Can Europe Make It?

Mission: Ciudadanos

Podemos was poised to win this year’s elections. This was a dangerous situation and the system needed stabilizing. Hence, the launching of a firewall operation through Ciudadanos. Español.

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-16 at 2.52.03 AM.jpeg
Oleguer Sarsanedas Francesc Badia i Dalmases
9 April 2015

Image from @Albert_RiveraRafael Hernando, the People’s Party (PP) parliamentary speaker, is well-known for his rather dumb jokes and the cocky style he uses to dismiss his political adversaries. On March 5, speaking on national television, he cheerfully compared Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, with good old Naranjito (Little Orange), the mascot of the 1982 FIFA World Cup which was hosted by Spain. Orange, of course, is Ciudadanos’ corporate colour. Little did he know that his morning contribution to the on-going PP strategy of attacking Ciudadanos (as well as Podemos) would backfire dramatically, unleashing a wave of sympathy for Rivera’s party in the social media (#YosoyNaranjito) and beyond. 

This came only to prove what all the available opinion polls are currently describing: the seemingly irresistible ascent of the newcomers (Podemos and Ciudadanos) and the equally dramatic decline of the traditional parties’ appeal. In fact, the broadly shared forecast for the next general elections, due at the end of this year (possibly the last week in November), is nothing less than a historic defeat for Mariano Rajoy’s party, which is expected to score its worst election results ever. Another way of putting it is considering the other side: a joint landslide victory of all the other parties, which have felt disparaged by the People’s Party way of governing against everybody else.

Like Podemos, Ciudadanos has a young charismatic leader of its own. Although Albert Rivera belongs to the very same generation as Pablo Iglesias (they were born in 1979 and 1978 respectively), they are two very different political types. Rivera’s past, unlike Iglesias’s, is on the right side: he was close to the People’s Party youth organization in his early twenties (but not a party member), he studied Law at a leading business school in Barcelona, ESADE - a Jesuit institution that caters for the offspring of the Catalan bourgeoisie - and worked as a lawyer for the largest financial institution in Catalonia, Caixa Bank.

He entered politics full-time in 2006, when he ran for the first time as Ciudadanos’s candidate at the Catalan regional elections. A swimming champion in his teens, his public image – like Iglesias’ – is in sharp contrast to that of his political adversaries in the established parties: young, urban, educated, and untainted by the current political environment. So are his looks: he sports a carefully informal hairstyle and his wardrobe covers from the casual to the sober/trendy urban style that characterizes Barcelona fashion design – definitely a change from his very first appearance on election posters and flyers, which featured him in the nude (with nothing to hide, so to speak). A skilled speaker and debater, he often uses Spanish in the Catalan parliament to assert his active support for the practice of bilingualism, which is common in society but not in the Catalan institutions. Divorced, and a declared agnostic, he is a very different kind of fish from mainstream conservatives.

Where does Ciudadanos come from

Founded nine years ago (July 2006) in Barcelona as a regional party, Ciudadanos describes itself as constitutionalist, post-nationalist and progressive. It originated from a civic platform, Ciutadans de Catalunya (Citizens of Catalonia), created in 2005 by a group of professionals who declared themselves opposed to “compulsory nationalism” - that is, to what they saw as the suffocating imposition of the hegemonic identity-based nationalism in Catalan politics.

In fact, its firm and outspoken opposition to the powerful pro-independence narrative that dominates the political scene in Catalonia has granted Ciudadanos an audience in the rest of Spain, where they have been perceived as the courageous defenders of Spain’s unity, confronting secessionism with the slogan “mejor unidos”,  a Spanish version of the “Better Together” of Scottish fame.

According to its own ideological statements, Ciudadanos’s ideology rests on two basic principles, “progressive liberalism and democratic socialism”, which would initially position it to the left of centre. Its image and style, however, is quite close to the sensitivity of citizens who consider themselves centrists, or to the right of centre, and this is indeed the perception a majority of voters, including their own, have of the party.

True, most of its promoters came from the left, and the party has refused again and again to be positioned on the traditional left-right axis (like Podemos). Their preferred choice is on the freedom end of the freedom-authoritarianism axis, which they believe is “much closer to the real problems of citizens”. But even though the party website still asserts its centre-left lineage, the sheer size and width of the stream that, according to all the available opinion polls, is currently bringing former People’s Party voters into the Ciudadanos’s fold will surely tilt its formal definition closer to the vision of the electorate.   

Ciudadanos is progressive in that it stands for reform. Its aim to “regenerate” both the structure and the running of the different levels of government is very much in tune with the voters’ dismay at the never-ending string of corruption scandals besieging the parties that have governed Spain (and Catalonia) for the last forty years. Reassuringly though, unlike Podemos, the party does not respond to the widespread indignation with a radical questioning of the status quo. 

Ciudadanos declares its belief in regional coexistence based on equal rights and duties among Spanish regions and Spanish citizens; the promotion of equal opportunities and the end of ethnicity-determined, language-determined, sex-determined or economic status-determined privilege; the neutrality of government in religious and identity matters; the upholding of democratic and enlightened values; the respect for bilingualism, and the defense of the 1978 Constitution which sanctions the quasi-federal, albeit  asymmetric, “State of the Autonomies”.

Equally progressive is its position against all types of nationalism and in favour of same-sex marriages, and its advocacy of a referendum to decide on whether Spain is to be a monarchy or a republic. It also stands strongly for reform of the current Spanish electoral law, which damps proportionality and favours the main traditional parties.

In all, if Ciudadanos is to the right, it is definitely an aggiornamento of the traditional Spanish variety, deeply afflicted by the toxins of Francoism. Its main appeal comes from the fact that it is both new and clean.

Where is Ciudadanos heading to

Ciudadanos won three parliamentary seats at the Catalan elections of November 2006, targeting previous abstainers and disillusioned voters. Six years later, at the same regional elections, it won nine seats. Today, most polls indicate that at this year’s early Catalan elections in September, it could win up to sixteen seats.

But Ciudadanos has now gone beyond its original Catalan frame and is currently competing with the other big players on the Spanish political scene. It did try to, and failed, at the 2007 local elections, at the 2008 general and Andalusian elections, and again at the 2009 European elections, partly due to the existence of another minor party competing for the then narrow space in-between the two main parties, Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD - Union Progress and Democracy). Ciudadanos did attempt a merger with them, but it did not come about – much to the regret of UPyD, now struggling to survive the strong Ciudadanos’s tide.

At the May 2014 European elections, the party won two seats and reaped nearly half a million votes in the whole of Spain, nearly the same amount of votes it cashed in, more recently, at the March 2015 Andalusian elections. Now in full explosive growth in the polls, Ciudadanos is expected to be among the four parties which will come up on top at the forthcoming local and regional elections in May and the general elections in November.

Ciudadanos’s success is, to a great extent, the result of a massive leak that is draining the up to now all-powerful People’s Party, unable to present an acceptable service record to the vast majority of impoverished Spanish citizens, besieged by corruption scandals and chastised for its outmoded ways and its remarkable lack of empathy. But Albert Rivera’s party attracts voters also from the other leading actor of the two-party system that has defined Spain’s politics during the last decades, the Socialist Party, and even, interestingly, from Podemos.

The latest polls clearly show that Pablo Iglesias’ party strategy to blur its leftist lineage so as to appeal to a broader, across-the-board indignant constituency, has met with a counter-strategy which, splitting the indignant-citizen vote into left and right again, attempts to slow down Podemos’s meteoric progression. To many, the perfect fit for this counter-strategy is Ciudadanos.

The IBEX35 factor

Rumour has it that (some of) the corporations listed in the IBEX35, the Spanish stock-exchange index, are behind this operation to stabilize the system, currently under the threat of a powerful anti-system mass movement. The corporations, having made their diagnosis of the situation (the overgrowth of a leftist-led, anti-capitalist party as a result of the poor management of the financial/economic crisis by the People’s Party), are presumably now backing Albert Rivera’s party as a more reasonable and practical option.

True or false, the rumour tells a plausible story. It is the story of a conservative political option, the People’s Party, which duly carried out the reforms it was meant to, but overplayed its hand and got burned out in the process. The widespread social opposition to its austerity policies and also the additional ideologically-driven measures it seized the opportunity to pass (in education, health, workers and civil rights), put the system at risk by giving rise to Podemos. And Podemos was poised to win this year’s elections. This was a danger situation and the system needed stabilizing. Hence, the launching of a firewall operation through Ciudadanos.

The PP is the only actor who still calls Ciudadanos centre-left, to distinguish it from the centre-right which it keeps on claiming is its own. But the rise of Ciudadanos is pushing the party to the right, and political wisdom has it that in order to win elections, the magic word is centre. Only time will tell if the PP will redefine itself along US Republican Party-like lines (which is what ex-President José María Aznar, George W. Bush’s keenest cheerleader, advocates), or if it will eventually make a comeback after a spell in dry dock.

But the difficulties of renovating a party from within, the fact that surveys indicate that only 10% of the under-45 age group and 4.3% of the under-25s (it was 30.2% in 2011) support Rajoy’s party, and the fear that history might be played now in reverse through the refloating of a centrist option like Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD - Democratic Centre Union) which piloted the very first years of Spain’s transition from dictatorship, is haunting a People’s Party corroded with widespread corruption and mismanagement.

The patronizing attitude with which it has so far faced the possibility of having to reach post-election agreements with Ciudadanos is not going to help. Rivera himself has been adamant: governing majorities must be based on agreement on program and policies, not on ready-made shortcut formulae such as automatic support for the “most voted list”, which is currently the PP key idea on this matter. It is not unthinkable that Ciudadanos could as well back left-leaning governing coalitions and play a role as political hinge that could be in high demand.

We shall begin to find out in a matter of weeks.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData