The groups and organizations leading a fierce campaign against the Madrid regional government’s bid to privatize 49 percent of the capital city’s waterworks company, Canal Isabel II, are declaring victory after a majority of those who took part in a mini-referendum voted against the idea.
Some 168,000 people turned out to cast their ballots on Sunday. Most of those who came out were mobilized by the dozen or so groups that have been campaigning against premier Esperanza Aguirre’s idea to sell off the utility.
“A few months back no one knew about the privatization of the Canal and now a good part of Madrid’s residents know about it,” said Enrique García, the spokesman for the Tetuán chamber of the 15-M movement, one of the groups that is demanding that the Madrid government hold a debate in the regional parliament on the issue.
The organizations called on Aguirre to hold a referendum on the plan, given that the privatization proposal did not appear in any Popular Party (PP) manifesto prior to the last regional elections.
Sunday’s poll was non-binding but it sparked a bitter campaign in the weeks leading up to the vote. Some in the Madrid chapter of the PP began using the social networks late Saturday to post unflattering allegations against the leader of the Platform Against the Privatization of Canal Isabel II.
The groups also want legislators in the regional parliament to debate the issue. They are obliged by law to hold a public discussion under a municipal incentive ordinance (ILM), which was passed at the end of last term, they say.
On Sunday, residents cast their ballots in 319 voting stations, which were set up in 50 municipalities. While the votes were still being counted on Tuesday, 165,860 people of the 167,710 who voted said no to the privatization. The question posed to voters was: do you agree that Canal Isabel II should stay in public hands?
Among the groups that organized the vote was the United Left (IU) coalition and the Equo party, the CCOO labor union, the Regional Federation of Neighborhood Associations, and environmental group Ecologists in Action.
Some incidents were reported in Móstoles, Boadilla and Pedrezuela but organizers said there had not been any need to close the voting stations.
In order to vote, residents had to give their names and national identification numbers (DNI). The lists were later destroyed to ensure that personal information was protected.
When asked about the referendum, Aguirre said: “I have nothing to say; it was respectable and legitimate.”
The regional premier has said in the past that the privatization “was a secure investment” because “everyone drinks water,” and argued it would bring money into the regional government’s cash-strapped coffers. In 2011, Madrid was the Spanish region with the third-highest levels of debt (15.191 billion euros).
Deputy regional premier Ignacio González, who also serves as president of Canal Isabel II, said that 49 percent of the waterworks company will be put up for sale before the beginning of summer.
But IU, the Socialists and ecological associations vowed that this would never happen, and began organizing the campaign against the proposal.
Municipalities throughout the region say they fear privatization would, among other things, undo all the agreements they have reached when it comes to organizing the flow of the water supply. In other words, they say a private company might come in and change the rules of the game, including ruling on which water pipes belong to which municipality.
Canal Isabel II is a profitable company. In 2010, it brought in some 114 million in revenue. Its market value has been appraised at 2.7 billion euros, and it has outstanding debts totaling 1.67 billion euros.
In 2008, Aguirre announced her intentions to privatize Canal Isabel II but was met by fierce opposition from left-wing parties and fellow PP member Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who was mayor of Madrid at the time.
The waterworks company was established in 1851 through a decree issued by Juan Bravo Murillo at the request of Queen Isabel II to supply Madrid’s residents.
Knives come out on social networks for activist
Popular Party (PP) officials from Madrid were busy making use of the social networks this past weekend to attack one of the organizers of the non-binding referendum held on Sunday to gauge local residents’ opinions about the regional government’s plans to sell off part or all of the Canal Isabel II waterworks company.
The target of the sometimes vicious attacks was Professor Ladislao Martínez, the spokesman and leader of the Platform Against the Privatization of Canal Isabel II.
By mid-morning Sunday, posts had begun to appear on Twitter. “The landowner against a blue tidal wave,” read one, which was linked to an article with a similar headline published in the right-leaning El Mundo. The article criticizes Martínez for having an apartment in Madrid’s Tetuán district as well as land in a small Cuenca town.
The PP councilor for social affairs, Salvador Victoria, wrote: “The anti-capitalist doesn’t want anyone to privatize the water supply: he wants it all for his farmland and, hopefully, for a free price.”
In another post, Victoria called Martínez “the leader of rebellious students who don’t want to study,” and an “anti-capitalist leader with farms.” “What does he want next? A profitable union?”
Percival Manglano, councilor for economy and finance, also posted two tweets attacking the referendum’s organizer. “The landowner in front of a blue tidal wave, or Ladislao, another leftist with a taste for caviar.”
Along with three other people, Ladislao Martínez is the owner of three parcels of land in his hometown in Cuenca. The land, which he inherited, brings him in around 1,000 euros in rent a year.
In its report, El Mundo began by calling him a “landowner,” but as the day went on the headline was changed to “Anticapitalist with a silver Mercedes.” That was also inaccurate, given that Martínez doesn’t own a car, nor does he know how to drive.