Why Spain’s Top Populist Is a Centrist

Albert Rivera is tearing down his country’s establishment from the middle. Just don't call him Spain's Emmanuel Macron.

Leader of 'Ciudadanos' (Citizens) political party, Albert Rivera in Madrid on February 7, 2018. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Leader of 'Ciudadanos' (Citizens) political party, Albert Rivera in Madrid on February 7, 2018. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week’s political drama in Madrid that resulted in a sudden change in government had two main players: former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party (PP), who was ousted from power after he received a no-confidence vote from the majority of members of parliament, and Pedro Sánchez, head of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), who masterminded the vote. But a third Spanish politician also commanded the political stage: Albert Rivera, the head of Ciudadanos, or Citizens, a party originally from Catalonia. The party was a supporter of Rajoy in the parliament; in fact, Rajoy was only able to form a government two years ago after it secured support from Ciudadanos and the Socialists abstained from voting.

Rajoy’s unexpected but not wholly unsurprising downfall has boosted expectations of Rivera’s emergence as the new face of Spanish conservatism and of Ciudadanos replacing the PP as Spain’s leading conservative party. Such expectations were already at a fever pitch before Rajoy’s departure from office. Earlier this year, Metroscopia, Spain’s leading public opinion outfit, had declared that Spain was entering a “Ciudadanos moment,” and that Spaniards, tired of their establishment parties (the PSOE and PP), seemed to think that “the time has come to seriously give Ciudadanos a chance.” Polls published before Rajoy’s downfall suggested that Ciudadanos is poised to win the next elections.

Despite a high profile at home, not much has been written about Ciudadanos outside of Spain. To the extent to which the party has attracted any attention abroad, it has focused on comparisons to France’s En Marche!, Emmanuel Macron’s party. The Economist, for one, has referred to Rivera as a “would-be Macron.” The similarities are easy to spot: a centrist political ideology, a pro-business attitude, unabashed support for the European Union, and a technocratic approach to governance that relies on experts to solve problems. As such, both parties provide a counterbalance to the rise of anti-establishment, right-wing populist parties in countries such as France, Italy, Hungary, and the United States, and their embrace of economic nationalism, Euroskepticism, and harsh anti-immigration policies.

But the comparison with France’s En Marche!, although apt, hides more than it reveals. Ciudadanos has a uniquely Spanish history that indelibly influences its approach to politics, and, if it ever proves relevant, to governance — which could complicate efforts by other centrist parties elsewhere in Europe to imitate its successes. If Macron could usurp his country’s establishment by promising to serve as a bulwark against authoritarian outsiders, Ciudadanos’ insurgency has gained momentum because of the perceived authoritarianism of Spain’s existing establishment.

Ciudadanos was one of two new major political movements that came into prominence from the wrenching economic crisis that Spain endured as a consequence of the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 — the other one being the left-wing, populist Podemos — and that challenged the hegemonic claim on political power by the PSOE and the PP in the post-Franco era. Although on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Ciudadanos and Podemos made transparency, anti-corruption, and reforming the political system the core of their political platforms. Moreover, both parties employed provocative publicity campaigns and policies to garner attention from the electorate, especially the youth vote, which both parties have pursuit relentlessly. Indeed, Ciudadanos all but pitched itself as Podemos without the radical leftwing politics.

At its inception, in 2006, Ciudadanos only competed in Catalan regional elections. To introduce himself and his party to Catalan voters, Ciudadanos’ first media campaign featured Rivera naked, save for his hands strategically placed over his genitals, with the slogan, “Your party has been born.” This topped Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s jeans-and-ponytail look in the contest for which man could look more different than Spain’s suit-clad establishment politicians. The nude image of the then-26-year-old Rivera filled the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities and got everyone talking about the party.

Ciudadanos’ early party platforms, anchored on the concept of “regeneration,” or the rebirth of the political system, blurred the conventional discourse of left and right by emphasizing the fight against monopolies (which were viewed as the source of corruption), pushing for civility and transparency in government, and tackling seemingly intractable social problems such as homelessness and drug abuse. They party also preached inclusiveness. One of the party’s earliest slogans was: “We don’t care where you were born. We don’t care which language you speak. We don’t care what kind of clothes you wear. We care about you.” These positions explain why during its early years, Ciudadanos was regarded as a social democratic party and why many thought that its main threat to the establishment would be to the PSOE rather than the PP.

Then, the party matured and became more conventionally conservative by, among other things, embracing the austerity measures implemented by the PP to deal with the economic crisis and becoming a staunch defender of Spanish nationalism — which opened Ciudadanos to criticism of having become the “Podemos of the right.” Subsequently, it sought to appeal to disillusioned Catalan voters, especially socialist and center-right voters disenchanted with the corruption that afflicted not only the national parties in Madrid, but also Catalonia’s Convergence and Union, the centrist electoral alliance that dominated Catalan politics since the democratic transition. Indeed, Ciudadanos was a key beneficiary of Convergence and Union’s implosion, after the party’s founder and the longtime head of the Catalan government, Jordi Pujol, was convicted in 2014 on a host of corruption charges, including having secret foreign bank accounts.

But it was the Catalan separatist crisis that turned Ciudadanos from a regional party into a party with aspirations in all of Spain. The party made quite a splash with its unsparing criticism of the Catalan separatist government that took control of Catalonia in 2015. Rivera criticized the Catalan political class for making nationalism the only issue in Catalan politics, and he attacked Catalonia’s independence aspirations as unconstitutional. He also supported Rajoy’s unprecedented but constitutional decision to remove from power the separatist government after it declared Catalonia an independent republic. Defending Rajoy’s decision, Rivera argued that the independence declaration was a “separatist coup.” But he was also very critical of Rajoy’s strong stance against negotiations with the separatist government. At one point, Rivera accused Rajoy of “abandoning Catalonia because he’s uncomfortable talking to its president.”

Throughout the crisis, Ciudadanos emphasized its motto: “Catalonia is my homeland, Spain is my country, and Europe is our future.” This clever framing stood in pointed contrast to the confusing and extreme messages coming from Spain’s other political parties. The PSOE was torn by the crisis. It has historically supported home rule for Spain’s nationalist regions going back to the liberal Second Republic of the 1930s, but it could not afford to be blamed for allowing the Catalans to break away from Spain. In the end, it tepidly supported Rajoy’s strong stance against the separatists. Podemos turned into a pretzel by supporting the Catalans’ right to self-determination but hoping that they would choose to stay in Spain. The PP wrapped itself in the Spanish flag and denounced the separatists (and virtually all of Catalonia) as the enemies of Spain.

It was ironic that, despite coming to prominence as an anti-corruption party, Ciudadanos declined to support the no-confidence motion that led to Rajoy’s ousting. After all, the motion to remove Rajoy came in the wake of a series of stunning indictments of the PP on corruption charges. As reported in the New York Times, the PP’s former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, was sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined 44 million euros (about $51.3 million) for operating a slush fund to pay for political bribes. An additional 28 business leaders and political operatives linked to the PP were given prison sentences amounting to some 300 years.

In choosing not to endorse the motion, Rivera played a delicate balancing act — not quite ready to throw Rajoy under the bus but also not wanting to be seeing collaborating with its nemesis, Podemos, and — worse yet — with the Catalan separatist party Esquerra Republicana. He urged Rajoy to call for a snap election, something he knew the prime minister was disinclined to do. He then put a poison pill in his endorsement for Rajoy’s ousting: that someone other than Sánchez, the Socialist leader, be selected as the new leader of the government. Rivera wanted a “consensus” candidate, someone like Javier Solana, the Socialist elder and former secretary-general of NATO. In the end, the Socialists did not need Ciudadanos’ votes to oust Rajoy, once they got support from Podemos and the nationalist parties from the Basque Country and Catalonia. But this did not spare Rivera the ire of his fellow deputies from both the left and the right. According to El Mundo, Rivera has been accused of being “calculating, self-interested, disloyal, and incoherent.”

Clearly, Rivera is looking ahead to the next elections, whose date has yet to be set. He is banking on Spanish unity as a trump card. The PP is seen as too extreme on the issue, while the PSOE is viewed as too weak. This leaves a Catalan party preaching Spanish unity as the best-positioned party to heal the divisions of the last few years. Spanish unity played very well for Ciudadanos in the last Catalan regional elections, in which the party garnered the most votes, but not enough seats to form a government. The chances that Spanish unity will remain atop voters’ concerns are encouraged by the fact that the economy, for a change, is not an overriding concern.

Although unemployment remains high, at about 15 percent — one of the highest among developed countries — this is 10 percentage points lower than at the peak of the crisis, in 2012, when unemployment reached a quarter of the active population. Economic growth has been restored, with the Spanish economy now growing at a rate of almost 3 percent annually, outperforming France, Germany, and Italy. Among the consequences of this for Ciudadanos is not having to concern itself with a populist challenge from the right, as has been the case for other mainstream conservative parties in Europe.

Less apparent is that Ciudadanos is also angling to return to the party’s original focus on regeneration. This is what Ciudadanos hopes will separate the party from the establishment parties (the PSOE and the PP), but also from its upstart rival, Podemos. At last year’s gathering of the grandees of Ciudadanos, which was dominated by tensions between the two wings of the party, the conservatives and the social democrats, Rivera announced his intention to reframe the party’s ideological project as “progressive liberalism.” He added that his aim was to fill the political space between the conservatism of the PP and the populism of Podemos.

In a rather symbolic way, Rivera’s ideological high-wire act is a more civilized and high-minded version of the angry, anti-establishment sentiment currently sweeping through the European right. It may not play elsewhere in Europe. But in Spain, a country with a long history of illiberal, right-wing authoritarian politics, it may just stand a chance.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.