Everyone against Ciudadanos

The strength of Albert Rivera’s group has prompted a concerted campaign from the other parties, who accuse it of moving further to the right

Ciudadanos leaders Inés Arrimadas and Albert Rivera.
Ciudadanos leaders Inés Arrimadas and Albert Rivera.Quique García / EFE

Albert Rivera and his Ciudadanos party are the true Falange – the sole legal party during Franco’s dictatorship. That, at least, is according to the president of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), Andoni Ortuzar, whose aggressive attitude toward Ciudadanos reflects the fact that the latter recently questioned the “Cupo vasco” – a deal by which the Basque government gets to collect its own taxes and return a sum to Madrid, rather than the other way around as is the case elsewhere.

Ortuzar’s position also serves to push the limits of an anti-Ciudadanos campaign that other parties are now joining. This is not because they have all agreed to do so, but because voter intention polls show outcomes for Ciudadanos – the second-most-voted force in Catalonia and a bronze medalist in the national parliament – that pose a real threat to other political forces.

We’ve made everyone nervous because we’ve brought up taboo subjects that nobody talks about

Ciudadanos communications secretary Fernando de Páramo

Fernando de Páramo, the communications secretary for Ciudadanos, has no doubts as to why they are under attack.

“We’ve made everyone nervous because we’ve brought up taboo subjects that nobody talks about. The Cupo vasco is unfair and does not observe the principle of solidarity. And indoctrination in Catalonia is a problem that requires solutions. We know that a very significant part of the Spanish public shares our concerns,” he told EL PAÍS.

The swipes are coming from all quarters. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias insists on caricaturing Rivera as the Ibex candidate (in reference to Spain’s benchmark stock market index), and he has managed to add other actors to the “conspiracy.” The Socialist Party’s Pedro Sánchez stated a few days ago that Ciudadanos is “the PP’s significant other.” And even Alfonso Alonso, the PP leader in the Basque Country, claimed that Ciudadanos’ campaign against the region’s special financial deal is a manifestation of “Spanish nationalism” and “a movement against the Basques.”

This would explain Ciudadanos’ precarious electoral position in the Basque Country, Navarre and even in Galicia. But its opposition to regional nationalisms and the fact that it championed the formula that has partly deactivated the Catalan crisis – invoking Article 155 as a transitional step before a snap election – makes Ciudadanos the hegemonic force of the so-called pro-Constitution bloc in the run-up to the Catalan elections. Ciudadanos is in the right place with the right rhetoric. And on election day, December 21, its best resources will come into play: the party itself got started in Catalonia (as the non-separatist Ciutadans), it has an up-and-coming regional leader in Catalonia, Inés Arrimadas, and it is showing signs that party leader Albert Rivera – himself a native of Barcelona – may not be as indispensable as he used to be.

Former conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar has turned Rivera into something of a prodigal son

Polling experts say that this is one of the signs of maturity in a party that made the jump to national politics at the 2015 elections, where it became the fourth force in Congress. Another sign is that it is no longer so heavily exposed to voter volatility. “We are seeing loyalty levels of 90%,” note analysts at the polling firm Metroscopia. “And the key is not so much that Ciudadanos is occupying a political space, but the fact that it has understood the timings. There is an unmet demand for reforms. Indignation is no longer the main trend. Oxygenation is the key. Ciudadanos is not the PP’s generic brand, it is the PP’s clean brand.”

Former conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar has taken it upon himself to underscore this nuance. He has turned Rivera into something of a prodigal son, although such an endorsement adds symbolic arguments to allegations that Ciudadanos is moving toward more conservative views. Is this really the case? “It’s a curious thing,” explains political analyst Víctor Lapuente. “Ciudadanos’ leaders make efforts to portray themselves as a centrist option, as the heirs of Macron in Spain, yet surveys show a shift to the right by their voters. It remains to be seen whether this is a temporary occurrence – the territorial issue is weighing more heavily these days, and on this issue the party’s position fits best with right-wing voters – or whether it is truly structural. We still don’t know whether they will be the children of Macron (as they themselves wish) or the children of Aznar (as others apparently desire).”

De Páramo, the communications director, dislikes all the labeling. And he rejects the notion that Ciudadanos is trying to re-centralize Spain: “The territorial model needs to be balanced. Regional nationalisms cannot be a pretext to consolidate special privileges. If our platform is gaining supporters, that’s because we are following a clear, winning-oriented line. In Catalonia, we have very high expectations.”

There is a shared interest by diverse parties in attacking a party that is leading the debate on several issues

Political analyst Víctor Lapuente

The latest Metroscopia survey puts Ciudadanos in second place (25.3%) at the election, close on the heels of the separatist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) (26.5%). But it would not be the first time that polls suggest outcomes that don’t quite pan out. According to these, Ciudadanos is at a critical juncture in terms of political maturity, particularly if the Catalan elections become a springboard for greater national aspirations. Ciudadanos is being viewed as a direct competitor.

“I don’t think there’s a campaign underway to bring down Ciudadanos, just like there was not a campaign to put them on the podium,” explains Lapuente, the politics expert. “Instead, there is a shared interest by diverse parties in attacking a party that is leading the debate on several issues. Parties have been thrown off balance by this double new approach: a different way of framing old issues, and a bold stand on topics that seemed untouchable, like the Basque tax deal.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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