Manuela Carmena: “They will do a U-turn on Madrid Central, they can’t do anything else”

The former mayor of the Spanish capital speaks to EL PAÍS about the future of the low-emissions zone, which the new right-wing municipal council has tried to suspend

Xosé Hermida
Former mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, in her home.
Former mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, in her home.ULY MARTIN (EL PAÍS)

The “mansion” owned by Manuela Carmena, if you believe the rumor mills, is in reality a small house in a middle-class neighborhood of Madrid, complete with a little garden, just big enough for her hydrangeas and azaleas.

On this hot July morning, Carmena, 75, is getting ready to leave the house to sort out her pension, which was suspended during the four years she was mayor of Madrid for the leftist Más Madrid party.

You have to govern with the people in mind, not shout slogans to please your supporters

Carmena, a former judge, won the most votes at the May 26 municipal elections, but fell short of a majority, paving the way for the right-wing Popular Party (PP) and center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) to take power with the support of the far-right Vox. José Luis Martínez-Almeida, of the PP, has now replaced Carmena as mayor of Madrid.

“Personally, I’m fine. I have all the energy you usually have when you make a change in your life,” she explains. Carmena adds that she only feels disappointed at how quickly some of her municipal projects have been dismantled, starting with Madrid Central, the low-emissions zone aimed at reducing air pollution in the capital. But on Friday, she received the good news that a judge had overturned the new city council’s decision to suspend the scheme.

Manuela Carmena (c) concedes defeat on the night of the municipal elections.
Manuela Carmena (c) concedes defeat on the night of the municipal elections.Victor J Blanco (GTRES)

Question. You must be pleased with the ruling.

Answer. It indicates that health issues are of huge importance, because that is what it is about; it’s not about streamlining the city. The judge’s ruling is based on that. Protecting people’s health cannot be put off until tomorrow.

Q Did the suspension of the fines by City Hall surprise you?

A. The PP had already petitioned seven or eight times for preventive measures to be implemented to freeze Madrid Central and no judge would agree to them because they could all see that the health issue is obvious in this case. You can’t jeopardize Madrid and Spain’s commitment to clean air. That shows you are running a disastrous, and above all capricious, administration. 

Q. Why do you think the right wing parties have made this their flagship issue?

You can’t jeopardize Madrid and Spain’s commitment to clean air

A. Because they are doing a very shallow and irresponsible job in politics. This is about party politics with no consideration for the common good. The parties only seem to work for their supporters. Political etiquette forces you to be considerate of the person who has replaced you, and I really don’t want to criticize the current mayor, but you have to govern with the people in mind, not shout slogans to please your supporters.

Q. Given the protests in favor of Madrid Central and the judge’s ruling, do you believe the system will be put back in place permanently?

A. They will do a U-turn because they can’t do anything else. It’s unthinkable that the capital of Spain should be against the fight to prevent climate change. The movement is so big across the world... They will have to accept it. The mayor is in the minority. A greater number of citizens voted to continue with the policies that were being implemented. [The new coalition council] is in what was previously defined as a losers’ pact. That’s why, when I hear remarks that this is what the people voted for... No, no, the election results showed that voters wanted to keep Madrid Central. Madrid can’t turn away again from the path being taken by the rest of the cities in the world. What’s more, every day we are seeing tension in the deals made between the three right-wing parties, and that appears to be pushing them to act like three far-right parties.

Protest to protect Madrid Cental on July 6. Sign reads: “We think differently, we breathe the same.”
Protest to protect Madrid Cental on July 6. Sign reads: “We think differently, we breathe the same.”

Q. Has the speed with which they are dismantling your legacy bothered you?

A. I’m always saying that democracy needs to be cared for. And that means recognizing the institutions. A government can’t wipe out everything the previous one has done in a capricious and baseless U-turn. Madrid Central in itself is not something new. It’s the evolution of policies that were carried out by two or three previous mayors to achieve clean air. City policy has to be designed over 15 to 20 years, and successive governments have to respect these general lines of action. We did, even though it meant being criticized by sectors of a demanding left.

Q. They have also closed the human rights office that you set up…

Spanish society is far better than its politicians

A. That really upset me. With all that is happening in the world. How can disgraceful things such as as criminal proceedings for giving water to a thirsty migrant in the American desert or saving lives in the Mediterranean even be possible? At a time when human rights are being challenged, the fact that Madrid City Hall assumes this symbolic position of saying ‘We don’t want human rights’ is very shocking.

Q. Did you find it hard to cope with the hostile nature of professional politics?

A. More than anything else, I found it disturbing. Imagine that in any given activity, everyone involved is constantly insulting each other. You can’t work like that. I tried to offer data on what we were doing every month, but the opposition didn’t speak about that. They were simply looking for a headline and a spectacle. They think that this is what the people want, but I think it is a huge mistake. In the last survey from the Center for Sociological Research [CIS], one of the main concerns of the people was the political class. And they’re right! The political class does not measure up to the people. Spanish society is far better than its politicians.

Q. Is the political class worse than you imagined it to be?

A. Yes, particularly in terms of relations with the opposition. It doesn’t make sense because they are not based on the depth of debate on what we might differ on – and which is very important to discuss – but exclusively on frivolity and providing a spectacle. That is corrosive for society; it leads to confrontation, hatred and a lack of understanding. Besides, it is artificial because the very colleagues who undermine you in public will tell you one-on-one how well you are doing and what a great person you are. Even people who are now in Vox have said that to me.

New Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida.
New Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida.Emilio Naranjo (EFE)

Q. Did you foresee a return to the far right?

A. No, no... It was completely forgotten. It has a lot to do with the resurgence of the extreme right around the world. There has been a push for people who feel that way to express what they felt they couldn’t before. It seems to be so anachronistic … It is so surprising, for example, that it is being denied that [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco carried out a coup d’état to usurp the legally constituted regime. What has happened to us for this to happen?

Q. You were elected Madrid mayor four years ago with that wave of so-called “City Halls of change.” And very few have survived. What went wrong?

A. I have never particularly related to that movement because each City Hall has its own story. I don’t know what happened in other places, but we were moving toward an important process of becoming more cross-cutting, and that meant we lost the support of certain groups linked to the left, such as the candidates for Unidas Podemos and Pablo Iglesias, who at the last minute advised people not to vote for us. I never thought that would happen as it did. My proposal to have a very broad platform seemed reasonable to me. Obviously, I lacked the sensitivity to realize that in certain circles strengthening the political party is more desirable than having structures for citizens without labels.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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