From democracy-driven governance to techno-populism. The case of Ahora Madrid, Spain

By Fabiola Mota and Cristina Herranz

The question about what came after the Indignados movement contested austerity policies and proposed new participatory forms to deepen democracy in Spain has been at the core of a renewed scientific concern regarding the political impact of social movements (e.g., Della Porta et al., 2017). In this regard, the forthcoming edited volume Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations aims to understand how social movements are reinventing the deliberative and participatory toolbox to couple politics with economics for advancing social justice and deepening democracy.

Our contribution to this volume analyses how “Ahora Madrid” (Madrid Now) – the municipalist electoral platform that emerged from the Indignados movement in the Spain capital city, after winning elections in May 2015 – tackled social and territorial inequalities through a model of participatory governance that intended to deepen and broaden local democracy, as well as to transform the local political status quo. These goals were aligned with the policy agenda of the so-called Municipalities of Change (city councils won by municipalist confluences such as Ahora Madrid, Barcelona En Comú, Compostela Aberta, Cádiz Sí Se Puede, among others), which challenged neoliberal norms to reduce the high rates of social exclusion and the sharpened territorial inequalities caused by austerity policies.

We critically approach to the question of how the Ahora Madrid City Council sought to achieve the twofold goal of fighting urban inequalities through participatory governance.  Drawing from the arguments laid down in the well-known book Democratizing Inequalities. Dilemmas of the New Public Participation (Lee et. al., 2015), our analysis of the participatory policies implemented by Ahora Madrid from 2015 to 2019 answers the question, “To what extent participation has been expanded as a method of democratization rather than a management tool?”.

Based on empirical evidence collected from face-to-face interviews, participant observations in public events from 2015 until 2019, municipal opinion poll surveys, and official reports and online data, our chapter develops a critical analysis of the most outstanding policy initiatives implemented by Ahora Madrid aiming at fighting inequalities and promoting citizen participation. These policies were implemented by two local Departments that conveyed and implemented conflicting views regarding the forms and goals of citizen participation. On the one hand, the Department for Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government launched the digital platform Decide Madrid (Madrid Decides) which facilitated participation of individual citizens in participatory budgeting, citizen proposals and public consultations. On the other hand, the Department for Territorial Coordination and Associative Promotion (Public-Social Cooperation), oversaw decentralization of responsibilities and institutional resources to the city districts, to ensure effective participation of civic associations in the governance process (for instance, by elaborating innovative forms of co-management). The Department of Citizen Participation was led by an outstanding activist from the free culture cyber-activism, while the other Department was led by the traditional neighborhood movement of the city. While the former introduced democratic innovations driven by individual digital participation and sortition, the latter promoted local power devolution and territorial allocation of public funds through participatory mechanisms such as the Local Forums for Participation and the Territorial Rebalancing Fund. 

By and large, Ahora Madrid City Council fostered a model of ‘democracy-driven-governance ’insofar as attempts were made to institutionalize some forms of democratic organization that arose from the ‘critical democracy’ of citizen mobilizations (Bua & Bussu 2021).  Concretely, it was mainly the technopolitics approach to democracy, conveyed by cyberactivists and the free culture movement that emerged from the Indignados movement. From this approach, individual and direct participation is understood as an end in itself, rather than as a means to transform the political status quo of power relations that hinder social justice. Likewise, the autonomous ethic of “do it yourself” (highlighted by Flesher Fominaya in her book, Democracy Reloaded. Inside Spain’s Political Laboratoy from 15-M to Podemos, 2020), without intermediaries, underpinned the implementation of deliberative forms of participation by lots.

Our analysis of Ahora Madrid’s participatory governance demonstrates how the combined goal of the municipalist movement to tackle inequalities through citizen participation evolved into a participatory model of governance that we describe as technopopulist  Bickerton & Acceti (2021) understand technopopulism as a new logic of political action, and not exclusively of electoral competition, replacing the left-right divide, where the popular will of populistic rhetoric and the competence of technocracy are not opposed to each other but are deeply interconnected. Both share an unmediated conception of the common good, in opposition to the mediated system of both party democracy and organized social interests. The technocratic leadership of the mayor Manuela Carmena (a figure who came from outside the social movements and party politics, as an independent candidate) also contributed to the Ahora Madrid technopopulist turn, thus deviating from democracy-driven-governance. This study concludes that at least three characteristics of Ahora Madrid enabled the participatory governance drift to technopulism: the plurality of collective action traditions coexisting within the Indignados movement that hampered the institutionalization of the movement and of the political platform; the conflicting visions of citizen participation conveyed by the two City Council departments in charge of implementing participatory governance; and, finally, the technopopulist leadership of the mayor. As a result, the Ahora Madrid’s participatory innovations based on individual and digital participation continues to be used as management rather than democratizing tools under the new liberal-conservative City Council that won the 2019 local elections. 

Fabiola Mota Consejero is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM), and member of the research group DPG ‘Democracy, Participation and Government’. Her main areas of research are the impact of citizen participation on democratic governing and institutions, processes of political devolution and multilevel governance.

Cristina Herranz is PhD in Political Science by the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) where she has been a teacher assistant at the Department of Political Science and International Relations (2017-2022). Her research interests focus on democratic theory and digital democratic innovations.  

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