Grassroots mayors embody Spain's divisions as election nears

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 02, 2015 4:43 AM

By John Stonestreet

MADRID (Reuters) - Shortly after she took office in June, Madrid's left-wing anti-establishment mayor Manuela Carmena set up 'Version Original', a website her council uses to rebut media reports it considers "inexact or open to misinterpretation".

The former high court judge's team also announced plans to change street names associated with former fascist dictator Francisco Franco and made a show of its anticlericalism.

The heady mix of gesture politics and initiatives favoring ordinary citizens over big business drew criticism from some allies and condemnation from mainstream opponents, who called 'Version Original' anti-democratic.

It also threw the spotlight on Podemos, the new-kid-on-the-block anti-austerity party that has links with Carmena and her counterparts in Barcelona, Valencia and Zaragoza, and is closely allied with the Syriza movement now in government in Greece.

Although Carmena quickly toned down the web page, the polemical tone alienated the media and eroded some of the political capital she gained in late May in municipal elections that shifted the balance of power in Spain's biggest cities.

With Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's center-right government smarting from that defeat, Carmena's actions have revived a legacy of factionalism from Spain's civil war and may sway the outcome of national polls due by year-end.

While some Madrid voters call Carmena's council immature, others welcome it for challenging the status quo.

"We need to alter Spain's political mentality," said 23-year-old chef Joaquin Serrano. "If our education system is bad and we are turning the population into idiots, we have a problem."

Rajoy is using the polarization of the debate around Spain's new mayors to target Podemos, which poses a major threat to his re-election prospects, drawing parallels between the 18-month-old party's inexperience and Syriza’s policies.

While a painful recession has given way to strong economic growth, social tensions remain sharp and allegations of corruption against both mainstream parties are also in play.

"The environment is so sensitive that these measures are used by other (mainstream) parties to attack," said Antonio Barroso, analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.

"They want to show the (anti-establishment parties) are not fit to govern."


The row over 'Version Original' summons up a deeper 'Catholics versus revolutionaries' conflict in Spanish society that led to a 1936-39 civil war in which Franco defeated left-wing and anarchist republicans, ruling until he died in 1975.

Barroso says these divisions underpin the present-day democratic political party system.

Carmena took on church interests when she resisted pressure to sack council spokeswoman Rita Maestre for exposing her underwear in a chapel in 2011 as part of a student protest.

She has since said the plan to change street names tied to Franco is not a priority.

Last week Carmena's mayoral counterpart in Barcelona, Ada Colau, triggered a backlash by removing from city hall a bust of former king Juan Carlos, still widely popular after he abdicated in favor of his son King Philip last year.

In a city whose annual visitor numbers dwarf its population, Colau drew a more positive reaction from business and constituents by suspending the issuance of new tourist accommodation licenses, though the industry minister accused her of damaging the economic recovery.

Carmena came unstuck when she tried to regulate Madrid's less dominant tourism sector, taking to 'Version Original' to deny media reports that a city tax on hotel stays was imminent.

But she won praise when she overturned eviction orders for 70 families living in social housing and safeguarded more than 2,000 similar rental contracts.


Signs that Spain is still uncertain about the new-broom ideology espoused by Carmena and Colau are visible in Podemos’ volatile poll ratings.

Having led the monthly Metroscopia survey for El Pais newspaper on 22.1 percent in April, the leftist party fell below 15 percent in some polls in early July.

It ranked third on 18.1 percent in Metroscopia’s July poll and edged back to 20.3 percent in another well-regarded survey, for broadcaster Telecinco.

Teneo Intelligence’s Barroso, however, believes the growing polarization of Spanish politics may ultimately benefit Rajoy's conservative People's Party as it cranks up its powerful machine to mobilize stay-at-home voters.

"The way to do that is by saying Podemos is going to win... and Carmena and Colau are two representatives of this 'left-wing threat'," Barroso said. "That is why Rajoy and the whole party are attacking them."

For Ignacio Goma, a Madrid lawyer in his 50s with centrist views, the grassroots movements are not dangerous, though their naivety is a concern.

"They have good intentions... but there is a clear lack of political experience," he said.

'Version Original' may be a case in point. Intended to set the record straight, it has strained the goodwill of an already skeptical - and influential - Spanish press, whose national federation called the website an instrument of censorship.

(Editing by Julien Toyer and Paul Taylor)