Women-led legislature revives a small Spanish town against all odds

AMPMA members at the presentation of their candidacy for the 2023 elections in the plenary hall of the Town Hall of Angüés, Spain. From left to right: Ana Ruiz, María Jesús Agustín, Herminia Ballestín, Adela Alfaro and Mariella Araujo. Edited photo by Francisco Lomero, used with permission.

By mid-June, an all-female independent group, Women for the Municipality of Angüés (AMPMA), will begin its second term leading the small Aragonese town of Angüés, Spain, after winning, for the second time, an absolute majority in the municipal elections of May 28, 2023. Their term of office is today's most unique political phenomenon in Spain's democracy.

The AMPMA obtained 148 votes out of a total of 254 ballots, which represents 58.73 percent of votes in Angüés, a municipality in the province of Huesca made up of the towns of Angüés, Bespén, and Velillas.

Resultados elecciones locales Municipio de Angüés 2023

Capture of comparative results 2019-2023 and new composition of the City Council of Angüés. Source: official site of May 28 elections of the Ministry of the Interior (June 2, 2023).

Their administration has been a very special political phenomenon for several reasons: In 2019, they unseated with two-thirds of the votes the traditional Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which had been governing with no opposition for 16 consecutive years, while managing to reduce the growing political apathy reflected in high rates of abstention: that year, the municipality recorded a turnout of 76.87 percent, only surpassed this year with 80.37 percent. But, undoubtedly, their greatest victory has been to stop (and reverse) the depopulation that seemed inevitable in the municipality.

What no one expected in the 2019 elections

Defeating the PSOE list, which had governed the municipality without opposition since 2003, was the first victory of the AMPMA women, led by Herminia Ballestín (current mayor of Angüés).

The group does not have ties to any political party; each member has her own political ideas. In addition, most of them had zero experience in the management of a legislature, except for the veteran Herminia Ballestín, who had already been a councilwoman under the PSOE. Councilwoman María de Marco, who this year made the list as a substitute, reminisces:

Cuando nos presentamos no teníamos programa ni prácticamente sabíamos qué se podía hacer. Podíamos proponer cosas, pero no sabíamos cómo funcionaba un ayuntamiento.

When we ran for office, we had no program and practically did not know what could be done. We could suggest things, but we didn't know how a city council worked.

In fact, many people wondered how long a group of women would last, and there was no shortage of jokes and sexist comments. “I thought this was an issue that had already been overcome, but theory is one thing, and putting it into practice is another, especially in a small town,” Ballestín told Spanish media La Sexta.

Four years and a pandemic later, this group of women proved that they were capable of overcoming one of the world's worst health crises and, in addition, they achieved what seemed impossible: to curb depopulation, bring life back to their small municipality and win the resounding support of the local community.

The greatest achievement for a village in the”empty Spain”

Photo of Angüés, Spain, taken by the author.

Data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) show that by 1900, Angüés had 1022 inhabitants, but lost more than half of its population during the 20th century, and this trend continued during the first two decades of the 21st century, not only in Angüés, but also in several rural areas of Spain. This is known as “empty Spain (España vaciada),” a concept used to describe several areas of the country that suffered massive migrations, mainly due to the rural exodus that took place in the mid-20th century and which continues to the present day.

By 2019, when the AMPMA won its first legislature, there were only 354 inhabitants left in the entire municipality. Happily, that trend not only slowed down, but, against all odds, is gradually reversing: according to the latest official data, as of January 1, 2022, the population of Angüés was 368 inhabitants, and this year it is estimated to have reached 387, which would represent a growth of almost 10 percent over the last four years.

Regarding the group's initiative, Herminia Ballestín told Periódico de Aragón: “I wanted to change things a bit, and we thought it was very interesting to form this group to show what female management is like.”

The first thing they did when they assumed the legislature in 2019 was to eliminate the mayor's salary and remove the cell phones, Christmas bonuses, and Christmas dinners of councilors paid by the City Council: Now, the positions are completely voluntary, and this saved the locality about 12 000 euros per year. In addition, they reduced energy costs by installing solar panels in the Town Hall and changing the street lighting.

To attract and retain residents, they created a program to support the emancipation of young people and a project through which the municipality acquired and rehabilitated unoccupied houses to offer them at affordable rents to families wishing to settle there. So far, three houses have been taken over and a fourth is being refurbished and will be offered this year.

The closure of a school is a decisive symptom that a village is dying, but in Angüés, the child population grew with the new families that arrived, which led to the expansion of the local school with the opening of a 2-year-old classroom, accompanied by the creation of a free school support program, the installation of a new playground in Bespén (one of the three villages of the municipality), the reopening of the municipal library and the development of workshops for job training and entrepreneurship.

They also sought to stimulate social life and citizen participation with cultural and recreational activities, such as concerts, lectures and seminars, photography contests, children's and family shows, traditional festivals, and exhibitions.

The improvements have taken time, but they have been constant and visible. The budget is very limited, and they do much of the work themselves: “You need a calling of being of service to do this, because you take care of everything and you don't see a single euro,” Ballestín says, who evaluates her first management as “gratifying.”

With four years of experience and the satisfaction of what was achieved, the group went for a second term hoping to continue its work of revitalization through new proposals, confident that now the citizens would trust them even more.

Their effort was rewarded with the conclusive result of the ballots that guaranteed them a second term. Herminia Ballestín assures:

Los pueblos están más vivos que nunca y solo hay que demostrarlo. Esta es nuestra forma de pensar y en esto basamos nuestro trabajo.

Villages are livelier than ever, we just have to show it. That's our way of thinking and what we base our work on.

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