Share story

IBI, Spain —

Wearing a top hat and surrounded by supporters mostly dressed in outlandish military uniforms, Vicente Candela stormed the town hall here briefly last month and proclaimed himself mayor of Ibi’s 24,000 residents.

It was, Candela said, “a coup d’état with humoristic violence,” over in about eight hours. He then handed power back to Ibi’s official mayor, while street cleaners removed the debris of a pitched battle between Candela’s rebels and his opponents, during which they pelted each other with flour and rotten eggs, amid the deafening noise of firecrackers.

This day of playful, ritualistic political upheaval is held in Ibi every Dec. 28 and traces its origins back as far as the role reversal in the Roman Empire’s festival of Saturnalia, when masters provided table service for their servants, according to José Vicente Verdú, a lawyer who has researched Ibi’s history.

But in modern Spain, the satire has been imbued with outsize significance as scores of corruption scandals have forced the ouster of several mayors and helped plunge support for Spain’s mainstream parties to record lows.

Ibi is in the province of Alicante, where the mayor of the provincial capital resigned on Dec. 23 after being charged in two corruption investigations relating to Spain’s once-booming construction sector. Ibi’s own mayor resigned in late 2013, after members of her team were charged with fraud relating to public work contracts.

“Dictatorship is a chance to clean up this place, and I can guarantee that today will be a corruption-free day in Ibi,” an excited Candela said shortly before starting his mock coup.

For his part, Rafael Serralta Vilaplana, the real mayor of Ibi, recognized that, however symbolic Ibi’s festival, “Spain really needs political regeneration.”

The mock coup, he acknowledged, had taken on special resonance, given the sudden popularity of the insurgent political party Podemos, “which is also something that nobody expected, but which should serve as a clear reminder that all of us politicians must be more transparent and in touch with the people.”

Just two months after it was founded last March, Podemos, a leftist party, won 8 percent of the Spanish vote in elections to the European Parliament, helping deny the governing conservative party and the opposition Socialists a majority of votes for the first time since the country’s return to democracy in the late 1970s.

Since then, Podemos has made even more gains in opinion polls, raising the prospect of a three-horse race in Spain’s next general elections, due around November.

The coup in Ibi is staged on the Day of the Holy Innocents, Spain’s equivalent of April Fools’ Day. It is a blend of carnival and anarchy, albeit carefully orchestrated.

The night before the coup, the 20 or so conspirators, known as Els Enfarinats (The Flour Men), drove around the town in a truck, reciting diatribes mostly targeting politicians and local businessmen.

At dawn on Dec. 28, they assembled in their headquarters, put on their makeup and uniforms and gathered their ammunition — flour bags, egg boxes, fire extinguishers and firecrackers. Around 9 a.m., they assaulted the town hall and ousted the mayor.

A mock “opposition” group of residents rapidly formed, and challenged the rebels on Ibi’s church square. After their battle, both groups agreed to a cease-fire, during which they visited the bars and shops around Ibi, introducing random laws while jailing or imposing fines on those who disobeyed them.

The mock fines, which are noted in a ledger in purposefully illegible writing, are used as charitable donations, earmarked for a local home for the elderly.

“I prefer to pay this fine than my normal taxes, which are just too high,” said Elena Otych, owner of the Maseros bar, after she was fined by Candela because her bar counter was deemed to be too high.

Candela, a building entrepreneur, was leading a motley group of conspirators “without any hierarchy and from every social class,” he said. Some residents of Ibi, who watched rather than joined the coup, suggested that somebody like Candela could perhaps manage the town hall better than the elected politicians.

“These people should be in power not just for one day but for the whole year, because we’ve reached a point where anything is better than what we’ve had in our real politics,” said Isabel Romero, a factory employee. “These people are collecting money for the elderly, rather than robbing public money like what our politicians have been doing.”

Still, Serralta Vilaplana, Ibi’s conservative mayor, said his administration managed to cut the town debt in two years from 12 million euros, or about $10 million, to 8 million euros. The budgetary improvement was “better than what this dictatorship could do,” he argued playfully, and should help him get re-elected as mayor in May, when Spain holds municipal elections.

As Spain enters this crucial election year, Spanish judges are set to rule on about 150 fraud cases, in which more than 2,000 people have been charged. While Spain’s judiciary has been struggling to keep up with the caseload, some of the more prominent prosecutions are expected to reach trial soon.

One of the most prominent is a tax-fraud case against Jordi Pujol, the patriarch of Catalan politics who ran its regional government for 23 years. Pujol will go before a Barcelona court, alongside other members of his family, on Jan. 27.

“Corruption and other problems really start when any politician holds on to power for too long,” said Rubén Barea, a member of Ibi’s town hall administration, who switched sides to join the rebels on the day of the mock coup.

Candela said that, however much he enjoyed becoming mayor, his interest in political power was limited to that one day.

“As far as I can tell, politicians are shameless,” he said, “so really being one of them isn’t my ambition.”