Understanding the crisis of New Municipalism in Spain: The struggle for urban regime power in A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela

Blog post by Adrian Bua and Jonathan S Davies

21 Oct 2022, 4:19 p.m.
Adrian Bua and Jonathan S Davies

Radical municipalism in Spain was a political wave of astonishing proportions. Citizen-led platforms unseated long established urban regimes in eighteen cities including large urban centres like Madrid and Barcelona. As such, it was probably the most significant outcome from the cycle of contention known as the Indignados.

The New Municipalist strategy was for citizen-led platforms to target municipal institutions, using participatory and direct processes to constitute and govern themselves and the municipality. In this way, the streets would enter the institutions and the state would be transformed from the bottom up. Municipalist candidacies following this strategy spread all over Spain in 2015. However, most cities failed to deliver on key objectives and did not sustain political change at the 2019 elections.

Keen to move beyond the focus on Madrid and Barcelona, we carried out research in two cities in the North-Western country of Galicia: A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela. The paper investigates the politics of regime contestation during the municipalist electoral term, from the exciting victory in 2015 to the disappointing defeat of 2019.

The paper develops the concept of “regime incumbency” defined as the degree to which a coalition consolidates the governing capacity across state, economy and civil society required to deliver its agenda and succeed politically. The concept is useful because it de-centres and re-problematises occupancy of City Hall: a coalition that wins an election does not automatically achieve incumbency, whereas a coalition that loses an election does not automatically lose it. Incumbency adds to regime theory by sensitizing the researcher to the political work involved in establishing and sustaining a regime.

Read through the concept of incumbency, the New Municipalist wave represented a crisis for established regimes, opening up a period of sharpened contestation, and a window of opportunity for regime change.  However, the story told in both cases is one of failure to achieve a significant degree of incumbency, and of vulnerability to disruption from actors tied to longstanding regimes. We analyse the struggle for incumbency within the state machinery, civil society and in instituting an alternative economic model. Our analysis demonstrates how debilitating the structures, institutions and cultures of the local state can be for anti-systemic projects, and how they enhance, and combine with, the agency of hostile political forces to shut them down.

However, while pro-systemic forces exercised formidable recuperative powers, they have not fully resolved their own crises. Nor has the power and influence of the neoliberal growth regimes presided over by both the centre-left “Partido Socialista Obrero Español” (PSOE) and conservative “Partido Popular” been restored in either city. With continued global turbulence, neoliberalism is losing its hegemonic grip. The closing down of progressive alternatives such as New Municipalism has channelled popular anger towards chauvinist neo-nationalism and neo-mercantilism, but the aperture for progressive and anti-systemic politics could quickly re-open, meaning that the ways in which New Municipalists reflect on, navigate and resolve their political crises could be of practical significance in determining future strategies for the anti-capitalist left.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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