Countdown for local election begins: what to watch out for

Barcelona mayor's resilience, Esquerra's surge in 2019, Junts' inland power and Socialist metropolitan monopoly tested

A ballot box used in the 2019 local elections in Tarragona
A ballot box used in the 2019 local elections in Tarragona / Mar Rovira
Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | @enGuifre | Barcelona

May 12, 2023 02:03 PM

If following an election campaign is somewhat overwhelming, given the number of parties running, the promises made, and the posters taking over the streets and media, following around 1,000 at the same time may seem impossible.

On May 28, 2023, the residents of the 947 municipalities in Catalonia will choose their councilors, and 947 of them will become mayors on June 17.

Local elections may seem second-tier, but the ones celebrated in 1931 put an end to the monarchy in Spain – while this will not be the case now, the local elections will be a fairly good bellwether six months before the Spanish general election.

However, there is no one foreseeable trend in the upcoming vote since every municipality is a whole different world and national debates such as independence do not play as important a role as public safety, housing, street cleaning, tourism, or the state of facilities. Here are the very basics on this election and the main things to watch out for:

     1. Battle for Barcelona: Colau's tight race for reelection, housing and mobility main talking points

Barcelona has been led by left-wing Ada Colau for the past eight years, and she is vying for a third term in a row – but she will have a hard time achieving it since polls describe a four-horse battle. Her policies, including the pedestrianized 'superblocks', public housing and squatters, and over-tourism are the main talking points in an uncertain campaign. 

Barcelona En Comú's Colau is leading a tight race ahead of the Socialists, her allies in government this last term, and two pro-independence groups, Junts and Esquerra. While the latter won the most votes last time around but failed to attract the backing of other parties needed to govern, when Junts appointed former mayor Xavier Trias as their candidate, polls shifted in their favor.

     2. Lleida, Girona and Tarragona: no absolute majorities or clear winners in sight

Elsewhere, in the other three regional capitals, Lleida, Girona and Tarragona, the race is also very tight but with some differences in those leading the polls. Lleida and Tarragona had traditionally been Socialist cities, but Esquerra tied with them and ended up governing both in the western and the southern capitals. Another neck-to-neck race between the two in both places is expected in two weeks' time. Meanwhile, Girona is a big Junts stronghold, but they face this vote with a new candidate and far-left CUP, Esquerra and the Socialists could also very well compete for the first place – and the three of them not having ruled out the possibility of a three-way agreement to oust Junts if none of them are the most-voted party.

     3. Inland Catalonia: pro-independence monopoly, but factions fight for hegemony

In most of central Catalonia, the pro-independence parties have an absolute monopoly of local councils, such as in county capitals including Manresa, Vic, Igualada, Solsona, Moià, or Les Borges Blanques – there, all 13 current councilors are in favor of a split with Spain. But does that mean that they form large alliances because they all believe in the need for a Catalan Republic? Far from it. In most cases, Junts and Esquerra will fiercely battle for the top post and the other party will go to opposition. CUP also usually performs strongly across the territory – they have been holding the mayoral post in Berga for eight years now – and none of the other parties is expected to be key in these large, and sometimes depopulated, inland areas.

     4. Red belt: Socialists want to keep absolute majorities in Barcelona's metropolitan area

In Barcelona's metropolitan area, the story is very different. Junts and CUP struggle to get councilors there, while unionist parties do well – especially the Socialists. The left-wing party whose corporate color is red has had the hegemony of these medium-sized cities around Barcelona for decades – in Sant Boi de Llobregat or L'Hospitalet de Llobregat they have governed since the first democratic elections after dictator Franco's death. They have absolute majorities in many municipalities, such as Cornellà de Llobregat, Santa Coloma de Gramenet or Sant Joan Despí, and they want to keep them. Whether they achieve this goal may be the main excitement in most of these towns. 

Historically, the old communist party that evolved into the green party and has now turned into the En Comú Podem left-wing group has done very well in certain metropolitan towns beyond Barcelona, and they are now hoping to retain El Prat de Llobregat, Montcada i Reixac or Ripollet.

Also, seeing whether unionist Ciudadanos manages to keep some councilors despite their general free fall and whether far-right Vox makes its metropolitan breakthrough this year will also be things to watch out for. The red belt is probably one of the only areas in Catalonia where they can get some councilors.

     5. The blue buckle in the red belt: Badalona's conservative Albiol wants rare majority

Badalona is a metropolitan city that used to be a part of the red belt for decades but has become 'blue' since the conservative People's Party's Xavier García Albiol surged, becoming a charismatic figure and a very outspoken politician on public safety and against irregular migration. In a clearly left-wing city in all other elections, he has been able to win three times in a row and has become mayor in two non-consecutive stints. He is now aiming for his first absolute majority to avoid an all-party agreement to bar him from the top seat in the city hall.

The fact that voters prioritize their preferred candidate for mayor over their party is obvious not only in Badalona but across the country, including in Terrassa, where a former Socialist mayor decided to run in 2019 as an independent candidate and won. His name is Jordi Ballart and he hopes to repeat his luck in 2023.

     6. Two candidates aiming to be mayors for half a century

The first local elections were held in 1979 when democracy was reestablished after dictator Franco's death. And only two of the candidates elected back then have managed to keep the post ever since, winning 11 elections each. On May 28, Pere Moradell, in northern Torroella de Fluvià, and Josep Vilà, in Fogars de la Selva, between Barcelona and Girona, want to win again. If successful, they will potentially be mayors until 2027, 48 years after their first success.