the next mayor. Polls are very close, and no clear winner is in sight, as current mayor Ada Colau, frontrunner of Barcelona en Comú, faces up against her former coalition partner, Socialist Jaume Collboni, former mayor from 2011-2015, Xavier Trias, running for Junts, and veteran politician Ernest Maragall standing for Esquerra Republicana.

Four main contenders in Barcelona with four different visions for the city

The vote on May 28 will open the door to several potential futures, but the challenge will really start for the politicians from the following day, once all ballots are counted and the candidates have to negotiate to appoint the next mayor of the city.

Even the parties with fewer council seats could end up having a decisive say.

So far, published polls do not show a clear winner, meaning that candidates will need the support of at least 21 out of the 41 plenary seats in order to become the next mayor. If no absolute majority is reached, the frontrunner with the most ballots will be automatically named mayor on June 17. 

That was going to be the case in 2019 as Ernest Maragall received the most votes in the election, but a coalition between Colau, Collboni, and centrist former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls permitted the En Comú candidate to keep the mayorship at the last minute.

This year, results will tell how residents views of the Colau-led administration of the last eight years, as she hopes to remain in the job for another term, or if voters prefer a different person to lead the city.

Major policy changes: tram line connection

The four different main contenders to become the next Barcelona mayor have different points of view regarding the major issues in the city, ranging from sustainable mobility to the housing crisis, tourism, and even expanding the airport.

These last years, Barcelona en Comú's mayor has been vocal about connecting the city's two tramway lines through Diagonal Avenue and crossing Barcelona's center for the first time in over 50 years, a project which has already started, and the first phase should be in service in spring 2024.

The expanded network "will be an icon of the 21st century and future Barcelona," as BComú candidate and incumbent mayor Ada Colau said in March.

"The goal is to prepare Barcelona for the future against climate change with more efficient, healthier, and sustainable mobility," she added at the time.

Other candidates, however, disregard connecting the tram lines and have even proposed stopping the works, such as PSC candidate and former deputy mayor Jaume Collboni, despite his party backing the connection.

What will happen next will depend on the next city council. Even though there is a project being studied to continue the tram line connection from Verdaguer metro station to Francesc Macià square, no works have yet begun.

Airport expansion

Barcelona's airport welcomed over 52.6 million passengers in 2019, the last full year before the Covid-19 pandemic. After the lockdown, figures have steadily been growing, but so far, they have not reached the same levels just yet.

Once passengers started arriving and departing again from the airport, authorities saw in 2021 the possibility of expanding the infrastructure. But politicians did not end up agreeing because environmentalists warned against the destruction of the Llobregat river delta and increased carbon emissions, while businesspeople were in favor.

Some of the leaders against the expansion included Colau, who called to stop the expansion over environmental concerns. Others, such as the pro-business Junts candidate Xavier Trias, want to see the project go ahead. 

"No one wants the airport to impact the La Ricarda Lagoon nature reserve area. Everyone wants an agreement so we can have international flights which are as compatible as possible with having a sustainable airport that works," Trias said in late April.

A similar request was made by Ernest Maragall, ERC's candidate for the Barcelona mayorship, as the city "needs an airport that serves businesses, innovation, and technology."


Another element of the debate surrounding the airport expansion was the tourism industry. Only in 2022, over 19 million visitors came to the Catalan capital, and some saw the project of increasing the capacity at the airport as a way of welcoming more tourists from Asia or even further afield.

"Should we accept that our economy depends on tourism? Not at all," left-wing and pro-independence politician Ernest Maragall said in late April.

"We need to regulate tourism, and I believe we have a lot of tools to do so. We are not a low-cost city, or at least we do not want to be one," he added.

The statement arrives after several actions seen during the last mandate against visitors in the Catalan city, including graffiti reading "Tourists go home!"

After all these years, "we have found a balance, and I believe it's good that we tell ourselves that," Socialist Jaume Collboni said.

"We have surpassed a situation of open bar for tourists, where they can do whatever they want, and a tourism-phobia moment where we saw attacks against hotels and tourist buses," he added.

Tourism will be a huge debate during the campaign, as not only is there a big debate with people flying into the city, but also sailing.

During the mandate, many have raised their voices against cruise ships and the style of passengers that visit the city, with Colau even proposing to limit the number of daily vessels.

"The Balearic Islands capital, Palma de Mallorca, and other ports around the world have limited the number of cruise ships to three per day," the BComú candidate said before announcing that "we could look into doing this in Barcelona too."

Housing crisis

More tourism means more hotel rooms, Airbnbs, and sites for visitors to spend the night; however, and this affects housing access for locals.

During the last mandate, the city council has been battling against Airbnb and other new platforms, including ride-hailing apps UBER and Cabify, which have clashed with the taxi sector.

One of the major policies of the council has been to increase the available social housing in the city, but some candidates still call for more.

"I would like to hear more about housing and proposals to improve housing policies and not talk about 'superblocks' as Ada Colau does," Collboni said in late March. 

"How are mayoral candidates suggesting to improve housing access for younger people and for them to stay in the city?" he wondered.

Some of the concerns raised during the mandate regarding housing are related to the new 'superblock' tactical urbanism model implemented by the city council. 

Works are ongoing in the Eixample neighborhood to emulate what has been done in other areas in the Catalan capital to prioritize "health and comfort," by creating green spaces and squares at the intersections of roads. 

Residents in this area, despite welcoming the measure, have also raised their concerns as limiting road traffic could end up increasing rent prices in the zone and forcing them to look for alternative housing places.

Barcelona's future after elections

The 2019 local elections in Barcelona left a fragmented plenary, with Barcelona en Comú having to negotiate to retain power and forming a coalition with Jaume Collboni's Socialists.

While in the past election, seven different parties won representation, this year, aside from the four main contenders, there are almost 20 candidacies running for mayor, which include far-left CUP, far-right Vox, liberal Ciudadanos, right-wing Valents, and the conservative People's Party.

Some of these parties have already given support to various council's policies in the past four years, while others, like pro-independence Esquerra Republicana made it possible for the annual budgets to be approved.

But not only did the opposition disagree with the Socialists and BComú, but sometimes coalition partners could not get along, especially during the heavy week-long protests seen in late 2019 when the Supreme Court convicted nine Catalan pro-independence leaders to prison.

The last mandate was also hugely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw empty streets across Barcelona, but once people were out of lockdown, residents filled the bars and restaurant terraces, which the council even enlargened to benefit these establishments.

But that is in the past, and the future of the 1,600,000 Barcelona inhabitants depends on how the next mayor can tackle their many challenges. Whether they will be able to do it alone or with a coalition remains to be seen, but negotiations will certainly be needed.