Spain: Can Citizens save the right?

Podemos's Pablo Iglesias, the PP's Mariano Rajoy, the PSOE's Pedro Sanchez and Citizen's Alberto Rivera

For three months, from November to February, the Spanish economic and political establishment was in a state of barely suppressed panic.

In national opinion polls, support for the “reds” - in the form of radical new force Podemos - had overtaken that for the establishment parties, the ruling People’s Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

However, in March, with greater speed than even Podemos had shown after winning five seats in last year's May European elections, a new political force has burst onto the national political stage. Named Citizens, and is led by 35-year-old Albert Rivera, an MP in the Catalan parliament.

Citizens was propelled on to the national stage in the snap March 22 poll in the autonomous community of Andalusia. Venturing for the first time outside its home turf of Catalonia, Citizens picked up nine seats in the 109-seat Andalusian parliament, winning 9.3%.

Citizens’ surged in March and April to challenge PP and PSOE in the polls, managing in just two months what it had taken Podemos six months to achieve. This has converted the political struggle in the Spanish state into a four-way contest, with the PP, PSOE, Podemos and Citizens now enjoying between 14% and 27% support.

The rise of Citizens has noteworthy parallels with that of Podemos. It is also personified by a younger leader who claims to be a “non-politician”. It is also “new and youthful”, making extensive use of social media.

Also, just as Podemos had to get past the established left alternative to the PP-PSOE duopoly - the United Left - so Citizens had to overtake the previously main right alternative, the Union for Progress and Democracy (UpyD).

Both Podemos and Citizens portray themselves as untainted and unburdened by the baggage of the past. Podemos contrasts with an “old left” United Left essentially run by the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), Citizens with a UPyD whose megalomaniac leader, Rosa Diaz, remains obsessed with “terroristic” Basque nationalism.

When Diaz refused Citizens’ merger overtures, the UPyD lost some important figures, some directly to Citizens others retiring from politics.

After the 2011 national elections, support for both the UPyD and the United Left rose to about 15%. Now, support for the United Left has fallen to around 4% and for the UPyD to 1-2%.

Citizens' history

The analogy ends there, however. For one thing, Citizens has been around since 2006, starting life as a party specialising in Spanish-centralist opposition to Catalan nationalism.

As Catalan independence sentiment grew after 2010, so did Citizens as its main political antidote.

Polls for the September 27 Catalan regional elections, which double as an independence referendum for Catalan nationalist parties, show Citizens overtaking the PP. According to a May 4 La Vanguardia poll, in the 135-seat Catalan parliament, Citizens would jump from nine to 26 seats, while the PP would halve from 19 to nine.

Citizens began life as a “citizens' platform” opposed to any renegotiation of Catalonia’s statute of autonomy. It opposed any alliance with parties supporting any renegotiation, even to a modest degree, such renegotiation.

Citizens’ basic outlook can be summarised in five points:

· The only political entity that has rights is the individual. Territories (ie, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) do not have rights;
· The state exists to promote freedom and equality of opportunity, and to promote the values of democracy and enlightenment;
· The state must be a lay and secular institution, with no institutional privileges for religious organisations;
· The idea of “own language” (ie, Catalan) is nationalist. Catalan and Castilian (Spanish) should have equal status in the public institutions of Catalonia; and
· The Spanish Constitution of 1978 establishes Spain as the nation of which regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country are merely parts.

In the Catalan parliament, Citizens and the PP have nearly always voted together to oppose the recognition of Catalan national rights.

In October 2013, both parties abandoned the parliament rather than have to vote on a motion demanding “the condemnation of any declaration or activity exalting, trivialising, excusing or denying Nazism, Francoism or any totalitarian or dictatorial regime”.

On the other hand, Citizens has always sought to distinguish itself from the PP by supporting reform of Spain’s brutal mortgage law as well as anti-corruption charters.

On the other hot issues of Spanish politics, such as abortion rights and the monarchy, Citizens’ president Albert Rivero says “I support women having access to abortion, but do not agree that abortion is a right” and “I would support a republic if [new king] Philip VI does a bad job.”

Why now?

Citizens might have continued as a purely Catalan operation were it not for the explosion of the indignado movement in 2011 and emergence of Podemos last year.

With the two-party system in deep crisis and Podemos ahead in polls, there were growing calls from opinion leaders in Spanish business for a “Podemos of the right”. The call was for a party that could change everything so things could remain the same.

In that context, if Citizens had not existed, it would have had to have been invented. A recent poll of “big investors” by the finances social network UNIENCE showed 46% supported Citizens, nearly three times as many as backed the PP.

Unsurprisingly, Citizens is already widely known as “the Ibex 35 party”, name of the Madrid stock exchange index. But Citizens also fills a gap of representation not being met by any other party.

Its message is targeted at the illusion, understandably widespread in middle-class and professional circles, that “Spain could be a ‘normal’ European power” — if only it was rid of corruption, out-dated Church privileges and ancient national conflicts.

Latest polls show, both regionally and nationally, that the percentage of undecided voters has halved to 9% over the past two months. A large proportion have gone to the surging Citizens.

It is as if the fence-sitters, fed up with the PP and PSOE but finding Podemos too radical for their tastes, have been supplied with the right product in time – a seemingly powerful detergent to clean away the remaining Francoist filth while leaving Spanish capitalist economy untouched.

A changed battleground

With the May 24 municipal elections looming, to be accompanied by polls in 13 of Spain’s 17 regions, the main polling trends show that Citizens may be tested post-elections in quite a few regions and cities.

Polls confirm the trends visible after the March 22 poll in Andalusia. One or other of the old parties will retain a relative minority - like the PSOE in Andalusia - while the new parties will have insufficient support to form government.

At the same time, however, none of the new parties will want to be responsible for installing either of the old parties in government.

In Andalusia, for example, negotiations involving the PP, Podemos, Citizens and the United Left over allowing a minority PSOE government to form have been dragging on for weeks.

If the polls are accurate, the likely scenario after May 24 is that the PP will lose nearly all its absolute majorities, even in traditional heartlands such as Castilla-Leon and Murcia.

Some of these majorities will be more than halved, especially in the centres of greatest PP corruption, such as Valencia. However, in many regions and cities, the right - involving the PP, Citizens and others - may retain a majority.

In several regions, the Citizens vote will likely be decisive in determining government.

If Citizens vote to maintain the PP in government, Rivera’s group runs the risk of being viewed as a prop for the party most tainted by corruption in the run-up to the all-election November national poll.

In other places, such as the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Cantabria, the ruling PP looks likely to lose to politically variegated combinations of the PSOE, United Left, Podemos and regionalist forces.

Will these forces be able to form an alternative government? Will they at least be able to reach an agreement that allows one part to govern in minority?

In regions and cities now run by the centre-left coalitions (like Asturias) those majorities will become bigger, on the reasonable assumption that Podemos, which will now hold the balance of power in many, will support a left government against the right.

These likely results confirm that over the years of the Great Recession, there has been a broad left shift in Spanish society and politics. But the shift is not yet big enough to put a left government - covering Podemos, the United Left, with left- and centre-left nationalist support in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia - into power.

One possible exception is Barcelona. The Barcelona Together coalition - involving Podemos, Initiative for Catalonia-Greens, United and Alternative Left and other left forces – could win the most votes. In large part, this would be due to the popularity of its mayoral candidate Ada Colau, the former spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform.

If Barcelona Together, the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies and the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia won most council seats, Barcelona City Council could emerge from the May 24 poll with the most left-wing administration in the Spanish state.

Such a victory would have repercussions well beyond Barcelona.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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