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Can Activist Politicians be Agents of Change?


Last week LUCSUS’ researcher (Assistant Prof.) Mine Islar presented her research about citizen movements in Barcelona at the ‘ecological democracy’ workshop at the University of Sydney, Australia. The aim of the workshop was to critically explore the tensions and synergies between democracy and sustainability on local, national and global levels.

Mine Islar’s research focuses on how social movements act on their ideals for a sustainable future in order to influence political power. She spent all of 2016 in Barcelona, conducting a field study on Barcelona en Comú, which is a platform of several social movements that got elected to power in Barcelona in May 2015. Its leader, Ada Colau is the first woman to hold the office of mayor in the city.

She chose to study Barcelona en Comú as she says it is a unique illustration of citizen municipalism in practice serving both as an elected institutional body in the municipality and as a platform of different social and ecological movements. For her field study she interviewed local politicians from Barcelona en Comú, and sat in on political meetings. She explored how and if they can keep their activist identity and ideals while doing institutional politics.

– For me, this type of research is very important, says Mine Islar. We need to learn about mobilization at all levels. Not only those in the streets but also in institutions. Especially now after the US election and the right-wing turn in several European countries, there is a urgent need to connect small strands of environmental movements, civil rights movements and citizen initiatives in order to claim the space in the political arena. This space will not be granted by the current political structures.

– If we truly want to create a sustainable future, it is important that we know more about what it takes to bring sustainability into politics. This is why it is interesting and relevant to learn what Barcelona en Comú has achieved and learned in the process.

Challenges to implement change

Through her field study, Mine Islar has identified a number of factors that impact how social movements realise their sustainable policies in local politics.

One observation concerns how social movements make the transition from streets to formal politics in the first place. According to her, it is very easy for many people to be ecological in their personal life, say by buying organic, or by being part of a food cooperative, but a widespread problem is that they do not want to become involved in politics themselves. Yet, the politicians from Barcelona en Comú made this transition.

– Barcelona en Comú has had to learn how to negotiate the bureaucracy and that can often be difficult.

Another challenge for the platform is to manage its governing structure: it is governed by direct democracy whereby all members can be involved in the decision-making processes. Yet, according to Mine Islar this bottom-up approach can be challenging to keep in the realm of institutional politics. After all she says, institutions are governed by bureaucratic rules and they are not always as democratic as social movements wish them to be.

A success story for grassroots democracy

Overall, Mine Islar is of the opinion that so far Barcelona en Comú’s transition to power has been an inspiring story from a sustainability perspective.

Since 2015, the platform has managed to implement a number of initiatives aimed at making Barcelona more sustainable – initiatives that are based on what people want. The initiatives develop different forms of partnerships with energy collectives and food cooperatives in the city where the people can have a say in the development of Barcelona’s policies.

One of the ideas that Barcelona en Comu supports is the mobility plan that is called superblocks. Transforming car roads into public spaces to be used for arts, culture, leisure, and other recreational activities is seen as a way to create political space for democracy in the city.

Mine Islar thinks that the platform’s close ties to the citizens of Barcelona have played an important part in making this happen. Also, politicians and bureaucrats have learnt something from Barcelona en Comú too, that the learning process has been mutual and beneficial both to the representatives of formal political parties and the platform.

– Is this process durable in the long run when it comes to creating a sustainable Barcelona? It is too early to tell, we will have to wait and see. But in the short run, it is inspiring!


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