Cities Leading Change in the Mediterranean: What Can Turin’s and Rome’s New Mayors Learn from Madrid and Barcelona?

Recent elections in Italy have resulted in anti-establishment politicians winning control of city governments throughout the country.

Recent elections in Italy have resulted in anti-establishment politicians winning control of city governments throughout the country. But despite the Five Star Movement’s effervescent popularity, the election of 37-year-old Virginia Raggi and 31-year-old Chiara Appendino as mayors of Rome and Turin will be a highly scrutinized, difficult transition from leading anti-establishment campaigns to leading the political establishment of major global cities. If they do not disappoint, it will be hard for the traditional political parties to stem the growth Italy’s new most popular party according to four opinion polls released this week. These newly-elected mayors should look across the Mediterranean at their counterparts elected almost exactly one year prior in Spain for possible insights on how to lead effective change in meaningful ways.

Mayor Manuela Carmena in Madrid and especially Mayor Ada Colau in Barcelona, led leftist anti-establishment coalitions to victory in the municipal elections last May 2015. Recently suggested as the world’s most radical mayor by the Guardian, Mayor Colau of Barcelona has taken almost a year to assume the reality that political compromise is needed to get things done, and the road from idealistic activism to political pragmatism has not been without some potholes. The absence of stable agreements with other parties made it more difficult for the government to bring about the transformative changes on which it campaigned. During the first months of Colau’s mandate, the most visible actions taken were highly symbolic in nature. The first manifestations of change were the mayor’s failed attempt to reduce her own salary by 80 percent, the replacement of the official luxury sedan with a minivan, and the removal of a bust of the (now retired) King of Spain, among other things.

Mayor Colau has gone from expressing strong skepticism at Barcelona’s hosting of the annual World Mobile Congress and its benefitting only narrow interests, to participating in its inauguration in 2016. She also switched from siding with workers on strike, to refusing to negotiate with striking public transport employees. One can see the evolution from the ideological purity of an activist to the compromise and pragmatism required of an effective mayor in how she brokered a coalition agreement with the socialist party this past May. This new alliance with the Socialists represents a radical change in Colau’s position, having ruled-out any agreement with the socialists who governed Barcelona for 32 consecutive years, even referring to them as corrupt and mafia-like on Twitter before being elected.

In Madrid last year, the Carmena government reached a deal with the Socialist party to end 24 years of uninterrupted conservative party rule in Spain’s capital. The 72-year old Mayor of Madrid is a former judge who set up a small business selling baby clothes made by ex-convicts a few years before deciding to run for office.  Carmena’s conversion to pragmatic compromise took place almost instantly, having to reach a deal with the socialists in order to oust the conservative party, which obtained the most votes.  

Carmena has reduced Madrid’s debt by 20 percent and has ended long-standing contracts with rating agencies, since she does not plan on issuing any new debt. Madrid remains the most indebted city in Spain, and one of the most indebted in Europe. However, it is on a radically different financial trajectory than under previous administrations, which had increased the debt by 780 percent since 2003 through massive infrastructure projects coupled with three failed bids for the Olympic Games since 2005.

Changing the political culture of the municipal administration has not been easy for either Carmena in Madrid or Colau in Barcelona. But what is becoming clear is that they are now doing this by building bridges, reaching consensus and compromise, rather than perpetuating the adversarial discourses of their campaigns. 

The newly elected mayors of Rome and Turin should take a serious look at what their elder counterparts in Barcelona and Madrid have gone through to effectively govern their cities and maintain their popular support. They have successfully administered the disappointment of their fervent and idealistic base, while tacitly acknowledging that they lack the support (and competences) to rapidly push transformational social change in order to effectively and responsibly govern complex major European cities. The ability of the Five Star Movement to manage such contradictions will become increasingly important as the possibility of government collapse and financial uncertainty grows every day. Given Italy’s current political corruption, refugee dilemma, and a looming banking crisis, Raggi and Apendino will need to pragmatically address issues with leadership, consensus, and political compromise, and may have to look more like politicians than activists in the coming years.