Urged by her friends out of retirement, the 71-year-old retired judge surprised all by winning the mayor's race on the wave of Spain's rising protest movement. What will she do with her newfound power?
BUENOS AIRES — Few reach the peak of their careers after retirement. But that is just what happened to Manuela Carmena, 71, a retired judge with a communist past who was elected mayor of Madrid last May in local and regional elections that shook Spain's political establishment.
Elected with the votes of the young and disaffected, not to mention all those angry with corruption, relentless austerity and the perceived arrogance of Spain's two main parties, Carmena's victory put an end to two decades of unbroken conservative rule in the Spanish capital.
An independent candidate, she received decisive backing from Podemos, Spain's leading protest party trying to break the country's two-party mold. Now, the capital's residents are waiting to see the fruits of her promises to "change the ways of traditional politics." Carmena spoke to Clarín on a recent trip to Argentina.
CLARIN: Describe your sudden "un-retirement?"
MANUELA CARMENA: To tell you the truth, I wasn't in any political party and had no interest in holding public office. When they suggested I become a candidate, for two-and-a-half months I said no. I really was unbelievably happy doing my own thing. I kept saying: no, no. But in February, we were chatting among friends on the prospects of the conservative Popular Party candidate Esperanza Aguirre winning again, which would bring back those classic political figures closely tied to corruption. I thought I had a duty to help. So I accepted for a specific period: four years in the mayor's office, doing the best I could and that's it.
How was the transition from one administration to the other?
I found a city government where absolutely everything was privatized. Everything has been outsourced — it doesn't make sense. The tourist agencies, for example, have been contracted out. It is such an important economic engine and provides a lot of work. So the companies determine the focus of tourism, not the municipality.
Which policies did you immediately begin to enact?
The policy on evictions, which was a crucial item in our campaign. There were a whole lot of evictions because of the recession, and this has caused deep wounds and had tremendous effects. We sat down with all the banks, which are the lenders of mortgages people couldn't pay, and agreed they would not throw people out of their homes without our prior mediation, and without seeking solutions, social renting options, etc. We also stopped the sales of 1,200 homes that had been sold to North American investment funds.
Why do you think the PP (conservatives) didn't do the same and sit and talk to the banks?
It is curious. One of Spain's important banks told us, "If the last mayor had asked us, we would have done the same." If you want my personal opinion, it was because they were not sensitive to the issue. I think you need to be highly sensitive to the problem to sit and think a thousand times what you could do. It is so obvious something could have been done that even the banks are saying it. Some political parties, even while claiming to govern for everyone, are too committed to the interests of the wealthiest sectors, and that is like a fog preventing them from clearly seeing the situation of less privileged people.
Do you think Spain is mature enough to break with the traditional parties?
I think we need new avenues of representation that will not just repeat the conduct of the traditional political parties. One of my great concerns is to not repeat those models, but for sure, we are writing on a blank pad without lines, so we have to draw them out ourselves. It is interesting because direct representation cannot be based on a model of permanent assembly. You can't resolve management problems through assemblies.
What is the alternative?
I think we should seek other types of civic associations more closely tied to solid projects pertaining to specific subjects. Rather than big party ideologies that can very often be highly rigid.
What you think being of the Left means today?
It means increasing equality. I think equality is the Left's standard today. It means that every human being has the right to have a life with the things that make life worth living. That is the starting point. Always bettering the level of equality. How far? Well as far as you can. You can do this through non-profit associations with social goals. That means you can look for new ways of running things without creating a picture of turning everything over to the state, but with the same objective — equality, not money profits.
What do you think of the Catalan independence movement?
Honestly I am not a political expert and don't really want to state political opinions beyond my position. I have great affection for Catalonia and would say that events there show how clumsy the Spanish state has been in ignoring the need to consider different federal arrangements. I think these were crucial to Spain's structure. And I think Spanish nationalism is responsible for this lack of awareness of the need to move toward a federal system years ago.