Elected Mayor of Madrid a year ago with the backing of Podemos, 72-year-old Manuela Carmena is a leading figure of Spain’s “new left”.
A former judge, she has stayed close to those who brought her to power. In Madrid, people call her by her first name, and the day after she was elected, she turned down her new chauffeur-driven car to take the metro, just like she used to.
Madrid had been a stronghold of the right for 25 years, dogged by corruption scandals and marked by conservative policies. Today the change is noticeable. “Refugees welcome,” reads a banner hanging from the town hall.
Refugees Welcome.— Ana Carolina Pereira (@Las5Ws) May 25, 2016
Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid. pic.twitter.com/N0mH0oTfaw
Our team met Carmena in her office. And behind the image of a kindly grandmother, an efficient politician. In just one year, she cut the city’s debt by 20 percent and halted evictions from social housing.
OwenJones84</a> Manuela Carmena has managed to reduce Madrid town hall's debts by 19%. Grande, Manuela! <a href="https://t.co/yrUyvY4ofk">https://t.co/yrUyvY4ofk</a></p>— Lewis (lewizrs) June 15, 2016
“The economic crisis that came when the housing bubble burst left some neighbourhoods, particularly the more deprived in the south, in a very precarious situation,” Carmena said. “My mission is to reintegrate these neighbourhoods, not only to improve their quality of life but also to give them back some dignity.”
Rebuilding social cohesion lies at the heart of Carmena’s project for Madrid. She has freed up 60 million euros in funds for citizen-led projects.
“The aim is rebuild ties between citizens and public funding,” she explained. “If the people of Madrid want to have a new sports centre or square or monument and they are behind the idea, I think they will take much more care of it than if it was something imposed from on high.”
This pilot project has attracted 5,000 suggestions from citizens. Among them is the idea of Antonio Gómez and his friends: they’re big fans of parkour, the art of climbing across the urban landscape. And they live in Vallecas, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the city. Support from the town hall will help set up the first training centre for 50 local youngsters, with a rough budget of 150,000 euros.
“This is something concrete, its the first time we have something that’s really ours and, above all, it’s the first time that people have really listened to us, and it’s not just words,” Gómez said.
This participatory project is a first for Madrid, inspired from similar initiatives in cities like Reykyavik and New York. Initial funding will come through next January.
Watch out Carmena
A leading local daily newspaper has just named Carmena “woman of the year.” It’s the first time a left-wing political figure has won the award.
“Listen, all this is a bit strange, because a year ago, I was a retired judge, an old person, quite nice but mostly unknown and then my life became public in the space of one day and strange things started to happen,” Carmena said upon receiving the award.
“Let’s stay as we are, as we all should be.”
In the audience that evening was El Langui, one of Spain’s most politically-engaged rappers. In his video clips, he celebrates the end of the right in power.
Like many in his neighbourhood, El Langui voted for Manuela Carmena. However, a year after the election, he doesn’t see that much change. Madrid remains the capital with the least social housing in Europe.
“The city’s neighbourhoods need Carmena and her team, but they must work harder for the areas that have problems, where drugs trafficking is still an issue and women fight every single day to save their children from this plague,” he said.
“We’ve heard it in her speeches, and I applaud the change, but I say this to you, Carmena: come to my neighbourhood to see the state of the streets and the rubbish bins – watch out and don’t rest on your laurels.”