1. feb., 2012

Diagonal referendum. Jordi Caïs & F. Javier Moreno Fuentes

Although support for the core principles of democracy remains high in advanced liberal societies, citizens seem to show a declining confidence in governmental institutions, and specifically in their elected representatives. In this context politicians have chosen to implement different types of political participation mechanisms: from the widespread use of consultation processes in urban planning, to the implementation of participatory budgeting processes. Referenda, one of those mechanisms, provide legitimacy to the decisions made by policy-makers, but they could also backfire depending on the not fully understood (and certainly non-predictable) contextual conditions in which the consultation takes place. A series of circumstances have been pointed out (always ex-post) as intervening in the negative outcome of those processes: the framing of the consultation (a process very imperfectly controlled by the political force who calls for the referendum), the degree of politicization of the issue at stake, the level of citizen’s mobilization, the general socio-economic atmosphere, the role played by socio-political actors (in particular the media), or the influence of some unpredictable contextual elements.

The referendum carried out in Barcelona between May 10th. and 16th. 2010, to decide on the reform of the Diagonal Avenue constitutes a very interesting case study on the unintended effects and consequences of participative democracy in action. When the decision to call for a referendum on this issue was adopted, several of the previously mentioned elements pointing at the highly risky nature of the consultation were already explicit. A series of political developments constrained Barcelona local authorities’ handling of the referendum, inexorably pushing them towards a dead end that would result in a radical de-legitimization of the entire reform initiative by the vote of only 12% of the electorate. This result was not only contrary to the interests of the local government who promoted the consultation, but it seriously damaged the chances for reelection of the Mayor, who lost the elections celebrated on May 22nd, 2011.


 The reform of the Diagonal Avenue and the calling for a referendum.


Since the first democratic local elections held in 1979, the popularity of a Mayor of Barcelona had never been as low as in the last two years prior to the last elections. Trying to follow the example of his predecessors, who had saved moments of relatively low popularity with big urban reforms projects (Pasqual Maragall was responsible for the 1992 Olympic Games which radically transformed the urban landscape of Barcelona, and Joan Clos set up the 2004 Forum of Cultures which allowed for the transformation of a large section of the maritime front of the city), the Major, Jordi Hereu, sought to improve his popularity by reforming the Diagonal Avenue, one of the most emblematic avenues of the city. Thus, in 2008 he announced that the two existing branches of the tram (ending both at the North and South areas of the city) would be joined through this avenue.

This initiative, which implied the transformation of the most central and historic part of that elegant avenue, contradicted the PSC electoral program, which stated that large urban projects were not necessary to make good city policy. The reform had initially been the idea of the green party which acted as partner in the Barcelona local government (Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds –ICV-), although it had not been included in the Municipal Action Program agreed by both parties, and was openly opposed by high-ranking urban planning officials.

         Given the relative weakness of his coalition government (the PSC and ICV had 18 counselors of a total of 41), and having decided to make of this reform a central element of his government program, the Mayor was compelled to call on a referendum on this reform in exchange for the support of the left-wing extreme nationalist Esquerra Republicana (ERC) (4 counselors) in the voting of the 2008 budget. Making a virtue of necessity, the Major claimed that the referendum was the best way to proceed to increase the legitimacy of the reform while enhancing the democratic nature of Barcelona’s urban governance. In a city that after the Olympic games of 1992 had managed to place itself in the global map through a conscientious effort of branding as a modern, cosmopolitan and progressive Mediterranean capital, this referendum was sold as the opportunity to not only increase the voice of the citizenry, but also to promote e-democracy by deploying a technologically advanced platform that would allow citizens to vote online on the consultation process.

         In this context, the urbanists of the municipality prepared two alternative projects for the reform of the Diagonal Avenue: the boulevard (option A), keeping the central lanes for public transportation (tram and buses) and cars, while maintaining the majority of the currently existing trees, expanding the pedestrian area, and maintaining the current bicycle lanes; and the Rambla (option B), transforming the central lanes into a wide pedestrian space, moving traffic to the lateral lanes (which implied moving part of the trees along the avenue into a new location). These alternatives were publicly exposed for consultation, suggestions and appeals by neighbours and civil society organisations before the referendum.

The two alternatives proposed by the municipality promoted public transportation, while clearly restricting mobility with private car. Currently it is estimated that three out of every five cars circulating inside Barcelona (about 86,000 every day in each direction) go across the Diagonal Avenue. The calculations of the Municipality about the future traffic after the reform indicated that the tram should assume the equivalent of the traffic of 9,500 vehicles. Some additional 19,000 vehicles should cease to move through the Diagonal Avenue after the inauguration of the future metro lines already planned, while about 23,000 vehicles would seek alternative routes to go across the city.

         Once the decision to hold a referendum had been made public, and according to the municipal regulation on referenda, the local government had to gain the support of the main opposition party in order to reach the two thirds of the council representatives in order to call for a consultation. The main condition of the conservative nationalist party Convergència i Unió (CiU) to support the referendum was the inclusion of a third (option C) through which citizens could express their rejection of the entire reform project.


Positioning of the actors in relation to the referendum.


Under a relatively intense campaign calling for citizen’s participation the weeks previous to the consultation experienced a heated media debate on the implications of the three different options.

The parties of the local government coalition encouraged citizens to vote for either options A (boulevard), or B (Rambla), while the other parties supported option C (none of the above) in more or less explicit ways. However, the parties’ point of view was not consistent throughout the process of discussion of the alternatives and the campaign previous to the referendum, changing according to their perception of the evolution of the political situation. ICV was the only party that remained clearly in favor of the transformation of the Diagonal to allow a full functioning of the tram across the city. The PSC was not initially committed to that option, but it gradually assumed it as its own along the process.

CiU, which had been in fact the initial promoter of the idea of joining the two tram networks through the Diagonal Avenue when they were in control of the Generalitat (the regional government of Catalonia, which they ruled for nearly 25 years, until they lost the regional elections in front of a coalition of left-wing parties in 2003, regaining power at this level of government in November 2010), finally advocated for option C with the argument of not endangering the circulation of traffic in the city, and with the obvious objective of undermining the initiative of the left-wing coalition.

The main Spanish conservative party (Partido Popular –PP-) proposed an alternative route for the tram, and positioned itself against the very idea of the referendum, while ERC, which had imposed the idea of the referendum in the first place, criticized the notion of the tram as the main means of transportation along the Diagonal Avenue, and supported the idea of prioritizing buses.

The reduction of the space available for the circulation of cars was strongly supported by the environmentalist groups, those in support of the ambitious and relatively successful policy of making room for bicycles in the city implemented in the previous years, as well as by the private joint-venture corporation managing the Barcelona tram network under a contract with the metropolitan transport authority (interested in introducing the tram as the main means of transportation to cut across the city, and linking the two networks already existing at both ends of the city). The Platform for the Public Transport was also an enthusiastic supporter of the reform proposals.

While the Federation of Neighborhood Associations expressed its support to the reform, the neighbours of the Diagonal Avenue publically expressed their concern about the nuisances they may have to experience during the duration of the works (estimated between 3 and 6 years), although this opposition did not get formally organized. The owners of the shops in the Diagonal Avenue also voiced their worries about the potential effects that the reform may potentially have over the sustainability of their commercial activity. On the other hand, the professional associations of architects and engineers were vocally opposed to the very idea of consulting the general public about issues that they considered to be of an essentially technical nature.

The Royal Automobile Club of Catalonia (RACC), a private car insurer with a very important economic role and a remarkable political significance in Catalonia, openly expressed its opposition to the reform of the Diagonal. The studies they conducted warned about the traffic jams in the surrounding areas as the circulation of cars was made more difficult along the Diagonal Avenue by the reform.

Beyond organized civil society, an spontaneous discussion developed on the net (in virtual forums, blogs and social networks) around the pros and cons of the Diagonal reform, with a predominance of negative discourses amorphously combining anti-systemic attitudes (against the State in general, or more specifically against the municipality, the left-wing coalition in power, or the private interests associated with the reform), together with voices defending the use of private cars, and those claiming for a different set of priorities for public expending in a context of economic crisis. A large majority of them supported voting for option C in the referendum.


The voting, the results, and the morning after.


Between May 10th. and 16th. 2010, Barcelona held its first municipal referendum since the reestablishment of democracy after the death of Franco. A total of 1,414,783 residents (all residents of the municipality of Barcelona older than 16, regardless of their nationality) had the right to vote in this consultation. At the point of closing the polls 172,161 citizens had voted (12.17% of the census). The distribution of the votes was: 11.88 % for Option A (Boulevard), 8.28 % for option B (Rambla), and 79.84 % for option C (none of the above).

The Eixample district, the one most directly affected by the reform, had the greatest level of participation (21% of the census), followed by Sarrià (15%) another upper-middle class neighborhood. In working class districts, far away from the directly affected area of the reform (and where the Socialist party traditionally gets the biggest share of its votes) the percentage of vote was extremely low (ie: 7 per cent in Sant Andreu, 5% in Nou Barris, or 2% in Ciutat Vella).

         This was the first occasion in which citizens of Barcelona could cast their votes electronically, and some 53% of those who voted did so online (either from one of the computers located in several voting points along the Diagonal Avenue, or from any private computer after properly accrediting their identity and inclusion in the census). Throughout the week of the consultation there were many technical incidences with the electronic voting platform. Three of those incidents attracted particular media attention: the impossibility of the leader of the PP to cast his vote because of a case of identity theft (a hacker voted in his name and made it public to denounce the vulnerability of the electronic voting system), the difficulties of the leader of CIU to vote electronically (he declared to have been able to vote only after trying seven times), and the failed public relations event organized to show the moment in which the Mayor was supposed to vote electronically (Hereu declared that he had voted, although he could not actually do it then and there because of technical problems. When journalists found out about this, the Mayor had to admit that he had lied previously about it).

The outcome of the consultation had a very significant political cost for the coalition in government. The “number two” in the city government was ceased immediately after the publication of the results of the referendum. He claimed full responsibility for the problems during the consultation process, and recognized that they had probably asked citizens to express their opinion about the wrong question at the wrong time.

After the publication of the results the Mayor announced a radical shift in its policy strategic, away from urban renewal, and focused into welfare policies. Among the increasing debate about the cost of the referendum for the municipal treasury (estimated in some 3.2 Million €), important sectors of the media questioned the leadership of the Mayor.




Looking at it retrospectively, it seems that the Barcelona local government took a great risk when calling for a referendum on the reform of the Diagonal Avenue. Confident in his capacity to handle the consultation process, the Mayor of Barcelona understated the unpredictable character of referenda.

Important mistakes were made in the framing and handling of the consultation. While the questions posed to the citizens were structured around two alternatives for the reform (boulevard or Rambla), the unspoken and underlying question was whether the priority for transportation along the Diagonal should be given to the tram (taking it away from the currently dominant private car). The C option managed to aggregate a wide range of negative attitudes towards the project. The political struggles which surrounded the discussion previous to the consultation (not only between the parties in government and those in opposition, but also within the left-wing parties initially in favour of the reform), the clumsy handling of the campaign and the consultation process (specially the problems with the electronic voting system), and the plebiscitary character that the consultation had acquired, contributed to a very low participation, and to the casting of a vote of protest.

Although a more detailed analysis of the votes would be necessary to ascertain this point in detail, and despite the fact that the opposition of some of the neighbours to the reform did not become well organised during the campaign, it is easy to imagine that a NIMBY effect played a role in the final result.

The consultation may have also been affected by a problem of timing. On the one hand, the general political atmosphere in Catalonia was charged with the expectation on the ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court about the reform of the Estatut (the basic law that regulates the relations between the regional Catalan government, and the central Spanish authorities). While this might have created a favorable atmosphere to a more direct involvement of the citizenry in policy-making issues, it may have also discouraged participation due to the tension existing among the different political forces. In addition, the referendum took place a few days after the President of the Spanish government Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced the need to implement very strict budget cuts in order to face the tensions affecting financial markets, and to pave the way for an economic recovery still not at sight, reinforcing the argument that the reform of the Diagonal should not be a political priority at this time.

This case shows that, although referenda could work as a mechanism to improve local governance, and to involve citizens more actively in the decision-making process, they may also easily fall prey of problems of framing and timing. In order for them to function as they are intended (to consult citizens’ opinion on a certain topic) they must not operate in a plebiscitary way. There is therefore a clear need for a basic agreement among all political forces to reduce the room for the politicisation of the consultation beyond the specific point discussed. The topic of discussion should be clearly reflected in the wording of the questions asked, and communication strategies should aim at involving as large a fraction of the population as possible so as to not only mobilise anti-systemic voters, and/or those directly characterized by their immobilist positions on the issue at stake.