17 December 2015

Spain’s radical centrists could sweep Sunday’s elections


Imagine if there had been a counter-party to the SNP in Scotland. Not a national movement like the Better Together campaign from 2014, but an actual Scottish party which looked at the hypocrisies, hyperboles and hallucinations of the SNP and the separatists and presented a credible alternative. Now imagine that this new upstart became the second largest party in the Scottish parliament, offering a commitment to social welfare but with liberal labour reforms and a better education system. In a national election, what if this pro-union centre party were to take on the established left and right? What would happen?

Spain is about to find out. Ciudadanos (meaning “citizens”), the Catalan party founded to oppose supporters of an independent Catalonia, has made huge gains over the past year, and promises to shake up Spain’s national elections this Sunday.

In the forty years since Franco’s death and the country’s transition into democracy, Spain has been a two-party state. Yet since the financial crisis, it has become clear that Spanish voters are disenchanted with the two major parties: the right-wing Popular Party (PP) led by current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and the left-wing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) led by Pedro Sánchez.

For a while, all eyes were on the far-left anti-establishment Podemos (“we can”). Seen by many across Europe as the sister party to Greece’s Syriza, Podemos’ platform was simple: end austerity, challenge government elites, and “make rich people pay taxes”. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, is a ponytailed academic with a pierced eyebrow and the air of a revolutionary from a bygone age. In the two years since founding Podemos, he has attained the status of cult leader among his supporters.

With such a challenge from the hard left, one might expect a similar insurgent from the right. Instead, where other European countries have seen the rises of UKIP, Front National, Alternative für Deutschland, and Golden Dawn, Spain has Ciudadanos, an insurgent party of radical common sense.

How can a new party challenge from the centre? Firstly, by attacking the political corruption and cronyism which has permeated the two major parties. But all newcomers claim their rivals are aloof and corrupt. What is remarkable about the platform presented by Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos’ leader, is its balance.

Rivera has been clear that he stands for Spain’s strong welfare system. But he also favours liberalising the labour market, getting rid of the two-tiered system which discriminates against temporary workers while offering inflated protections to incumbents. He wants to simplify the tax code, cut income and corporate tax, but eliminate loopholes and deductions as well. Other aims include reducing bureaucracy, reforming the political system, and finding a way to reverse the brain-drain that has seen Spain’s brightest and best fleeing to other EU countries.

In short, Ciudadanos stands for smarter government, and presents itself as the “safe” alternative to the disconnected traditional parties and reckless Podemos. Opposing the divisive separatists and holding the second highest number of seats in the Catalan parliament, the party also represents a unified Spain.

So will it be enough to challenge the major parties?

Prime Minister Rajoy, for one, is behaving as if Ciudadanos is not a threat. On Monday, in the only televised debate to include Spain’s leader, he traded insults with Pedro Sánchez. (Echoing David Cameron’s behaviour in May, Rajoy refused to debate with Rivera or Iglesias.) Sánchez accused Rajoy of not being a “decent person”, referenced his party’s corruption scandal, and called him a liar. In response, Rajoy appealed to Spaniards’ sense of safety, taking credit for Spain’s shaky economic recovery, even though Spanish unemployment is still at 21.2%. The PP’s slogan “España, en serio” (“Spain, seriously”) positions Rajoy as the only secure choice, and when questioned about the insurgent parties, the Prime Minister warned the electorate against “experimenting with people who talk a lot”.

And his conservative approach appears to have paid off: in the final poll before the election, Rajoy’s party leads with 25.3%, the Socialists have 21%, and Ciudadanos stands at 18.2%.

However, even if Rajoy comes in first, as is predicted, he is highly unlikely to win a majority of 176 seats in the Congress. His party is unpopular throughout Spain, so it is conceivable that a coalition could oust the PP from power, as we saw in Portugal last month. The PP cannot count on Ciudadanos for support – Rivera has ruled out supporting any coalition in which he is not the leader, taking a lesson from Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems’ popularity hit after 2010. Could a centrist coalition, led by Ciudadanos and backed up by the Socialists (and even by Podemos), be on the cards?

Of course, this is all speculation. Much ink was spilled in the run-up to the UK election in May envisaging what a hung parliament would look like, whether Nicola Sturgeon would back a minority government led by Ed Miliband, and what kind of deal the Tories might have to make with UKIP. We all know the outcome: the polls proved wrong, David Cameron won a clear majority, and questions of coalitions and alliances were kicked down the road. Rajoy is undoubtedly looking at Cameron and hoping for a similar fate.

But there are mysterious forces at work in Spain. No other country has seen an insurgent party with such a unifying message as that of Ciudadanos. Rivera’s determination to cut through left and right issues and start afresh is in a way more radical than Podemos’ anti-capitalism, and much more appealing. Meanwhile the Ciudadanos regional roots in Catalonia, like the SNP in Scotland, lend it an air of accountability in comparison to the out-of-touch remoteness of the traditional parties.

On Sunday, Spanish voters will head to the polls in what is set to be the country’s closest ever elections. In the midst of the squabbling, insults, corruption and instability, the young Albert Rivera has risen from obscurity and emerged as perhaps Spain’s only credible candidate for Prime Minister.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.