Former anti-eviction activist Ada Colau has been elected the new mayor Barcelona in the municipal elections this Sunday. Ahead of the victory of the radical campaigner, who was backed by a coalition including Podemos and United Left, she spoke to Il Manifesto newspaper.
A squatter in power. If we wanted to find a way of encapsulating the local elections in Spain on May 24, on which depend the political future of the country, it would be enough to focus on the fact that Ada Colau could become mayor of the second largest Spanish city, Barcelona. Colau rose to fame after appearing in Parliament two years ago to defend Popular Legislative Initiative, torpedoed by the ruling Popular Party, which asked a simple thing: that on taking back possession of homes the banks would clear the debt of mortgage defaulters.
In the country with Europe’s largest housing bubble, where, say, in 2005 they built more homes than Germany, France and Italy together and where it is estimated that more than 5 million empty houses, half a million people have been thrown out of their homes but still have their mortgage debt with banks.
Forgotten by Spain’s institutions, the indebted homeless were helped by the “Platform for the victims of mortgages” (Pah), which was born in Barcelona from the ashes of the ‘occupy’ protests that started in May 2011, and spread throughout the country. Pah helped them deal with the banks and above all gave them a roof over their heads, occupying the empty houses owned by the banks in their thousands. IItalian radical newspaper ll Manifesto spoke to her ahead of an election that polls suggested she was going to win.
Your candidacy brings together various fragments of the left: Podemos, the red-green Catalans of the ICV, Izquierda Unida, as well as various citizen movements. An initiative that will perhaps have success. How did you get here?
We are living through an exceptional moment, and things considered impossible until recently are becoming possible. On one hand is a scam called the ‘crisis’ that is affecting fundamental rights, a lack of democracy, widespread corruption, an economic crisis and a political crisis in the country. On the other, there is an exceptionality in a positive way: the country has been mobilizing for years now: 15M [the popular ‘indignados’ uprising of May 2011], the [anti-privatisation citizen protest] tides for health and education, the Pah. The electoral process was established in this context of “democratic revolution”. We must be proud: in other countries, the response was completely different. But municipalism has historically been a place of rupture from the bottom up, where politics is closer to the people.
Is there something special about Barcelona in explaining this success?
Barcelona is not a city like any other. But here there is a progressive majority social, the city has been a pioneer in processes of rupture [a reference to the Spanish Republic of the 1930s] and is a city where more than in other places you can win. The first goal was to mobilize the 50% of abstainers who had never participated in elections. Bringing together both those who were doing politics for some time, such as ICV or Izquierda Unida, and the newcomers, such as Podemos. Everyone said the same thing: the citizens are asking us to leave our egos behind and show breadth of vision, giving priority to the objectives.
And the fact that you were leading the campaign did it help, compared to other cities?
Each city has a different reality. Here there is the social movement is more organized than in other cities. The visibility and cross-cutting consent I enjoyed helped unite different people. But there are other less visible contributors, like the movements for housing, for affordable energy, against poverty, in the academic world. It is no coincidence that our work inspired more than 40 other candidates in other cities across Spain.
Tell me how you have built programmes and lists
We said that if we were to enter the electoral battle, it was not only to put others in place of those that are already there, but to change the way of doing politics. And we could not wait for the day after the election to do so. We have focused on the role played by the citizens, transparency, and financial independence [with a campaign of crowdfunding].
All those who wished to participate in decision-making on major issues have been able to do, there were no party cards for [our list] ‘Barcelona en comú’. The first step was to be “validated” by the citizens. In the height of summer and during just a few weeks, we collected 30 thousand signatures to ensure that we were not just a group of madmen and women with no one backing us up. Then, given the times we live in, where politics is discredited, we approved a code of ethics. Hence arose the cap on wages, the number of mandates, measures for transparency in expenditure and discussions in meetings, and a number of things to eliminate privileges and bad practices.
Sometimes they seemed even a bit ‘demagogic. A monthly salary of 2,200 Euros net for a mayor (against the current 12,000) is probably too low …
Look, today more than half of people in Barcelona earns less than a thousand euros monthly. And we are demanding exemplary behaviour for those who occupy public office. Although as a candidate for the position of mayor, I have not participated in this debate, I accept the conclusions. Generally I believe that if many people participate in a discussion, then collective intelligence and common sense prevail. If not, people would not participate in numbers and not many new people would be joining the project. I myself, like many others, would not have go in involved if there were no proposals or demagogy.
Let’s continue with the process of developing the program.
After these steps, we held primaries and then we pressed on with the program, starting from neighbourhood groups where we gathered more than 2,000 proposals which we split into programmatic axes. It was an incredible experience. There were hundreds of people who were real experts in employment, urban planning, ecology, economy. An incredible level of expertise. More than 5,000 people participated in the drafting of the program!
And our program remains open: we do not believe the program should ever be finished. It will continue to be developed. When we begin to implement the measures, we will evaluate them, and if they do not work we will change them. This whole process should continue after May 25.
What did “Platform for the victims of mortgages” (Pah) teach you?
It is the experience from which I learned most of all, after motherhood. And I am very grateful for this. The Pah showed me that the impossible is possible. That the story of David and Goliath is not mythology. That people with less power and the seemingly most marginalized of society, criminalized for their debts, ridiculed, can move mountains as long as they unite, and don’t give up.
Those who have lost everything, who have joined together, without giving in, with huge efforts (because the first few years were very hard), while everyone was telling us that it was impossible to deal with banks, have overcome. For me it was a life lesson: the only thing we don;t get tis the thing we don’t fight for. Maybe it will take a long time, but we will get something.
And then it taught me the importance of small victories. The importance of having ambitious targets, which may not depend only on us, but without being a maximalist. Such as the ones we have now: real democracy, put an end to corruption, regain social rights, establish a Fair Economy. Knowing the direction, you have to put goals in the short, medium and long term and by accumulating small victories you demonstrate that a big win is possible. That’s how you secure things that seem impossible.
You have a 4 year old son. How have you reconciliated [the demands of the campaign with] family life, and how do you think you can make this [work-life balance] better in a city like Barcelona?
It is not easy, the current society is not made to reconcile such things, imagine what it is like during election periods. Personally, I try to find time where I can and I’m lucky to have a partner who helps me. As a city, there is something very concrete you can do from day one: create a quality contract that applies first to the 12,000 employees of the city and then to all the companies it works with. As a condition for working with the town, these companies must pay dignified wages with working time that allows work life balance. The municipality must be exemplary and this could change many of the dynamics in the city. In addition to the theme of working hours, there should also be the incorporation of children into public life, which should be given more prominence and more voice.
Even in the best can scenario in these elections, you still have to come to pacts with other parties. How will you do this?
If we win the most votes our terms will be based on our program, objectives and priorities. We will not do deals with the Popular Party discard of the [Catalan nationalist] CiU, which embody a model against which we fought. In any case, I cannot decide alone on political pacts. Once we have the results, we will decide in a democratic way. Certainly, we will not agree to privatization because they are contrary to the common good and to our approach. I am optimistic, we will find a way, even if we were to conclude pacts with more than one party.
The point is that we have been pursuing the process in the right fashion before the election, and from 25 May we hope we will add even more people and faces. We have mobilized a lot of people in setting priorities in public policy. The other parties will be obliged to listen to the voice of the people.