This article was originally published on 5 April 2015 on Open Democracy
With the latest polls predicting a tight four way race in the Spanish general elections in November, international attention has shifted from the anti-establishment new kids on the block, Podemos, to the surging Ciudadanos (Citizens) party. Its leader, Albert Rivera, who had to strip naked in a campaign poster to get attention a few years ago, now has the highest personal approval rating of any national political figure.
His media savvy is unquestionable, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the way the party is being described by the media and think tanks abroad. In a blog for Open Europe, Vincenzo Scarpetti described them as ‘centrist‘, as did a recent article on the BBC News website. A piece in the LSE’s European Politics blog went for ‘moderate and constructive reformist’. The Guardian didn’t buy the ‘centrist’ line, but did still call Ciudadanos ‘the Podemos of the right’, highlighting their anti-corruption rhetoric.
This is exactly how the party is trying to position itself in order to hoover up support from disillusioned voters of the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), both of which have spent the past few years mired in corruption scandals.
On its website, Ciudadanos says it “commits to bring realism and common sense to politics, based on the great values of liberty, equality and solidarity”. It claims to draw its ideas from “progressive liberalism” and “social democracy”, and Albert Rivera’s speeches, like those of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, rail against the two-party system and are peppered with references to reform and democratic renewal.
However, a closer look at Ciudadanos’ manifesto and their record in the Catalan parliament over the past nine years reveals a plethora of conservative, even reactionary, policies, calling into question their claim to be the centrist, liberal reformers the Spanish political system has been waiting for.
The Catalan years: hand in hand with the far right
Ciudadanos was launched in Catalonia in 2006, winning three seats in the Catalan parliament that same year. While people in the rest of Spain are still getting to know the party and its leader, the Catalan public is already familiar with both. In the regular CEO opinion polls of Catalan public opinion, respondents consistently identify Ciudadanos as the second most right-wing party in the regional parliament, second only to the PP and further to the right than the governing conservative party, CiU.
After all, Albert Riveras is a former PP member, and his number two, Carina Mejías, was a councilor and MP for the PP in Catalonia for over twenty years. What is more, Ciudadanos have made a name for themselves by vehemently opposing the Catalan independence movement. The party has done so, not by making the argument for the unity of Spain, but by opposing the holding of a referendum altogether. Whatever you think of the case for Catalan independence, there is no doubt that the independence movement is peaceful and democratic, or that a majority of the Catalan population want to be able to vote on the question. In opposing such a vote, Ciudadanos have joined the PP and the Catalan branch of the PSOE in defending the status quo on the basis of the inviolability of the Spanish constitution.
Since the transition to democracy in Spain, an ongoing struggle of the left, and of Catalonia in particular, has been to uncover and condemn the crimes of the Franco dictatorship. Ciudadanos haven’t shown themselves to be particularly interested in doing either. In October 2013, they joined the PP in storming out of the Catalan parliament during a vote on a motion to condemn totalitarian regimes, including that of Franco.
Ciudadanos’ policy agenda
The rhetoric and policies of Ciudadanos on immigration are typical of the far right. As recently as 2013 they put forward a bill to ban the burka in Catalonia. The party’s current manifesto states that ‘immigrants cannot avoid obeying and respecting the laws and democratic values of Spanish and European society’, implying this is something that immigrants particularly wont to do. Its radical policy to deny healthcare to undocumented immigrants places it to the right of the PP (which recently made a U-turn on the issue).
Ciudadanos’ stance on gender issues is also conservative. Albert Rivera chose international women’s day to announce his opposition to the policy of guaranteeing the equal representation of women on electoral lists, a practice widely used by progressive parties in Spain.
Ciudadanos also has a restrictive and infantalising attitude to women regarding the question of abortion. Their policies include requiring parental consent for women under the age of 18 who wish to terminate a pregnancy, and a mandatory five day “reflection period” to ensure that adult women “take a free, conscious and responsible decision”.
The party has proposed a twelve week abortion term limit, which could only be extended in the case of a serious risk to the health or life of the mother, serious deformity to the foetus, or, bizarrely, in the case of “a rape and prolonged kidnapping lasting for more than 12 weeks”. Perhaps just as revealingly, this is the only time women are mentioned at all in their manifesto.
Democratic renewal from the right?
Would it, then, be accurate to call Ciudadanos the ‘Podemos of the right’? Party spokespeople deny this, but relish the comparison. They present the choice in November as being between Podemos, who they allege will turn Spain into Venezuela, and Ciudadanos, who will convert it into a Nordic paradise.
Beyond the fact that the two parties are relatively new and are challenging the dominance of the two-party system, the comparison doesn’t really stand up. While both claim to be undertaking a project of democratic renewal, Ciudadanos hasn’t used particiatory methods to draw up their programme in the way that Podemos has. Similarly, while Ciudadanos has committed to holding primaries to select its candidates, it has been accused of expelling critical voices from the party and of manipulating the results of recent primaries in Malaga.
Ciudadanos hasn’t done too well on transparency either. It was criticised by a Public Audit Office report on party financing in January of this year for being the only Catalan party to fail to provide information about its grants, donations or loans. While its former leader, Jordi Cañas, did resign when he was charged with tax fraud in April of 2014, the party hired him again just a few months later as an advisor to MEP Juan Carlos Girauta. The party justified this by saying that the 429,000 Euros in unpaid taxes was a ‘personal matter’.
So is Ciudadanos just the PP with better abs? Time will tell. The party may well evolve as it expands geographically and seeks to reach out to moderate Spanish voters, but for now observers should take Albert Rivera’s claim to be the Renzi, Clegg or Obama of Spain with a very large pinch of salt.