Municipal elections campaign kicks off marked by traditional parties' crises and independence debate

The campaign for the municipal elections in Catalonia, which are to be held on 24May, officially started this Friday in extremely uncertain circumstances after years of economic crisis, budget cuts and corruption scandals. This has seriously damaged the credibility of the main traditional parties, provoking an increase in popularity of alternative groups and a great number of undecided voters. On top of this, there is the political clash regarding Catalonia's potential independence from Spain and the planned early elections for the Catalan Parliament on 27 September, which are expected to become a 'de facto' independence plebiscite. The Municipal Elections come first and they have been presented as a preliminary vote before that in September. Additionally, alternative parties will have to prove whether they are as strong as the polls suggest and are able to be part of local government. In this uncertain scenario, the battle for Barcelona stands out, where polls predict great changes.

Ada Colau at Barcelona en Comú campaign's kick off (by ACN)
Ada Colau at Barcelona en Comú campaign's kick off (by ACN) / ACN / Gaspar Pericay Coll

ACN / Gaspar Pericay Coll

May 8, 2015 06:28 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- The campaign for the municipal elections in Catalonia, which are to be held on 24 May and are also regional elections in many other parts of Spain (but not in Catalonia), officially started this Friday in extremely uncertain circumstances after years of economic crisis, high levels of unemployment, budget cuts in the public services and corruption scandals. This has seriously damaged the credibility of the main traditional parties and the old ways of understanding politics, provoking a great number of undecided voters and an increase in popularity of recently-formed parties or groups that have never had governmental responsibilities. On top of this, there is the political clash regarding Catalonia's potential independence from Spain. There is also the Spanish Government's total opposition during the last two-and-a-half years to negotiate any self-determination vote despite several democratic claims expressed by Catalan society through peaceful demonstrations and previous elections. This has provoked the reaction from a majority of Catalan parties that are planning to organise early elections for the Catalan Parliament on 27 September and transform them into a 'de facto' plebiscite on independence. The Municipal Elections come first and they have been presented as a preliminary vote to prepare the road for September's vote on independence. Additionally, they are also an opportunity to see whether these alternative parties are as strong as the polls suggest and are able to enter many municipal councils or even obtain a few mayoral positions. In this uncertainty, the electoral battle for Barcelona stands out, with polls predicting great change and great difficulty in forming a stable local government.

In Catalonia, the main traditional parties are the centre-right pro-Catalan State coalition CiU – which has been running the Catalan Government since 2010 – and the Catalan Socialist Party – which is part of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE). Since the first municipal elections in the democratic era, in 1979, these two parties have held the mayoral positions in the main cities and towns throughout Catalonia, with very few exceptions. In addition, they tended to obtain strong representations in many municipalities throughout Catalonia. The capitals of the four Catalan Provinces – Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona and Lleida – have always been run by mayors from either the PSC or the CiU, and this is also the case for many other important cities.

The People's Party (PP), which is Spain's largest party and runs the Spanish Government, in Catalonia has always been a secondary player, being the 3rd or 4th largest party and a great distance behind the first two. In many areas of Catalonia, the Spanish Conservatives are even totally absent or their presence is merely anecdotic. In fact, the PP holds very few mayoral positions in Catalonia and does not even run in many municipalities. In the last municipal elections, they achieved a milestone by managing to obtain the mayoral position of Catalonia's third-largest town hall, Badalona, which is a city attached to Barcelona, at the core of the metropolitan area.

Another traditional secondary party is the left-wing Catalan independence party ERC, which holds mayoral positions in a few small cities and towns, mostly in rural areas of Catalonia. However, in the last decade, the ERC has also increased its presence in metropolitan areas and has obtained the mayorship of a few urban towns, including towns near the city of Barcelona. In the 2012 Catalan Elections, the ERC became the second largest party within the Parliament for the first time, overtaking the PSC.

Finally, the fifth traditional party has been the Catalan green socialist and post-communist coalition ICV-EUiA, which was particularly strong in the initial years of democracy, running important towns and small cities. In the 1990s and 2000s, the ICV-EUiA has mostly been supporting coalition left-wing governments, such as in the city of Barcelona and in other towns of its metropolitan area.

These are the 5 parties that have been running Catalan politics for the last 35 years, but two small parties have also been playing small roles in the Catalan Parliament or in some town halls for the past decade. This is the case for the populist and anti-Catalan nationalism party Ciutadans (C's), which was formed in 2006. Since then, the C's has had a small representation in the Catalan Parliament and has been absent from municipal government. The contrary is the case for the radical-independence and alternative left CUP party, which was quite present at municipal level (mostly in the Girona Province) but absent in the Catalan Parliament until 2012, when it obtained 3 seats.

A radical change of the situation

This has been the situation so far, however, now great changes are expected. The CiU is likely to resist quite well, mostly because of its support for independence and despite the economic crisis, budget cuts and corruption scandals. However, polls predict it will lose representation (councillors) and a few mayoral positions are at risk, starting with Barcelona's. The current CiU Mayor, Xavier Trias, is very likely to lose seats in the local council, but he could still be the frontrunner. However, many polls also indicate that he could become the second most voted candidate and could have great difficulty in retaining the mayorship even if he formed a post-electoral coalition with other parties.

On top of this, there is an ongoing debate about the CiU's future as a two-party coalition due to the independence debate. The smallest party within the CiU, the Christian-Democrat force UDC, has not defined its stance regarding independence yet. However, its leader, Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, is against it. After the Municipal Elections the UDC will hold an internal consultation process to decide their final stance on this crucial issue. If they were to oppose independence, the current Municipal Elections are likely to become the last electoral call in which the CiU would run together, after consecutively doing so for the last three and a half decades.

The PSC is probably the traditional party that is suffering the most due to the change of political paradigm after the economic crisis and the prominence of the independence debate. The PSC went from chairing the Catalan Government and holding the main mayoral positions in Catalonia (including Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona and Lleida) and being the largest party at municipal level in 2010 to losing a great deal of representatives in the municipal elections of 2011 and in the Catalan elections in 2010 and 2012. Now, the party leadership's opposition to independence and to holding a self-determination vote despite officially supporting Catalonia's right to self-determination has provoked a party split and the resignation of many figures. The party is still resisting in Barcelona's Metropolitan Area, but in the rest of Catalonia it is crumbling and faces many difficulties in presenting mayoral candidates in many towns. On top of this, it is in danger of obtaining a really poor result in the city of Barcelona.

The PP is likely to lose some part of its representation as well, having run the Spanish Government since 2011 and having totally opposed self-determination. One party in particular, C's, is likely to receive votes from many former PSC voters, but also particularly from former PP supporters, mostly because of its radical opposition to Catalan independence and self-determination. In fact, C's has been almost exclusively talking about these issues and those related to the Catalan language since its formation in 2006. This could have a major impact in the metropolitan area of Barcelona and to a smaller extent in that of Tarragona. In the city of Barcelona, C's could become the third-largest party, overtaking the PSC and the PP.

C's is going into these coming elections with great hopes for Catalonia, but even more so for the rest of Spain. In the last year, and particularly in the last few months, C's has gone from being an unknown player at Spanish level, with activity only in Catalonia, to becoming the rising star of Spanish politics. Large media and financial companies have supported C's and have campaigned for them as an alternative to the PP and the PSC/PSOE – which have lost much of their credibility – and as a way to stop Catalonia's independence and, particularly, the rise of the newly formed alternative-left party Podemos. Therefore, C's is presenting itself as an alternative party through which people can channel their opposition to the traditional parties and politics, but without supporting Podemos' radical left stances.

In Catalonia, Podemos is expected to increase its influence through the coming Municipal Elections, but less than in other parts of Spain due to the existence of another alternative left-party, the CUP. In fact, the CUP is likely to significantly increase its results and to access some town councils for the first time, such as Barcelona's. Furthermore, Podemos officially supports Catalonia's right to self-determination but it does not defend it and tends to avoid the issue as much as possible. In the last few months, the party chaired by Pablo Iglesias has been losing part of its predicted support in the polls, in both Catalonia and the rest of Spain. In fact, Podemos as such does not run in Catalonia, only running in coalition with other alternative left parties, mostly ICV-EUiA. On top of this, it has quite an ambiguous stance regarding Catalonia's right to self-determination.

In Barcelona, Podemos is running through the coalition Barcelona en Comú, which is led by Ada Colau and it includes the ICV-EUiA as well. According to the polls, they could be the most voted list in the city council, but will obtain between 8 and 11 seats (depending on the poll), far from the 21 necessary for an absolute majority. Colau became famous in 2011, when she led the civil society association of people affected by home evictions due to the impossibility of paying back mortgages due to the economic crisis. Colau could be the great surprise and the great change in the municipal elections in Barcelona, becoming the Catalan capital's first female Mayor.

Colau's success is likely to be detrimental to the ERC, which a year ago was seriously hoping to obtain the position of Mayor of Barcelona. The ERC's candidate, Alfred Bosch, could still do it, but according to the polls he is set to obtain between 4 and 8 seats. In any case, the ERC will significantly improve its current representation in the Catalan capital. In the rest of Catalonia, the ERC is also likely to achieve improved results and increase the number of town halls it governs. The social-democrat party is presenting these elections as the first stage of September's plebiscite on independence, insisting that it is very important to have clearly pro-independence town halls for the coming years. Polls from a few months ago were predicting a possible victory of the ERC in forthcoming Catalan Parliament Elections, overtaking the CiU by a close margin. However, this option does not seem so likely anymore according to the most recent surveys.