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Upset victory in Barcelona by social activist weakens independence drive

Ada Colau will have a tough time ruling over most fragmented council in democratic history

Ada Colau after learning of her victory at Barcelona municipal elections on Sunday night.

Ada Colau, a social activist with no prior political experience, brought unprecedented change to the Catalan capital on Sunday when she became Barcelona’s most-voted mayoral candidate.

Colau, who rose to national prominence during the economic crisis as the head of a grassroots movement to fight home evictions, soared to victory on Sunday at the helm of a coalition called Barcelona en Comú, which includes the leftist and green parties Initiative for Catalan Greens, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), United and Alternative Left, Podemos Barcelona, Procés Constituent and Equo.

With 11 seats in the local council, however, Colau is still far from the absolute majority of 21 she needs to govern comfortably. This will force her to seek complicated deals with opposition groups in order to push her agenda through over the next four years.

Outgoing mayor Xavier Trias, of CiU, asked fellow bloc members to “reflect on why situations like this one have come to pass”

In any event, the outcome is a major blow to Convergence and Union (CiU), the nationalist bloc that governs the northeastern region and which was behind last year’s sovereignty drive and informal referendum. With the loss of Barcelona, considered a CiU stronghold, the pro-independence movement led by Catalan premier Artur Mas will be seriously compromised.

CiU had portrayed these municipal elections as an informal first round of the regional elections, which are scheduled for September 27 in Catalonia – one of just a handful of regions that did not hold them on Sunday as well.

But Ada Colau will not have an easy job handling the most fragmented Barcelona council in democratic history, while she herself has the weakest majority since 1979. In order to govern, she will need support from at least two other parties.

Her group, Barcelona en Comú, obtained 11 seats compared with 10 for CiU. The third-most-voted force is Ciudadanos, which has five representatives, just like Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Meanwhile, the Socialists slid from second to fifth position, hanging on to four seats, while the PP conservatives tumbled down to three seats, the same as newcomer CUP, a pro-independence group that has made its way into Barcelona politics for the first time.

Colau appeared before a crowd of supporters shortly after 10.30pm on Sunday night, and delivered a rousing speech in which she claimed that her group’s victorious battle was akin to “David against Goliath.”

Ada Colau is removed from a bank protest by a police officer. When news broke that she had won the Barcelona mayoral elections, this photo was posted thousands of times on social networking sites such as Twitter.

She also said that she does not want to engage in politics of confrontation, and referred to Catalans as “a people who must be able to freely decide their relationship with the state, with freedom and respect.” Her words were taken as support for another referendum on self-determination, although the pro-independence forces are now more fragmented than ever following Sunday’s vote.

The outgoing mayor, Xavier Trias of CiU, quickly conceded defeat on Sunday and asked fellow bloc members to “reflect on why situations like this one have come to pass.”

But regional premier Artur Mas was keen to underscore that CiU was still the most-voted political group in the whole of Catalonia. “Let us hope that this victory will serve to help us win in the fall in all of Catalonia,” he said.

This is the third blow for Mas in three years. At the European elections of May 2014, CiU came in second after the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). In 2012, it lost 12 of its 62 regional representatives when Mas called a snap election.