When I mention Spanish politics to an English person they invariably say how corrupt it is. I say that I think the politics in most countries is corrupt but that at least the Spanish admit it, unlike the English. Acknowledging it may well be the first stage to cleaning up.
Just over four years ago, Spain started the Indignados movement and people protested peacefully across the country. It took off across the world. In what I am seeing in the recent local elections, I suspect that Spain is about to lead the way again.
In the European elections in 2014, a new party called Podemos (we can) got five “diputados” elected. One of them was from the city where I live, Cartagena. While Podemos might be too far left for many of us there were things that impressed the general public, most notably that they chose to give away two thirds of their salary and also that they set up discussion groups arround Spain to find what the ordinary voter wanted,
Another party, Ciudadanos (Citizens) came first from Catalonia. While it is more to the right than Podemos it also was calling for “transparencia” and an end to the old corrupt ways. With these two parties, credible alternatives were there for those who no longer fancied PP or PSOE, the two old parties that had held sway for many years and were riddled with corruption.
The local elections in May saw a great many new faces elected in town halls all over Spain. While these councillors may possibly become corrupt in time, most are not at the start and have entered with altruistic motives. This in itself is a novelty. While the new parties were not generally strong enough to provide Mayors they were often able to forge alliances with existing parties to swing the vote away from PP:
To explain this in more detail I shall unfold the full story of what happened in the local elections in Cartagena. Cartagena is a small city with just over 200 thousand inhabitants. It has been important historically at various times in ancient history and is also one of Spain´s largest ports. The story of the election has a fairy tale quality. The feral cats of the city also played their part.
I come into this tale in the way that Pippin and Merry came into the story of the Storming of Isengard. The people of Cartagena in a sense resembled the ents as they were fundamentally good, slow to anger and had put up with a lot. Over the last few years I joined a number of demonstrations on various matters. The first was over building on Monte Sacro. Monte Sacro was one of the five hills that Cartagena was founded on. It had not been properly excavated, but the Council decided to term a chunk of its rock and the earth alongside as a “solar”, a building site. Permissions were granted in spite of all archaeological considerations and work on a block of flats began. I demonstrated for a year and made friends and acquaintances galore through this. We failed to save the hill from this desecration, though various denuncias were made. There is now a half-built block of flats there with some damaged city wall beneath its concrete. It is probable that it will stay half-built. I also demonstrated on other issues that felt important to me, most were connected to the environment or saving historic areas or buildings. I was invariably the only English person there. Some were surprised I bothered as I was not born in Cartagena or even Spain. I explained that I believed that the “patrimonio” was a part of world heritage and important to us all. Sometimes people said it made them feel they must demonstrate at least as much as the English woman who had joined them.
A few months before the 2011 elections I became part of a small party, ICCT, Iniciativa Ciudadania Cartagena, hoping to get a candidate in. They made me their secretary for the environment, in part because I was the chief hill-walker amongst them and got to see and record some places few others went to. I have been writing a book on the Sierra Minera for many years and hope to finish it in the next few months. Part of my researches included checking out old mines and quarries and the vast tracts of uninhabited land around them. Our party didn´t get enough votes for a councillor but I learned a lot about the local political system and made friends also.
At this period, I went on a walk known as the Ruta de las Fortalezas. It was 50 kilometres across 4 mountains and organised by the local military. This made me begin to study the history of the local fortifications. I became interested particularly in the Cantonal War of 1873. I felt an amused satisfaction that Cartagena was actually a separate canton for 6 months and minting its own coinage. Most years I go up the San Julian mountain to celebrate this on the evening of July the 12th. Someone runs up a flag of the Cantonal colour, blood red, and we sit about sharing food. It´s a way of commemorating an interesting piece of history that the local council does not choose to celebrate. In 2014, I was bottle-feeding several kittens that had been dumped at birth. My son was willing to mind them in the morning but not in the evening while I went out. This meant that I went to a different unofficial celebration of the Cantonal War on Mount Atalaya. This was the area which was connected with the betrayal which ended the War. I had been invited to participate by the younger members of Movimiento Ciudadano, a party with just one councillor in the Ayuntamiento. Again this ceremony involved running up a flag and reading speeches. It was here that I met José Lopez, the true star of the local election story. On the way up the mountain he cleaned up various bits of rubbish that others had left there and put them in carrier bags to dispose of later. He then invited the dozen or so of us for sardines in a local restaurant near a sports centre. I was generally impressed with him as a man who was willing to clear up other people´s rubbish and listen to the opinions of the people. He also seemed to have a kind of energy and charisma I googled his history afterwards and found that he was a baker´s son who had made a business out of coffee and now had plantations in Nicaragua. The average Spanish baker often has a coffeeshop alongside his bakery where you can enjoy coffee and cakes.
In story after story in local papers I realised that José Lopez was fighting a lone battle against corruption. I began to be impressed that one man on his own could be so effective without other councillors backing him. The fact that he was a successful businessman helped him be less frightened as politicians tried to sue him for defamation. Many others would have backed down in the circumstances.
The Cantonal War can sound a bit like Passport to Pimlico but it is a significant story to many who seek to defend Cartagena. It was a bloody war with a great loss of lives and property. What is important to many these days is that it was a period when Cartagena was independent and also had such strength it took national and international forces plus a betrayal to subdue it. It has a special resonance for “cantonalistas” who want to see Cartagena as a province separate from Murcia.
In my time with a small party in 2010 to 2011 I learned that Cartagena has 27 council seats in the Ayuntamiento. Each party has to provide a list of 30 names to fill these 27 seats and provide 3 spares. Cartagena had been safely PP for 20 years, but the emergence of various scandals including the large corruption case known as Operación Punica began to eat away at the solidarity of the PP vote.
Lots of seemingly unnecessary public works were being done. Squares were being renovated and ruined in the process. Ancient trees were moved so often I began to liken the Mayoress to Saruman in my head. The PSOE Mayor who was in charge for 4 years before the Mayoress was arrested. He had the Mayoress´ credit card on him at the time (they were friends). This was the card used for expenses. This resulted in one of the best pre-election jokes. The Mayoress, Pilar Barreiro, was running a publicity campaign consisting of various PP citizens saying “Soy Pilar” (I am Pilar) then going on to say why. Myself and others made spoof videos saying why we weren´t Pilar, but by far the best offering came from someone who put a picture of the arrested former PSOE Mayor with Soy Pilar on it, then explained below that he must be Pilar because he had a credit card with her name on it.
With all this going on, the PP vote shrank to way below that necessary to confer an automatic right to choose the Mayor. Yet another matter lowered their popularity: The Councillor for Health sent a very unpleasant letter to the head of a small charity, Cuatro Gatos, that helps stray cats and had been given leave to run 5 colonies in the city centre. That charity is run by a long-term friend of mine. What Ana had done wrong was question the running of the dog pound which was receiving 300,000 euros a year and put dogs down rather fast. Although her colonies were all sterilised with money from Brigitte Bardot´s charities the letter threatened to put them all down unless she turned in a plan for mass vaccination, chipping, etcetera in an impossibly short space of time. They were offering no money to help her do this.
There was a mass demonstration for animal rights where several local political parties offered solidarity. Ana got more than 11,000 signatures on a petition and got international animal welfare societies interested. People like myself tweeted how bad putting down cats would be for tourism. The Council did not apologise or withdraw its threats but instead pretended to the press it had never made them once they saw they were getting bad publicity. Not the brightest move when their letter´s wording is available online.
At the same time this was going on, Ana had joined Ciudadanos and decided to stand. She was third on their list and got elected. Though I did not vote for this party I immediately congratulated her saying that there was now a voice for the cats in the Ayuntamiento.
I watched the numbers of votes counted online round midnight on the 24th of May with some trepidation. Another PP victory could mean a mass feline slaughter perhaps. The final count gave 10 seats to PP, 6 to PSOE, 5 to Movimiento Ciudadano, 3 to Ciudadanos and 3 to Cartagena Si Se Puede (connected to Podemos). There was hope in these numbers. Before June 13th a pact had to be made. Only 14 seats would give the chance to elect a Mayor. With so much bad behaviour from PP, there was noone left for them to cosy up to. Ciudadanos might have been a possibility if they hadn´t threatened the cats. But now, Ciudadanos was pro-animal thanks to input from Ana. Neither was Movimento Ciudadano a possibility, as José Lopez had been proving a scourge to the Mayoress. At this point she resigned and not before time. The reason given was to make an accord between the parties. But the two PP members who tried to negotiate included the councillor who wanted to slay the cats and who had not been on good terms with José Lopez judging by other stories on the internet. Relations broke down almost immediately. In the days that followed, Movimiento Ciudadano provided a list of mínimum conditions for an alliance. It was a bold strategy. There seemed to be brief accords with the other parties apart from PP. In the last day or two all seemed to have gone wrong with what appeared to be a power struggle for the position of Mayor between MC and PSOE. The Cartagena Si Se Puede councillors offered to mediate. On the 13th, I was depressed, thinking victory would go by default to PP. Even the body language confirmed this with José Lopez looking angry as he voted. I watched it streaming online as all places in the town hall were taken by relatives. In a moment of high drama it turned out that there was a last minute alliance between 3 parties. I began to get an inkling when the ladies of Cartagena Si Se Puede put their votes in the urn with a look of satisfaction. They reminded me of the Graces with their quiet role in all this. Ciudadanos it turned out had agreed to turn in blank votes to help. José Lopez, the scourge of corrupt politicians, is now Mayor for two years, while the head of PSOE, Ana Belén Castejón will be Mayoress for the following two.
What a wonderful fairy tale ending that the baker´s son who was given the worst room in the Ayuntamiento to wage his lone war against corruption is now the man in office. I also felt some satisfaction seeing the look on the face of the would-be cat slayer. His expression closely resembled that of a toad that had sat on a grenade. Viva Cartagena.
All over Spain, interesting stories are unfolding from towns sick of corruption. What a wonderful world it could be if all the Mayors were decent. Let´s hope Spain can show the way.