Ciudadanos, the new disruptive voice of Spain’s center-right

The recent elections in Catalonia, held in an environment of evident polarization between pro-independence forces and Constitutionalists, concluded with the triumph of Ciudadanos — a political party that rejects the secession and defends the validity of Spanish constitutional order.

This party, emerging from the Catalan intellect discontent with nationalist hegemony and disinclined to identify with the socialist label in the region, has needed little more than 10 years to complete its journey to success: from its testimonial entry into Catalan parliament in 2006 to its recent victory in votes and seats; From its initial social-democratic platform to a transversal liberalism that advocates for shielding social welfare while demanding lower taxes.

The party’s profound transformation has reshaped both its structure and discourse. Ciudadanos has made grounds in all of Spain, and although its presence in local councils and regional courts is still scarce, there is projected growth for the May 2019 elections. To convert itself into an alternative to the national government, it will need more territorial capillarity — especially in the areas of Spain where its focus on recentralization may deter voters. These areas include Galicia, the Basque Country and Navarre.

Regarding its political stance, Ciudadanos emerges from a sort of liquid liberalism, a calculated indefinition — though not ambiguous — that allows it to scrape together votes from both the left and right. Nevertheless, the bulk of voters puts the party at the center of the ideological scale.

As recent voting-intention polls have placed Ciudadanos as the leading electoral force in the 2020 general elections, its ascension contrasts with the ‘wear and tear’ of the now governing Popular Party. The Popular Party was the only national possibility for center-right voters until the arrival of Ciudadanos to Spanish parliament in 2015. In power since 2011, the Conservatives rule in minority and are supported by Ciudadanos and other nationalist and regionalist representatives.

The current government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has helped overcome the crippling economic crisis and delivered growth and better employment rates to the country. However, the party’s corruption, poor communication and lack of political leadership have weakened its legitimacy and overshadowed any success.

The existence of an alternative to the Popular Party represents a milestone in contemporary Spanish politics. But what novelties does the new party bring? How can its irruption change the paradigm in this ideological spectrum?

The Ciudadanos party adheres to the usual rhetoric of the center, assuming parts of an already established narrative while adding new issues to the public agenda. Its leaders accept the centrism legacy of the Union of the Democratic Center (UCD), an artificial conglomeration created around first democratic president Adolfo Suárez and involved in the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. Thus, the ‘Oranges’ — Ciudadanos’ corporate color — favor state pacts in different matters and consensus among national parties. They find fault with nationalists who, with their seats, decide the fate of budgets and transcendental laws. In some regions, they have made agreements indiscriminately with both the left and right.

With regard to the right and its framework, the party led by Catalan Albert Rivera has taken on fiscal rigor, encouraged economic freedom and promoted the importance of a stable and successful middle class. Concerning the moderate left, the social matters: the demand for protection of health, education and pensions, while recalling with admiration the international leverage that Spain enjoyed during the mandates of former prime minister and social-democratic party leader Felipe González.

Albert Rivera is the president of the Ciudadanos party./ Kadellar (CC)

The democratic restoration in Spain after almost four decades of Francoist dictatorship meant, among others, the opening of the partisan system: from a single-party regime to a multi-party structure similar to the rest of Western nations. The first free elections already drew up a bipartisan scenario, with the UCD against the Socialist Party. As of 1982, the distribution of Spanish voter preferences was ratified to that of the Europeans; on one side the Social Democrats, and on the other Conservatives. The main difference with respect to its neighbors was the Spanish right’s inability to compete with social democratic party PSOE. It did not come to power until 1996.

The conservative revolution of the 1980s never reached Spain. The Spanish right was perceived without having democratic legitimacy, as the principal leaders of the right came from the Franco regime. They repudiated labels linked to centrism.

Its economic policies were hardly liberal, and in the social and cultural realms entirely conservative. In the nineties, the right made a turn to the center and with that new slogan reached governmental office. In the first years of 2000, it advocated for Atlanticism and the symbiosis of then-president George W. Bush’s international plan and security measures. However, it lost support and left power after its political backing of Iraq and the disaster the country faced after the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The years of Mr. Rajoy fronting the Popular Party have not brought any ideological innovations. The party only sells its efficiency and good management.

But the Popular Party has come up against a competitor. The question to be answered in the next elections is whether the simple exercise of its power, only based on technical criteria and with little political weight, is enough to resist the push of the new party.

Approximately two-thirds of Ciudadanos’ voters are former Popular Party electors. The Popular Party only surpasses Ciudadanos with voters aged 65 years or older. The liberal voter is younger, more urban and better prepared than his or her nemesis in the fight for a similar electorate.

Within Ciudadanos, young and charismatic leaders, such as Albert Rivera and current Catalan leader Inés Arrimadas, have emerged. They hold a political doctrine that goes beyond the economic myth, a trite last resort used in the Popular Party’s discourse. Also present in the talk of Ciudadanos are social and cultural arguments. Perhaps the most striking novelty is the new patriotism, a renewed pride of belonging to Spain rooted in the Constitution, EU membership and the nation’s success in the last half of the century. Their conversation aims to put the country above its regions.

The very emergence of Ciudadanos on the European political stage is an interesting matter considering the trend over the past few years on the continent. It is not a populist or radical party in its approach. It does not suggest a clash between corrupted elites and the virtuous “other.” Nor a revolution or changes in the status quo — only reformist impulse. Its trajectory is opposite that of UKIP, the National Front, Syriza, the Five-Star Movement or far-left Podemos in Spain.

Given its characteristics and the exceptional political moment in Spain — with crisis of representation and traditional parties’ worsening results — Ciudadanos represents the latest opportunity to introduce a new party in the Spanish center-right. It presents a new face that may be able to replace the Popular Party.

Unlike the movement led by Emmanuel Macron in France, created in a short few months but around a well-known personality, the Ciudadanos’ project includes a strong organizational fabric. It has a catch-all-party strategy within the traditional limits of European liberal parties and capitalizes on the deterioration of the Popular Party. Its consolidation would certify the definitive transformation of the left-right axis and demonstrate a new failure of the technocratic shortcut and the populist temptation.