What is municipalism and why is it gaining presence in Spain?

Gathering organized by 15M movement in Madrid, 2011 [Photo: Kadellar via WikimediaCommons].

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The two major Spanish parties since the Transition lost nearly 3 million votes in the last municipal elections in May 2015. The country saw these results as evidence proving that the traditional bipartisanship was beginning to disappear. It was in these municipal elections that the citizen platform Levantemos El Puerto received more than 5,000 votes in a city of 90,000 citizens. The results also ended eight years of the Popular Party government, through a coalition between PSOE, Levantemos el Puerto and IU (United Left).

There are two main emerging parties that have entered the political spectrum in Spain: Podemos and Ciudadanos. Contrary to what was expected, after the 20th December general election results, Ciudadanos obtained only 40 deputies and remains the fourth political force, far behind Podemos. Meanwhile, the party of Pablo Iglesias won 69 deputies and more than 5 million votes across the country. The international press gave significant space to these elections, highlighting in particular the loss of the absolute majority of the Popular Party, the difficulty of forming a government without a majority, and the emergence of new parties.

Beyond the successes that both Ciudadanos and Podemos may achieve in the near future, the movement that is occurring between different political actors at a national and especially local level must also be taken into consideration. Not only have the so-called “new parties” been ruling some of the most important cities in Spain for several months, the citizen platforms that have been engaged demonstrate there is hope to change the way of doing politics.

What is ‘municipalismo’?


Puerta del Sol, in Madrid, during “The March of Change”, a demonstration of Podemos supporters [Photo: Discasto via WikimediaCommons]

Municipalism refers to ​​political organization based on assemblies of neighbourhoods, practicing direct democracy, which would be organized in a system of free communes or municipalities, as an alternative to the centralized state.

In Spain, ‘municipalismo’ emerged in the 19th Century, within the republican and anarchist tradition. There were politicians like Pi i Maragall, the president of the First Republic, and others such as Fernando Garrido, who contributed to the Spanish reform of government policy linked to citizen participation. Pi i Maragall theorized about federal decentralization in order to include members coming from different social status, and coordinated the territorial decentralization in Spain. For him, federalism was not only territorial administration and democratic decentralization, the real autonomy of the citizens came from the idea of “making coalitions while embracing diversity”.

“[…] Whoever thought existing institutions should define this pact based on an established authority, territory, borders, race or language, was wrong. According to Pi (who followed Proudhon), the federal pact was a bilateral and mutual agreement; in other words, a pact based on equal treatment, mutual sharing and equity. But if the basic actor inside the federalist cells were not countries, nations or states, then what were they? Pi had the audacity to raise the possible bases of a communal federal pact by using systems where social organization exceeded both the local authority and the system of private property. The communal pact worked by a collective agreement regarding the management of common interests. The basis of these agreements were not nationalist inspiration (rooted in tradition, race, language or cultural elements), but settled on a short-term political pact. Pi did not explore the consequences of these ideas, but opened the way for the libertarian movement […]” Metropolis Observatory (29: 2014).

Municipalism in the 21st century


Kurdish women holding a portrait of Abdullah Öcalan, whose ideas of libertarian municipalism have inspired the Rojava Revolution in Syrian Kurdistan [Photo: Kurdishstruggle via WikimediaCommons].

The historian and activist Murrat Bookchin has redefined the concept, adapting it to the current capitalist context. He bases this redefinition in the recovery of people’s direct democracy at the district and neighborhood levels. He proposes a “civic confederalism” to prevent provincialism in the cities, and also a municipalized economy in opposition to the capitalist system. The “civic confederalism” structure is based on a network of boards where the citizens elect members directly. The members of these councils have revocable mandates and are directly and immediately responsible for their decisions in the assemblies. They subsequently have a purely practical and administrative function.

For example, the current Kurdish movement, linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is trying to build a civil society based on principles of libertarian municipalism. Abdullah Ocalan, founder and leader of the PKK, the Workers Party of Kurdistan (listed as a terrorist organization due to waging a violent war of national liberation against Turkey), adopted a form of libertarian socialism that few anarchists knew of: Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism.

What is happening in Spain?

After the general elections in December, it is still unknown if the proposals coming from the citizen platforms will be fully effective in Spain’s political context. In the municipal elections, the Catalonian Candidature of Popular Unity (CUP), mainly defined by its principles of nationalism, anticapitalism and Euroscepticism, presented 163 candidates, more than twice the candidates presented in 2011.


CUP assembly. The CUP is a political party based on municipalism and assemblyism [Photo via anticapitalistes.net]

But now, after the elections on September 27th 2015, the region of Catalonia faces a return to the ballot box after the CUP refused to support the pro-independence leader Artur Mas. Mas is the main leader of the movement for independence from Spain, and the CUP votes enable him to become the president again. In the September elections, the CUP won 10 parliamentary seats with 336,375 votes.

Aside from Catalonia, there are other important regions in Spain where citizens are coming together to do politics from people to people. In the last episode of TalkReal, the participants debated how this has evolved during the government of the municipal candidate Ahora Madrid in the capital city of Spain. The electoral program was developed including some demands and suggestions coming directly from citizens, who also stated what measures should have priority. Below you may see the program.

Celia Mayer, Councilor of Culture in Madrid, explains in the video that Madrid is now building an alternative way of doing politics through a process that began with the 15M.

Firstly we have the municipalist movements, those that have occurred in the streets across Spain, in Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Santiago, Cadiz…; and secondly, after the European elections, Podemos has shown Europe that there are other ways of doing politics. We find a particular DNA in the municipal experience that comes directly from the social experience that has been developing in recent years.

In Spain, citizens demand new ways of doing politics, since corruption is a major concern for Spaniards. This demand may mean the proposal of different models that redistribute power and restructure institutions. Participatory democracy allows a greater involvement of citizens in policy-making processes by increasing public scrutiny of leaders. Thus, the process of holding leaders to account would be organically integrated within the new democratic structure.

This is a non-profit explanation.

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