It’s an open secret that political parties and “democratic” governments around the world have become entrenched insider clubs, dedicated to protecting powerful elites and neutralizing popular demands for system change. How refreshing to learn about Ahora Madrid and other local political parties in Spain! Could they be a new archetype for the reinvention of politics and government itself?
Instead of trying to use the hierarchical structures of parties and government in the usual ways to “represent” the people, the new local parties in Spain are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles. It’s all about keeping it real.
To get a clearer grasp of this phenomena, Stacco Troncoso of the P2P Foundation recently interviewed two members of Ahora Madrid, a city-based party comprised of former 15M activists who forged a new electoral coalition that prevailed in Madrid in 2015. (The full interview can be found here.) The coalition’s victory was important because it opened up a new narrative for populist political transformation. Instead of the reactionary, anti-democratic and hate-driven vision embodied by Brexit, Trump and the National Front, this one is populist, progressive and paradigm-shifting.
Below, I distill some of the key sights that surfaced in Troncoso’s interview with Victoria Anderica, head of the Madrid City Council’s Office of Transparency, and Miguel Arana, director of Citizen Participation. The dialogue suggests how a social movement can move into city government without giving up their core movement ideals and values. Implementation remains difficult, of course, but Ahora Madrid has made some impressive progress.
First, a clarification: To outsiders, the political insurgency in Spain is usually associated with the upstart Podemos party. That is a significant development, of course, but Podemos is also much more traditional. Its party structure and leadership are more consolidated than those of Ahora Madrid, which considers itself an “instrumental party.” It qualified to run in the 2015 elections as a party, but it does not have the internal apparatus of normal parties.
Ahora Madrid realized that the formation of political parties can actually make a movement’s goals more vulnerable. As Arana explained, “We won [the election] because we were in the streets for all these years, thinking about the things we wanted to do and change – being really clear, building the movement without leaders, without faces, without laws….Outside, you’re a lot more resilient against attacks because it’s about the ideas, not the people. It’s about the ideas of how the country should be.”
In its early days, Ahora Madrid avoided the vulnerabilities of having high-profile leaders become synonymous with the party. “Leaders can be attacked, which could make it look like the whole thing is destroyed,” said Arana. “We’re very happy we didn’t make that mistake in the first years. We built something serious, and now we can enter the [political] institutions.”
To devise a party that avoids hierarchical control, centralized power and celebrity-leaders, Ahora Madrid developed an open process that invites anyone to join and participate. One tool is an online proportional voting system called Dowdall – the same one used for a European singing contest, Eurovision. The system allows citizen-voters to give differently weighted points to people running for different positions in the government. The party leader cannot automatically dictate the party's slate of candidates. This allows for a wider diversity of party leaders. Ahora Madrid’s people in city government include ecologists, political independents, traditional party people, and others. Ahora Madrid’s party program was similarly built through an open, collaborative process, said Arana. There were working groups and then Internet voting on the proposed agenda.
Of course, the Madrid City Council remains structured as a vertical, hierarchical system that operates in a traditional way. Ahora Madrid’s solution is to “bypass the hierarchy as much as we can,” said Arana. He conceded that this is “really difficult in the end because there is a small group of people making a lot of the decisions.”
While this systemic problem cannot be fully avoided for now, there is a city department specifically dedicated to “Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government.” Its explicit mission is to solve these problems by inventing entirely new sorts of processes. The office recognizes that it is not enough to throw information onto a website as PDF files. Information must be easy to locate and translated from bureaucratese into ordinary language.
“If you go to the transparency portal of the state and search for ‘salaries,’ you won’t find anything, said Victoria Anderica. “You have to put in a very specific word, ‘remuneration’ or whatever, to find the salaries. That’s very stupid! And that’s just the most basic thing. We want to work with the portal so that questions are answered very easily.” Achieving this goal requires that the city’s software platforms use open source software and open technical standards.
The Citizen Participation office has been developing a new platform for improving political deliberation, proposals and deciding. Drawing upon the wisdom of other projects around the world, the coalition has used a software program called Consul to develop the Decide Madrid platform. The city is sharing the platform with other cities, including Barcelona, Oviedo and A Coruña, and has spoken about it with dozens of other cities in Spain and worldwide. Could this be the kernel of a new type of open-source municipal governance?
“The basic process is the citizens initiative process,” Arana explained. “Anyone can enter the platform and propose something in common language. Anyone can support the proposals. Once a proposal reaches the threshold, which is 2% of the census of 50,000 people, it goes to a referendum one month later. Then, if there are more people voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’, we take it as binding and we fulfill the proposal.”
The process depends upon the goodwill of Ahora Madrid because the Spanish constitution forbids binding referendums. But the party is committed to respecting the will of the people as determined by votes on Madrid Decide.
The City of Madrid also has a system of participatory budgeting that lets citizens decide how to allocate 60 million euro in municipal investments. Ahora Madrid is also trying to develop new mechanisms to give citizens greater access to and participation in the city council and other parts of the government that use traditional, closed systems of decisionmaking.
One reason that Ahora Madrid has succeeded electorally is that its openness has earned public trust. Arana said: “We were really open and our attitude was, like, ‘OK, you take control of it! You can control the campaign…control everything. It’s your party. You can do whatever you want!’ And that’s how we built trust; people really trusted this. They trusted the process and supported us massively. In one or two months, we had a very good shot of winning --= and with no money. The money we had we raised through crowdfunding, and it wasn’t all that much, either. We did it without the support of the media, without any of the kind of power that everybody assumes is necessary to win elections.”
The best argument for the Ahora Madrid approach may be the cautionary example of Podemos, which pursued a more traditional party approach in regional and national elections, and lost. “This happened in every region and every province of Spain,” said Arana. “At the same time, the ‘local versions’ of these parties won in all the major cities. We won in Madrid, Barcelona, Cádiz, A Coruña, Zaragoza.”
“So this is very clear: this is the way you do it. You have to share control with everybody else. If you make it look as if you’re opening up, but you’re not really doing it in the end, people see through that straight away. If you don’t open up and share your control with everyone, you lose that potential,” said Arana. “People will not support you because they understand it’s more your game, and not theirs. They don’t feel the need to engage.”
The local urban parties won because they were open to everyone, driven by participatory decisionmaking, and animated by social justice as a core priority. Democratic participation as a strategy for winning elections: What a concept!