Spanish grassroots party wins local political victory

Elena Biurrun, the mayor of Torrelodones, is not only new to the job but is also an unusual addition to the Spanish political landscape.

Rather than representing one of Spain’s two dominant parties, the governing Socialist Party and the main opposition Popular Party, Ms. Biurrun last month became mayor of this town of 22,000 on the outskirts of Madrid at the helm of a local party, Vecinos por Torrelodones, or Neighbors for Torrelodones.

Vecinos did not start out as a political party. Instead, it grew out of an environmental protest group that Ms. Biurrun and others formed to block a real estate project that had the backing of the town hall but would have threatened 128 hectares of protected woodland. The group’s successful environmental crusade, which went as far as filing a complaint with the European Commission, convinced members that they could make other improvements to life in Torrelodones by running for office.

Gonzalo Santamaría Puente, now the deputy mayor, said achieving cost cuts was relatively easy in a town with “an envelope culture,” whereby kickbacks would be offered to secure contracts. In addition, he said, most past contracts involved “useless middlemen who each had to get a share…”

Her victory also coincides with a youth-led movement that has been demanding an overhaul of Spain’s political system. The protesters have accused traditional parties and other institutions of putting their interests ahead of those of the citizens, even at a time of record unemployment…

Since taking office, Ms. Biurrun and her team have focused on renegotiating supplier contracts in a town that has debt totaling €13 million… The company that provides school bus services, for instance, recently agreed to cut the value of its contract by 30 percent.

At a time of austerity, another of Ms. Biurrun’s priorities is trying to lead by example. She cut her own annual salary to €49,000 from the €63,000 that her predecessor earned. Gone also are his chauffeur-driven car and round-the-clock police escort.

“Nobody in our team had previously held any party membership, and our only shared ideology is that of common sense,” Ms. Biurrun said in an interview. “Politics, at least at a local level, should be about providing the sound management that residents deserve rather than parading around with a party tattoo.”

Which goes to show that ordinary mortals can deliver a grassroots assault on the Establishment without ending up as flunkies for reactionary corporate interests. Of course, this movement – and a few others in my experience – is grounded in the needs of working people regardless of color or creed.

The last time Spain had a movement approximating our red-white-and-blue Tea Party – they were the Falange, headed by the fascist who eventually became dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco.

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