“David against Goliath”: A relieved Ada Colau, activist and new mayor of Barcelona, refers to this biblical image as she talks about the night of the 24th of May in her election battle against the parties that have dominated the political landscape in the capital of Catalonia for the past decades. With her campaign the 41-year old managed to shake municipal politics since her party, Barcelona En Comú (BComú), will shape Barcelona for the next four years. Many see the election event on Sunday as a hope for change – not only for Barcelona but for politics in general.
For people not familiar with this event: On Sunday, the citizens of Barcelona elected the 10th Barcelona City Council which has been led since 2011 by Xavier Trias from the CiU (Convergencia i Unio), after being led for 30 years by the socialist party PPS.
This time the political new-comer BComú won with 11 seats and with a percentage of 25.21 % of the votes. That means every fourth Barcelonese voted for the platform and with this for political change towards radical municipal politics.
Why is this such an astonishing event?
End of corruption?
BComú – like Podemos and the diverse strands within the new left-wing formations- stands for the hope of a transformation in doing politics. Having its roots in the 15M movement, the platform supports a participative, open and transparent way of politics combating against the rigid system of the two-party system in Spain.
The Bipartidismo, prevalent since the beginning of the democratic transition in the late 1970s has made Spain famous in Europe for corruption and marginalization. The promise that made BComú win the votes in the city is to let the citizens of Barcelona decide on the future of the city according to their districts.
The meaning of this promise of ending corruption cannot be overestimated for Spanish and Catalan citizens.
Successful implementation of technologies?
The second element that is special about this victory is the successful implementation of new technologies for a participative deliberation process.
The programme on which BComú based their participation in the election was developed online using the tools Democracy OS and Agoravoting. The same applies for the Plan de Choque, the action programme that outlines their activities in the following months. These processes support the strong faith that technologies will allow an Athenian democracy where the whole population can directly and freely decide over any issues, overcoming institutional hurdles like political parties and representatives.
BComú furthermore successfully disseminated ideas via Twitter and Facebook therefore not only using technologies for intra-party communication but also external communication.
BComú can therefore be placed within what scholar Ismael Peña-Lopez has referred to as the third phase of technopolitics, the technology-led application of network-like organisational structures within institutions opening the way to a horizontal exchange of ideas and democratic debate.
One can argue that these two aspects are not particularly revolutionary and that Europe has seen a similar event some years ago driven by fed-up citizens aiming to reform politics. The Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) in Italy serves as an excellent example. Fed up by Berlusconi and corruption, the former comedian and social activist Beppe Grillo founded the party with the tremendous help of Twitter. However, after a success in the general elections 2013 saw major critique regarding their lack of internal democracy losing support throughout the Italian population.
The rise of the Pirate Parties supporting the exact processes with the help of ICTs is another example. Nonetheless, most of them, with the exception of the Iceland branch – currently the most popular party in the country – have proven not to be successful in the long-term, doomed with the label flash-party.
How does BComú differ from their predecessors and why can they actually be successful?
There are three reasons why BComú might fare better than the parties described above:
- The situation in Spain is different. What is at stake here is the future of the citizens and their cities. In Germany, 2011, where the Pirates suggested more citizen involvement with a focus on liquid democracy – a mixture between direct and representative democracy – the economic and social situation was quite save. Germany’s government is better known for their efficiency than their level of corruption. In Spain people are sick of the “old way” of doing politics, the disentanglement of their representatives with the reality of those they are supposed to represent.
- The nationwide back-up: BComú shares more or less the same spirit as the uprising party Podemos and benefits a lot from the collaboration and friendship with Podemos. Their sparkle have been successful as well, with AHORA MADRID as the second strongest party in the Spanish capital and a high share of the votes in other regions making the traditional mainstream parties lose 3 million votes out of 14 million cast. This ideological support will consolidate the position of BComú on a nation-wide level.
- The profile of the main actors: Compared to the precedent political phenomena in Europe, the team or “equipo” of BComú does not consist of technology-affiliated rather than politics-affiliated members. Ada Colau is a charming activist – that has been occupying banks and being dragged out by police forces – she knows the reality of Barcelona and her heart beats with the people. But not only Ada Colau, also her team consists of members that know their business: BComú introduces a law professor, an established politician, a lawyer and a professor of politics in their first five members of parliament providing expertise in law and politics issues.
But it is too early to celebrate BComú as the new way of doing politics supported by the citizens. They will – as every social movement between anti-power outside and the wish to change the institutional system from inside – face challenges and inevitably lose support.
The Backfire of Populism.
First of all, Ada Colau needs to make compromises: To get the majority in the city council, she will need to cooperate with players that belong to the old system. Her narratives have been strong: Empowering every citizen to shape their borough after his/her own needs is a promise Ada Colau cannot hold. The people that are driven by the promise that they themselves will govern will be desperately disappointed. Her anti-establishment attitude that gave her great support in the population will be fruitless when bargaining with other politicians.
Time is another crucial factor, citizens will expect changes soon but it needs patience to clean out the government and to set up the processes that might bring the aspired benefits for society. These two aspects will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction with the platform.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy.
Around 100 years ago, Robert Michels made a famous argument that has not been extensively discussed within the new party formations. He states that every organization becomes oligarchic; that is, a few will rule over the majority. He goes on to argue that this is not a byproduct of organization processes that can be avoided, this symptom is part of the “tactical and technical necessities” (Michels, 1911) of organization. Therefore, every organization that aims to be decentralized and participative will sooner or later end up with the opposite: a few representatives speaking for the majority.
The Worst Case Scenario.
Assuming that BComú ends up like the Pirates and M5S, losing its support base and will be seen as a party that gave hope and crushed it in a few years period: the promises made by BComú show that the people can provide alternatives to the establishment. This is also backed up by the strong performance of Podemos and its sub-groupings.
There will be processes of transparency and anti-corruption implemented that people will hold on to, even if the political landscape is taken over by the established parties in four years. After all, BComú claims to be an experiment, therefore, even if the worst case scenario should become reality, they already brought change by planting self-esteem and the will to change into the citizens.
Michels, R. (1911). Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Leipzig: Verlag von Doktor Werner Klinkhart.