Juan Alberto Belloch, Mayor of Zaragoza, Spain
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Mayor of the Month for November 2013
Juan Alberto Belloch
Mayor of Zaragoza, Spain
By Tann vom Hove and Adriana Maciel
6 November 2013: While there are some precocious children who want to become prime ministers or presidents when they are adults, there can’t be many who aim to be justice ministers. But there is at least one. As an eight-year old, Juan Alberto Belloch told his father that he wanted to make Spain, which at the time was still ruled by General Franco, a juster country. While there are no records of whether the unjust conditions under the dictatorship were discussed at the family dining table, the young boy, who is now the Mayor of Zaragoza, was certainly influenced by his grandfather and father, who were both judges. Remarkably, the boyhood dream became reality when, in 1993, Spain’s socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez asked Belloch to take over the justice ministry.
• The Lawyer
• The Minister
• The Mayor
Born in 1950, Juan Alberto Belloch spent his childhood years in Teruel, now part of the autonomous province of Aragonese in northeastern Spain. He studied law at the University of Barcelona and, in 1976, joined the country’s judiciary with an appointment on the Canary island of La Gomera. After a number of postings, Belloch was transferred to the Basque Country where he became a judge in 1981. Three years later he co-founded the Human Rights Association of the Basque Country (Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos) and became spokesman for the progressive legal association Judges for Democracy (Jueces para la Democracia). Belloch also featured as a co-founder of the Association of European Magistrates for Democracy and Freedom (Magistrats Européens pour la Démocratie et les Libertés, MEDEL).
Juan Alberto Belloch’s association with Spain’s Socialists started in 1990 when, although not a party member, the Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) proposed him as a member of General Council of the Judiciary (El Consejo General del Poder Judicial, CGPJ) the governing body of the Spanish Judiciary, which is tasked by the country’s constitution to guard the independence of judges and magistrates.
In July 1993, Juan Alberto Belloch was appointed Minister of Justice in the seventh administration headed by the leader of the Socialist Party Felipe Gonzales. One year later, the Prime Minister asked him to take on the interior ministry in addition to the justice portfolio. Ministerial contemporaries of Belloch assert that he developed a taste for power during his years in government and was mentioned as a possible successor to Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales.
When Belloch took over the interior department, it had been suspected of promoting the running of illegal death squads in the Basque Country. Indeed, in his attempt to clean up the ministry, Belloch discovered the full extent of secret funds which channelled money to so called anti-terrorist liberation groups (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación, GAL). The groups were established illegally by sections of the interior ministry to fight ETA, the militant Basque separatist movement. They were particularly active between 1983 and 1987 during the first and second socialist administration. GAL operated mainly on the French side of the Basque Country. In later trials it was established that the groups committed murders, kidnappings and resorted to torture. Victims were known and suspected members of ETA. Although it was thought that Prime Minister Gonzales must have known about GAL’s activities, he was never brought to trial. However, one interior minister, Jose Barrionuevo, was convicted of being party to kidnapping.
The GAL affair led to the defeat of the socialist government by the conservative People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP) in elections held in May 1996. Juan Alberto Belloch fought the election as an independent candidate and won the seat of the Zaragoza constituency. Now on the opposition benches, Belloch, after having officially joined the Socialist Workers’ Party, became its interior and justice spokesman.
In June 1998, Belloch became the socialist candidate for Mayor of Zaragoza but in the 1999 municipal elections the People’s Party emerged as the strongest group on the city council and its candidate Luisa Fernanda Rudi held the post of mayor until 2003. (In Spain mayors are not directly elected but chosen by the council.) In Spain’s 2000 general election, Belloch was elected senator for the province of Zaragoza, which greatly enhanced his influence. In 2003, the Socialist Workers’ Party together with its regional allies won the majority of council seats and elected Juan Alberto Belloch as Mayor of Zaragoza. He was re-elected in 2007 and 2011.
While Belloch’s mayoral predecessor had applied for Zaragoza to host the 2008 international Expo, dedicated to ‘Water and sustainable Development’, it was the new mayor’s energy and enthusiasm, which secured the nomination for the city. The Expo, which was held between June and September 2008, attracted exhibitors more than 100 countries. After the successful staging of the exhibition, the mayor and the city started to think big.
The European Capital of Culture Project, run under the auspices of the European Union, asked Spain and Poland to nominate candidates for the 2016 title European Capital of Culture. Spain named Zaragoza as one of its candidates, but it had to compete against five other cities, including Cordoba, San Sebastian and Burgos. Zaragoza presented its concept under the heading ‘Utopia Europa’, trying to convince the judges that there was still a place in Europe for utopia. The mayor also stressed the city’s Roman, Moorish and Christian heritage and its ties to Latin America. The organisers of the Zaragoza submission also conveyed the message that today culture must embrace sustainability and technology. But while the judges praised the city’s bid, they declared San Sebastian the winner.
Mayor Belloch’s other attempt to lure a world event to Zaragoza was abandoned before the city had committed to any resources to the project. In 2010, the mayor and representatives from the cities of Huesca and Jaca as well as the regional government of Aragon announced their intention to bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The mayor believed, with the close proximity of the Pyrenees, a successful case could be presented to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). But with Barcelona also bidding and offering a similar package, Zaragoza withdrew its bid in 2011. In October 2013, Barcelona also withdrew, saying Spain’s current economic difficulties made its bid untenable.
Spain’s economic and financial troubles have impacted on all communities. Mayor Belloch says rising unemployment and debt, reduced private consumption and business investment have all led to a sharp fall in local government revenue. Nevertheless with the cooperation of the city council, the Belloch administration has performed reasonably well in difficult circumstances. The city has reduced its debts without laying off employees or reducing social spending. The mayor has also implemented a mediation process to prevent evictions of people who are in arrears with their mortgage payments. The mayor says the programme helped 300 families to remain in their homes.
Mayor Belloch says that the effects of current crisis will be felt for many years. Indeed, he believes that Spain will never return to the glory years leading up to 2008. “Our obligation, therefore, is to accept that reality and do as much as we can to stimulate the economy and prevent social hardship.” The mayor has put forward an action plan for the remainder of his third term, which includes:
• Promoting energy efficiency and seeking public-private cooperation.
• Applying technology to improve public services.
• Developing a comprehensive eGovernment system.
• Strengthening citizen participation in local government.
• Examining the case for a new east-west tramline.
• Keeping property taxes at their present levels.
• Building on the strength of Zaragossa’s historic city centre.
Juan Alberto Belloch’s ten years in office have been marked by his believe that whatever project one undertakes as mayor, one must first consider its consequences on citizens. In a recent article, he wrote citizens want to participate in democracy now more than ever. They want more extensive democracy and become more involved in the democratic process. The Mayor explains that there are no institutions more capable of satisfying longings for democratic reform than municipalities. Belloch says that local governments, including his own, have in the past treated municipal stakeholders too patronising. “We must not try to channel their social and political aspirations but adopt a system of mutual learning.” He continued to stress that cities provide the best environment for innovation and learning. “In the immediate future, cities will provide the jobs and create the prosperity people are yearning for.”
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