Sitting with the Public
On 24 May, the first ever councillor of the Partido da Terra (Party of the Earth or Land) was elected to the muncipality of Lousame in rural Galicia in the North West of Spain. The party gained 12.38 per cent of the vote with an explicitly libertarian municipalist agenda. The right-wing People's Party has a small majority on the council. Iolanda Mato will serve as councillor for the Partido da Terra for the first four months but the group has established a system of rotation so another nine people will take on the responsibility over the next four years.
- Who are Partido da Terra, and how did you manage to get elected to the local council of Lousame?
The Partido da Terra, “Party of the Earth/of the Land” (not to be confused with the Portuguese party with the same name) defines itself as a commonwealth (“mancomunidade”) of autonomous local political organizations that strives for assembly self-government and community self-sufficiency as the basic tenets for sovereignty. The structure of commonwealth is based on the local organizations at the civil parish and urban neighborhood levels. In Galiza, the current municipalities are a state imposition that dates back to the 19th century and remained as part of the structure of Spanish occupation. In most of the rural areas, such as Lousame, they are are more a less random amalgamation of civil parishes. I'm actually a member of the Partido da Terra de Vila Cova (a civil parish of some 300 people) and a commoner in a village of 25 persons.
Image: Partido da Terra went from house to house in all 75 villages in Lousame to discuss libertarian municipalism with the inhabitants.
This is the first time the Partido da Terra runs in a local election. Even though when we started, now four years ago, our goal was to run in many more municipalities, Lousame was the only place were we had significant buildup to actually do it. We drafted a very clear platform of 5 points based on the principles of libertarian municipalism and went house by house in all 75 villages, discussing them with everyone. This first result is certainly modest, but it also encouraging. The main message is that we are all political beings with the right and responsibility to directly decide over our own lives trough local self-governing assemblies, and that resonated very much with most people. Instead of the picture of our candidates, our poster had cut-out face with the note “Your Face Here”.
- Could you tell me about the history of your party and how you are related to social ecology?
The initiative started four years ago out of disgust for existing political movements and to assemble something radically different where those of us who had remained disengaged could actively participate. The party started out in rural Galiza, and thus far it has remained mostly so, although there are also members in cities and towns. The tradition we come from is that of community assembly self-governance (that we call “concelho aberto” or “open council”) which has always been at odds with representative politics (based on “closed councils”), and that connected us very early on with social ecology and libertarian municipalism, as presented by Murray Bookchin, but also with democratic confederalism or writings on integral revolution and integral cooperatives.
In the past, such form of self-government dealt with all aspects of community life, and still remains latent for many village issues, including the commons. Although the party has run in other elections it has done so mainly to challenge the ideas of conventional politics and to promote assembly democracy. On the other hand, our key principle is that the main efforts should not be focused on elections or state political institutions, but rather in creating alternative non-state institutional frameworks that allow for the development of self-government and self-sufficiency.
- Why do you think that 12,83 per cent of the citizens of Lousame voted for a party with a libertarian municipalist agenda?
People are fed up with representative politics. It means giving elected “representatives” carte blanche for a four year period in which they pursue their own self-serving agendas, taking away our right to decide over our own lives. In contrast with this form of understanding politics, in which only a select group are “politicians”, our communities in Lousame have the living example of 32 commons assemblies, a non-state system of self-government based on common land management and village cohesion. For centuries these assemblies were quasi-sovereign, and today they still self-manage important services such as drinking water or firewood while promoting practices of community solidarity and mutual support. This is our own tradition of libertarian municipalism, which we are now trying to take a step further, regaining the terrain lost to the state in the last century.
Image: Instead of printing a picture of their top candidated at their election posters, the Partido da Terra encouraged people to insert their own portrait.
- What would you ideally like to achieve in the local council?
We have drafted a municipal law that would effectively implode representative politics in the council, devolving all decision-making power to the parish-level assemblies, so that the elected council itself is reduced to a purely formal body that ratifies popular decisions in terms of legal compliance. We understand this will not happen in the next four years as we lack the majority to push it forward, but our work will help to highlight the deficiencies of the current way of understanding politics and to promote and build alternatives.
- What do you think is realistic to achieve in the council?
We were very surprised with the receptivity and understanding of most people in Lousame toward the proposals of libertarian municipalism, even if at the end of the day they decided not to vote for our platform. The pressure from conventional parties and the media remains significant. In spite of that, the right wing Partido Popular was able to win the majority for a very small margin and we are confident that in four years time there will be an opportunity to take our ideas into practice. But the most important actions that strive for self-governance and self-sufficiency can be done from outside the council and other state institutions, and that's where we will continue to focus our efforts.
- Do you work in the same way as other councilors, or do you plan to act differently as the local councilor?
The inaugural session was held on June 13. The first thing to note is that, for the first time, we have established a system of rotation by which the councilor will shift every four months, so that each of those on the list of 11 take on the responsibility at a certain point. The councilor acts on the basis of imperative mandate and makes no decision on his or her own. A parallel Municipal Forum is convened at least once a month and every person in Lousame has the right to come and make the collective decisions regarding what the conciliator is to say, vote or propose in every session. It is also the first time that a councilor refuses to sit with the other representatives at the table, instead sitting in the benches that are reserved for the public, which is strictly prohibiting from talking and that will now have a voice. Symbolically, we have also refused to swear allegiance to King and Constitution, swearing it to the people of Lousame instead. The Party has also refused to take public subsidies that are provided on the basis of votes and number of elected representatives and councilors will not take any money from the municipality.
Image: One of the measures to prevent cooptation of their councilors, is to shift who represents the party every four months.
- Are you related to movements or groups working outside the council?
We all work outside the council in a variety of independent organizations and we will continue to do so in areas such as food sovereignty, commons land governance, anti-mining and other environmental challenges or language rights. Our main priority is not to save the decaying institutions of the state but to create alternative institutions based on assembly democracy. Last year we design an alternative legal framework for common land communities which has already been passed in one village and is being adapted in several others, providing a basis for a new understanding of community sovereignty and assembly self-rule. The first of these communities was also able to gain international recognition, being the first in Iberia that gains full membership of the Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories Consortium. Our next challenge is to expand this and build a confederal framework for communities that can work with each other at a bio-regional level.
- What is your long term perspective with you electoral participation?
Running in any election is a double edged sword and must not be considered lightly, as it can legitimize the very system we are trying to destroy. Since we where established, now four years ago, we have contested both the regional elections in Galiza and the European Parliament elections. In these cases, we made a clear point that we where using the elections as a space to bring our own ideas to the spot light and our campaigns were sharply focused on delegitimizing representative politics. As an example, in the European Parliament election video (see below) we called not to vote but to strive for community self-government and self-sufficiency during the 1,825 days between elections, paraphrasing Galizan anarchist Ricardo Mella. With nearly 10,000 votes and a campaign budget of zero euros, it also shows things can be done differently.
At the local level the picture can be quite different, especially in small municipalities (Lousame has a population 3,500) where you can actually go and talk to every single person and explain your ideas. Although municipal autonomy is decreasing and local powers in state regimes like Spain are very limited compared to other places, we still believe this is the best context to prove that assembly democracy works (and works better!). We also believe that once assemblies are back in place to manage municipal powers, it will very hard for any conventional party to take their decision-making capacity back to their own hands. From there, it will also be easier to strive for self-managing further powers that are currently under other levels of government, corroding state structures even further.