Madrid (AFP) - A communist and rights activist in her youth, former judge Manuela Carmena on Saturday became mayor of Madrid, ending 24 years of conservative rule in the Spanish capital.
The 71-year-old has promised to champion the poor as Spain emerges from a crippling financial crisis, as she echoes the calls of the Indignados (Outraged) movement that swept the country in 2011 to fight corruption, government spending cuts and evictions.
Largely unknown to the public until now, Carmena became mayor thanks to an alliance forged by her leftist platform, Ahora Madrid, with the main opposition Socialists, two weeks after the ruling conservative Popular Party suffered major losses in local elections.
"We are at the service of the citizens of Madrid. We want to govern by listening. We want them to call us by our first names," Carmena announced to the city council, shortly after a majority of representatives officially voted her in.
Highlighting her concern with poverty in Spain, where many live precariously even though the worst of the crisis is over, Carmena said she wanted to fight for people like Julia, a 63-year-old woman whom she met on the capital's main square, Puerta del Sol, and who lives on 300 euros ($340) a month.
During the heated campaign, blond-haired Carmena never lost her smile or her cool as she fought her rival Esperanza Aguirre, 63, for the seat, even as she accused the woman who was mayor from 2003 to 2012 of turning a blind eye on corruption.
"I don't understand, Esperanza, why you still want to govern after all the dreadful harm you have done," Carmena said during a campaign debate.
Ultimately the Spanish capital gave Aguirre 21 seats at the May 24 elections, while Carmena's platform, which includes the Indignados protest movement, won 20.
But with the Socialists' backing, Carmena was officially elected mayor by council representatives Saturday morning, and the chamber broke into applause.
The former judge, who under dictator Francisco Franco had put her legal skills to use to defend workers' rights, had not initially planned to run for the post.
But "my friends told me, go for it, we need someone with experience and a lot of proposals", she said.
- 'Fighting for a better world' -
A member of a UN working group on arbitrary detention, Carmena became a judge in 1981, when Spain was still deeply misogynistic. She gradually rose through the ranks, and made it to the Supreme Court.
Carmena has promised to stamp out corruption, develop public transport, increase subsidies for poor families and slash the mayor's salary by more than half to 45,000 euros ($51,000) -- she herself uses her bicycle and public transport to move around.
She echoes the calls of the Indignados movement that occupied Spain's squares four years ago for a new political model.
"The political class has failed us... Society wants a much more direct democracy, which is made possible by new technologies," she said.
Born on February 9, 1944 into a family of businesspeople from Madrid, Carmena has believed since her childhood in "fighting for a better world".
She studied law in Madrid, and joined the communist party in the 1960s to "fight against Franco".
She then became a lawyer in a firm specialised in labour law. In 1977, two years after Franco died, the firm was hit by a far-right attack that killed several of her colleagues.
Though protest party Podemos effectively ran the electoral campaign for Carmena's platform Ahora Madrid, she has not shied from criticising the far-left group for failing to speak out loudly enough against repression of dissent in leftist-run Venezuela.
Carmena says she is independent, and promises she will try to convince her rivals that her voters' hunger for "change" is what Madrid needs.
"Change can be wonderful," she said.