Battle for Barcelona wide open as Spain’s ‘Super Sunday’ looms

Parties jostle as regional, municipal and EU elections held on same day

A municipal worker packs ballot papers for distribution to polling stations in Barcelona. Photograph: Enric Fontcuberta

A municipal worker packs ballot papers for distribution to polling stations in Barcelona. Photograph: Enric Fontcuberta

 

During a televised debate between the candidates for mayor of Barcelona this week, the Socialist Jaume Collboni turned to address one of his rivals, the independent Manuel Valls.

“Do you know what the difference is between you and me?” Collboni asked. “It’s that I will win the election – I can win it and you can’t. You only have to look at the polls to see that.”

Valls, the former prime minister of France whose Catalan roots have led him to run for mayor of the Spanish city, disputed that claim, insisting he will emerge as the victor.

It is quite possible that neither Collboni nor Valls will win this Sunday’s election. Instead, polls suggest the winner is more likely to be either current mayor Ada Colau of the leftist Barcelona en Comú platform; or Ernest Maragall, candidate of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC). However, given the likelihood that the election will be inconclusive, any of the above could play a role in forming a new administration.

Barcelona’s ballot is just one of many taking place across Spain on Sunday. As well as an EU election, there will be votes in 12 of the country’s 17 regions and in town and city halls nationwide. Last month’s general election shook up Spain’s political landscape with a result that broadly favoured the left as the Socialists emerged as winners. This so-called “Super Sunday” could see that swing confirmed.

Much of the attention will be focused on Madrid. In the city itself, the leftist mayor Manuela Carmena is seeking to remain in office while in the Madrid region the left is aiming to end 24 years of conservative government.

In the capital and most other regions and municipalities going to the polls this weekend, the left and right are vying for supremacy in a polarised political arena. On the left, the Socialists of prime minister Pedro Sánchez have shifted closer to the more hard-line Podemos. On the right, the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos have taken an at times fierce line against Sánchez and his allies. With the far-right Vox party enjoying a surge in recent months, an entrenched left-right dynamic has emerged, echoing that of many other countries in Europe.

But Barcelona is different. As Collboni and Valls’s feisty televised exchange suggested, it is host to a wide-open contest in which the right has often been marginalised.

Journalist and commentator Enric Juliana noted: “Whereas most big European cities are seeing a clash between a more or less conventional centre-left and the new populist right, [in Barcelona] three versions of social democracy are fighting it out to be mayor.”

Radical backgrounds

Colau, the Socialist Collboni and ERC’s Maragall are those three left-leaning contenders, with Valls, despite his background as a French socialist, placed further to the right with the support of the Ciudadanos party.

Colau took office four years ago, riding a new-left wave which swept a generation of politicians from radical backgrounds into city halls across Spain. A former activist who had protested against the evictions of families during the recent economic crisis, Colau pledged to make housing policy a priority. She also faced an upsurge in tourist numbers which was boosting the economy but had other, less welcome effects.

Former French prime minister and mayoral candidate for Barcelona Manuel Valls (centre) meets members of the local gypsy community. Photograph: Josep Lago
Former French prime minister and mayoral candidate for Barcelona Manuel Valls (centre) meets members of the local gypsy community. Photograph: Josep Lago

“In the last few years two serious issues have had an impact in Barcelona, housing and tourism, which have both contributed to the gentrification phenomenon,” says Pere Mariné, an activist with Favb, a federation that campaigns for the rights of Barcelona’s residents.

Rental rates have increased by nearly 40 per cent over the last five years, according to Catalan government figures. Mariné blames this partly on a lack of regulation across Spain and a public housing deficit, but also on Barcelona’s status as a tourism hub. A city of 1.6 million residents, it receives 30 million visitors each year, many of who stay in apartments offered by digital platforms such as Airbnb, pushing rents up and often irritating locals with late-night noise.

“A few years ago there was gentrification, but it was sort of organic, but now it’s happening in a much bigger, more obvious way,” says Mariné, who warns that if the phenomenon is not stopped soon, the current trickle of locals away from the city centre will become an exodus.

Josep Maria Montaner, who oversees Barcelona’s housing department for Colau’s administration, insists they have introduced “drastic changes” to how the city is run in order to meet these challenges. He points to a moratorium on the building of hotels in central Barcelona since 2015 and the closure of hundreds of illegal tourist apartments.

Petty crime

Other parties have attacked Colau’s attempts to clamp down as either too weak or too heavy-handed. “You only think about punishing, regulating,” Valls told her in one debate. “That doesn’t work.”

A perceived rise in petty crime has been another hot campaign issue, as has the need for improved public transport.

But there are other factors at play in this election. Barcelona is seen as a major political prize, because of its status as the capital of Catalonia, a significant fact for those who want independence for the region – like ERC and Together for Catalonia (JxCat) – and those who oppose it, such as the Socialists, the PP and Valls. For the last four years the city has been in the hands of Colau’s Barcelona en Comú, a political force that is somewhere in the middle: it supports Catalonia’s right to self-determination but does not back secession.

“The independence issue has been a distraction,” says Montaner, of city hall. “For those of us on the left who prioritise social issues – rights, equality, equality in urban planning – all of those things have been pushed aside.”

This extra faultline in Barcelona’s politics adds a layer of intrigue to Sunday’s contest, which is unlikely to see a clear victor. Instead, two or more parties are expected to have to work together to govern. Discord over Catalan sovereignty means that ERC and the Socialists have publicly ruled each other out as governing partners, while Valls is prepared to talk to the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party (PP). There is speculation, meanwhile, that campaign frontrunners Barcelona en Comú and ERC could reach an understanding.

If so, ERC’s Ernest Maragall, at the age of 76, could find himself playing a key role in Barcelona’s future. Thirty-seven years ago, his brother Pasqual became mayor, paving the way for Barcelona’s development into a modern, international metropolis, with all the benefits and problems that would bring.

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