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Is This the World's Most Radical Mayor?

When Ada Colau was elected mayor of Barcelona, she became a figurehead of the new leftwing politics sweeping Spain. The question she now faces is a vital one for the left across Europe – can she really put her ideas into practice?

It was the early evening of 5 February 2013, and seated among grave-looking men in suits, a woman named Ada Colau was about to give evidence to a Spanish parliamentary hearing. “Before saying anything,” she began, “I’d just like to make one thing clear. I am not an important person. I have never held office or been the president of anything … The only reason I am here is that I am a momentarily visible face of a citizens’ movement.”

Colau was there to discuss the housing crisis that had devastated Spain. Since the financial crisis, 400,000 homes had been foreclosed and a further 3.4m properties lay empty. In response, Colau had helped to set up a grassroots organisation, the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), which championed the rights of citizens unable to pay their mortgages or threatened with eviction. Founded in 2009, the PAH quickly became a model for other activists, and a nationwide network of leaderless local groups emerged. Soon, people across Spain were joining together to campaign against mortgage lenders, occupy banks and physically block bailiffs from carrying out evictions.

Ten minutes into Colau’s 40-minute testimony she broke from the script. Her voice cracking with emotion, she turned her attention to the previous speaker, Javier Rodriguez Pellitero, the deputy general secretary of the Spanish Banking Association: “This man is a criminal, and should be treated as such. He is not an expert. The representatives of financial institutions have caused this problem; they are the same people who have caused the problem that has ruined the entire economy of this country – and you keep calling them experts.”

When she had finished, the white-haired chair of the parliament’s economic committee turned to Colau and asked her to withdraw her “very serious offences” in slandering Pellitero. She shook her head and quietly declined.

The “criminal” video became a media sensation, earning Colau condemnation in some quarters and heroine status in others. A poll for the Spanish newspaper El País a few weeks later revealed that 90% of the country’s population approved of the PAH. The group’s work continued. In July 2013, Colau was photographed in Barcelona being dragged away by riot police from a protest against a bank that had refused to negotiate with an evicted family.

Two years later, that image went viral, powered by the extraordinary news that the same T-shirted activist had just been elected the new mayor of Barcelona.

On the day of her inauguration, Colau addressed supporters of all ages gathered on the cobblestones in Plaça Sant Jaume in Barcelona’s old town, thanking them for “making the impossible possible”. Some waved the tricolour of the Second Spanish Republic, which was declared in the very same square in April 1931; its egalitarian ideals buried in the rubble of the civil war five years later.

The date of Colau’s victory – 24 May 2015 – was to be, in the words of one spray-painted graffiti slogan, “a day that will last for years”. Colau had been elected mayor on behalf of Barcelona en Comú, a new “citizens’ movement” backed by several leftwing parties. She became the city’s first ever female mayor, and BComú the first new party to gain power after 35 years dominated by the centre-left PSC and centre-right CiU.

The date was not only significant in Barcelona. BComú was one of several new groups that had defeated the established parties to win power in eight major Spanish cities, including Madrid, Valencia and Zaragoza. These new “mayors of change” became symbols of hope for what progressives in Spain sometimes call la nueva politica.

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It has become commonplace across the western world to talk of “new politics” in response to voter apathy, economic crises, corruption and the decline of established political parties. In Spain, however, the phrase has a ring of truth to it. After years of social upheaval following the financial crisis, widespread uprisings against political and business elites have transformed the country’s political landscape. Just as the Indignados, who occupied Spanish squares in their millions in the summer of 2011, inspired the global Occupy movement, it was in Spain, too, that this energy was first channelled into political movements capable of contesting elections, such as the leftwing populist party Podemos.

Colau has been involved every step of the way, and as mayor of the country’s second-biggest city, she now possesses real political power – arguably more so than Podemos, which came third in the Spanish general election last December. The question Colau now faces is a vital one for the left across Europe: can she put her radical agenda into practice?

When I first met Colau last autumn, she was in the middle of an unusual transition, adapting from grassroots activism to life as an elected politician. Having started out at BComú’s spartan office, populated by young people hot-desking on laptops, she was now installed in Barcelona’s 14th-century city hall, with its marble columns, stained glass and Miró statues.

Her calendar had been taken over by a succession of official mayoral duties: gladhanding, exchanging gifts and small talk with dignitaries – death by a thousand micro-ceremonies. The demands on her time are especially intense, since it is central to BComú’s principles and media strategy that the organisation’s figurehead stays on the same level as her supporters, taking public transport and attending neighbourhood BComú meetings where possible.

In the weeks following her victory, Colau signalled what might be new about the new politics, with a series of headline-grabbing reforms. “This is the end of a political class removed from the people,” she said, cutting expense accounts and salaries of elected officials. She announced she would reduce her own pay from €140,000 to €28,600, slashed the budget for her own inauguration ceremony, and replaced her predecessor’s Audi with a more efficient mayoral minivan. (She was eventually blocked by political opponents from reducing her salary below €100,000 and has stated that she will donate the remaining sum to local groups.) She suggested withdrawing the annual €4m subsidy to Barcelona’s Grand Prix circuit, restored school meal subsidies to the city’s poorest children, and levied fines worth a total of €60,000 on banks that owned vacant properties. (At the posturing end of the spectrum of political action, she removed a bust of the recent King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, from the city hall’s council chamber.)

She also spent a night out with a homeless charity, helping to count how many people were sleeping rough in Barcelona (almost 900), met mobile phone company workers who were on strike, joined a demonstration against a controversial immigrant detention centre in the city, and returned to speak at the very same local assemblies that had brought BComú to power in the first place.

These initial moves encouraged Colau’s supporters, but the challenge most likely to define her time in office will be taming Barcelona’s tourist industry. In its transformation, since the 1992 Olympics, into the self-styled capital of the Mediterranean, and the fourth-most-visited city in Europe, Barcelona has become a victim of its own success. In the old town, evictions are common – a direct result of rents being driven up by tourist apartments – and residents complain that their neighbourhoods have become unlivable. “You really can’t walk down some streets in the summer,” one local told me, “as in, you physically can’t fit.”

The scale of the problem is made clear by a few simple figures: in 1990, Barcelona had 1.7 million visitors making overnight stays – only a little more than the population of the city; in 2016, the number has risen to more than eight million. In the intervening period, infrastructure and accommodation have been improved and expanded – pavements widened, signage increased, tour buses rerouted – but the problem is a fundamental one. Barcelona is a relatively small city. It is not London, Paris or New York. Major attractions such as the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell are located in the middle of residential neighbourhoods, not surrounded by the open space they need to accommodate millions of visitors.

Tourism has grown enormously in Barcelona. In 1990 there were 1.7 million overnight visitors; in 2016 there more more than 8 million.Photograph: Dave Stelfox

As tourism has exploded, radically reshaping the city, the question of who Barcelona is ultimately for has become increasingly insistent. “Any city that sacrifices itself on the altar of mass tourism,” Colau has said, “will be abandoned by its people when they can no longer afford the cost of housing, food and basic everyday necessities.” Everyone is proud of Barcelona’s international reputation, Colau told me, but at what cost? “There’s a sense that Barcelona could risk losing its soul. We need to seek a fair balance between the best version of globalisation, and keeping the character, identity and life of the city. This is what makes it attractive – it is not a monumental city, and it is not a world capital like Paris – its main feature is precisely its life, its plurality, its Mediterranean diversity.”

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