MADRID – Spain's biggest cities — Madrid and Barcelona — are expected to swear in far-left mayors Saturday in one of the nation's biggest political upheavals in years. The radical leaders promise to cut their own salaries, halt homeowner evictions and eliminate perks enjoyed by the rich and famous.
The leadership change comes weeks after Spain's two largest traditional parties were punished in nationwide local elections by voters groaning under the weight of austerity measures and repulsed by a string of corruption scandals.
In Madrid, 71-year-old retired judge Manuela Carmena has vowed among other things to take on wealthy Madrilenos who enjoy exclusive use of the city-owned Club de Campo country club — opening it up to the masses. "We're creating a new kind of politics that doesn't fit within the conventions," she said ahead of Saturday's vote by city councilors expected to make her mayor. "Get ready."
In Barcelona, anti-eviction activist Ada Colau questions whether it's worth spending 4 million euros ($4.5 million) of city money to help host the glitzy Formula 1 race every other year. She thinks the funds would be better spent on free meals for needy children at public schools.
Carmena and Colau ran for office as the leaders of leftist coalitions supported by the new pro-worker and anti-establishment Podemos — or "We Can" — party that formed last year and is led by the pony-tailed college professor Pablo Iglesias, a big supporter of Greece's governing far-left Syriza Party.
While Colau's coalition on May 24 beat the party of Barcelona's conservative and incumbent mayor, Carmena's fell short of defeating the conservative Popular Party's longtime Madrid leader Esperanza Aguirre. But Aguirre didn't get the majority she needed and was unable to strike a coalition deal to remain in power.
That allowed Carmena to craft a pact with the Socialist Party — the Popular Party's traditional opponent for power in Spain — ensuring she would become mayor.
The political fragmentation sending Carmena and Colau into office marks a historic moment in Spanish politics, said Manuel Martin Algarra, a communications professor at the University of Navarra who specializes in public opinion.
"Madrid and Barcelona for the first time are not going be governed by political parties, but by coalitions made up of social movements," he said. "This was a punishment vote to the traditional political establishment in Spain."
For Carmena's Ahora Madrid — or "Madrid Now" — coalition, that means a mandate to roll back moves by the Popular Party to privatize city services, as well as carry out audits of the city's debts and contracts awarded to private companies seen as political cronies, said Pablo Carmona, an incoming Madrid city councilor.
The coalition also wants to set up a municipal anti-eviction division, create a housing bank of vacant apartments for needy residents and provide cheap quality daycare to working class families.
"We need to reset the priorities for a city that has had a neo-liberal attitude for 25 years," Carmona said in an interview. "We want to take back the city for the citizens."
That also means opening up for everyone the sprawling Club de Campo with its two championship golf courses — one designed by Spanish golfing great Severiano Ballesteros — swimming pools and tennis courts. Though Madrid owns a 51 percent stake in the club, it is widely seen as an exclusive playground for dues-paying members of Madrid's elite.
"The whole thing needs to be opened up so anyone can go there, whether they are upper class or lower class," Carmona said. "To play golf, or to go swimming. Public money has to be used for everyone. There has to be a basic guarantee for universal access."
Carmena has a long history supporting Spain's working class. Before becoming a judge, she worked as a labor lawyer defending worker-rights activists detained during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco that ended in 1975. The law firm she co-founded was targeted by a right-wing extremist shooter who killed five of her colleagues and wounded four in 1977.
In Barcelona, the 41-year-old Colau is best known for her leadership of Spain's Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, formed in 2009 to fight the evictions of crisis-hit homeowners who under Spanish law must still repay much of what they owe to lenders even after losing foreclosed homes.
Colau, who will be Barcelona's first female mayor, has raised eyebrows by siding with residents who say their neighborhoods are unlivable because the city has too much tourism. The main complaints are passengers disembarking from cruise ships and visitors who stay in illegally rented apartments.
"If we don't want to become Venice, some sort of limit on the tourism burden will be needed in Barcelona," Colau told the leading El Pais newspaper. "We can grow more, but I don't know how much."
There's no way of knowing how much Carmena and Colau will shake up the status quo in Madrid and Barcelona because their coalitions are "groupings of people with different opinions and very little political experience who are going to try new things and some of them will not be viable," said Martin Algarra.
But Colau said new things are exactly what voters want. "In Barcelona," she says, "a bet was made for change."