The moment that turned Ada Colau from a prominent activist into a household name came halfway through a staid parliamentary hearing on Spain’s mortgage crisis.

A veteran campaigner against house evictions, she had been invited to brief lawmakers and a senior member from the Spanish banking association. Colau spoke calmly, but the contempt was hard to miss. Turning to the banker, she declared: “This man is a criminal, and should be treated like one.”

Her intervention sparked an outcry. Critics chided Colau for abusing the stage provided by parliament for populist theatrics. But she also drew praise for doing in public what countless Spaniards have been doing in private since the collapse of the country’s debt-fuelled housing bubble: pointing the finger of blame at the country’s widely loathed caste of bankers.

Speaking a few weeks after her rhetorical assault, Colau says she has no regrets: “It is so obvious that the behavior of the banks in this country has been criminal,” she tells the Financial Times in an interview. “Saying this should be the rule, not the exception.”

Spanish media have described Colau, a spokeswoman for the Platform of Mortgage Victims, as “the best-known representative of popular indignation” in the country.

Her voice is heard on television or radio most days, and her ability to speak simply and engagingly about the complexities of mortgage finance has given her a loyal following, especially among younger Spaniards.

Supporters insist there is more to the platform (and its most prominent representative) than simple protest: The group has indeed emerged as an effective and influential political force, with the power to sway parliament and dominate headlines.

At the same time, the rise of grass-roots opposition movements such as the Platform is also seen by many as a symptom of Spain’s broader political malaise — exposing the failure of regular opposition parties such as the Socialist Workers’ Party to provide a serious counterweight to the government.

“The party system is completely discredited because the parties don’t respond to current reality,” says Colau.

She accuses both the ruling Popular Party and the Socialists of neglecting the plight of hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who are struggling to pay off their mortgages, and whose homes are now often worth less than their debts.

It is an acutely sensitive issue in Spain, made all the more emotional by an apparent series of suicides by heavily indebted homeowners facing eviction.

“Housing is the principal reason for the precarious situation of Spanish families. When the money stops, when there is no work, the first problem for families is their house,” she says.

In an attempt to force parliament’s hand, the Platform collected more than 1.4 million signatures for a legislative initiative that calls for a deep overhaul of mortgage regulations and an end to Spain’s famously draconian approach to home buyers who fall behind on their payments.

The proposal would make it much harder for banks to evict troubled mortgage-holders. Crucially, it would also prevent banks from demanding full payment of the mortgage once a house was repossessed. This would, in effect, allow heavily indebted homebuyers simply to walk away from their property if they could no longer afford their mortgage.

“It cannot be that the most vulnerable people are made to live with the consequences of their actions until their death, while the big companies take no responsibility and are bailed out with public money,” says Colau.

At the very least, she argues, nationalized lenders such as Bankia should have been forced by the government to convert empty flats into social housing and to accept a moratorium on house evictions.

Noting the recent wave of corruption scandals, Colau points out that Spain offers leniency to bankers and politicians, who benefit from a relatively generous statute of limitations in corruption cases, but none to small mortgage-holders: “Some pay and others don’t. The more you steal, the more they forgive you.”

The Platform’s proposal is fiercely opposed by both the government and the Spanish banking sector. Few believe it has any chance of passing through parliament in its current form.

Colau points out, however, that the recent wave of popular support for the initiative already forced the ruling Popular Party to change its mind on one occasion, when it dropped its initial hostility to a formal parliamentary debate on the plan.

That debate is set to take place in the coming weeks, and will provide yet another stage for Colau and her supporters to press their case against Spain’s bankers: “We will not give up until the last minute,” she says.

— Financial Times