Spain's capital is in the midst of reform courtesy of a 71-year-old retired judge. We find out why Manuela Carmena has eschewed slippers and crosswords in favour of tackling climate change and banishing corruption.
Fed up with their misbehaving political class, Spaniards swung behind a batch of unorthodox citizen-led formations during 2015’s municipal elections. Seven regional capitals are now governed by new left-leaning coalitions, which has catapulted a new group of mayors onto the scene, all with bold pledges to usher in a new political era.
One of them is Manuela Carmena, a 71-year-old former judge and UN special rapporteur who managed to pull off the seemingly impossible in Madrid: securing enough votes to put an end to 24 years of conservative rule. Her party, Ahora Madrid, was formed just months before polling day but her poise captured the voters’ attention among the rough and tumble of metropolitan politics (one of her leading opponents was a cantankerous countess recently involved in a police-car chase).
With the help of parliamentary support from the leftist PSOE, Carmena is now running Europe’s third-largest metropolis. There is no shortage of challenges: high debt and unemployment will require expert attention but Carmena also needs to convince more than half of the electorate who didn’t vote for her that she is up to the job. Despite repeated assurances that she is unaffiliated with the Podemos party, the presence of eight Podemos councillors in her party’s ranks is a continued cause for suspicion in the more conservative corners of the city. Mayor Carmena has interrupted her cosy retirement to take office and will need to get up to speed quickly: beyond a new style and stance, what this city needs most is sensible and prompt solutions.
Monocle: How will the next four years contrast with the politics of old?
Manuela Carmena: People will notice a big difference. Our team is implementing a simpler and more spontaneous way of doing politics. We want to reconquer the public domain, avoid confrontation in public debates and embrace opposition proposals when they are good. A sustainable city must be a fairer city, without ridiculous privileges. This is not a strategy, it is what I believe.
M: After years of inaction from the national government you managed to stop housing evictions in a matter of months. What did you do differently?
MC: We simply went to the owners, banks and credit institutions to seek alternatives to evicting people – and they accepted. Since taking office we’ve halted over 250 evictions, creating a special office in partnership with the banks to mediate each case. Funnily enough, the banks said they would have done this earlier but no one asked them.
M: During your career as a judge you cleaned up corrupt elements of the regional justice system. Are there plans to apply these lessons to local government?
MC: The important thing is wanting to put a stop to corruption, which usually occurs within the framework of tolerance. We must have a clear will to end it, shining a light on the dark places where it thrives, using special audits and inquiries. If a public institution isn’t fulfilling its duties we’ll look closer to see if corrupt practices are to blame.
M: Savings are being made by eliminating government chauffeurs, revising inflated public contracts and even abolishing a controversial bullfighting subsidy. Are you picking too many battles?
MC: Changing the smaller things challenges standard practice, which can generate confrontation. Chauffeured vehicles and free tickets to the opera and football were normal – until we arrived. We’ve set high ethical standards for ourselves but won’t force the rest to do likewise, which is why the opposition can still use official vehicles. We understand we’re an unorthodox model that is going to ruffle feathers. We can avoid unnecessary battles but won’t renounce our differences.
M: You want to tackle Madrid’s air quality as a prime concern. What’s the plan?
MC: To improve public services and prevent high-polluting cars from entering the city centre – but we need to encourage more cycling and walking too. When our team has a meeting we walk; taking a vehicle somewhere that is eight minutes on foot is just silly. We are looking for ways to make walking around the city more gratifying.
M: On the night of your election you talked about ‘seducing’ those who didn’t vote for you. Has that happened?
MC: I’m more interested in seducing Madrileños than I am about winning over political minorities with entrenched attitudes. We need to get among the people, show a steady hand, be effective and solve problems. Despite media reports, big businesses are happy because we are working with them. Take the evictions issue: a similar political formation to ours in Barcelona is fining the banks, whereas we asked them to work with us.
M: You also talk about Madrid as ‘the city of the embrace’; how do you want the world to view the capital?
MC: As a city where people have a really good time; we want the world to know the people of Madrid and we’re preparing a permanent exhibition inside city hall that will function as a mirror to the city. In 2015, together with 60 foreign embassies, we’ll be staging the city’s first international Christmas market. Madrid is open to everyone.
M: With such an ambitious agenda, why announce you’ll only be serving one term?
MC: I don’t like “professional politics” and never wanted to be a politician. Leaders need to show good leadership and a capacity to manage and communicate but politics should be a temporary vocation. I’ll serve with absolute dedication but there is a four-year expiry date. I have a very young team that fought hard to win the elections; I want to pass on the baton to the next generation.