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Spain’s Historic Liberal Opportunity

Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos

Buckling under the weight of economic stagnation, endemic corruption and institutional failure, the old duopoly in Spanish politics of the right-leaning Popular Party (PP) and centre-left Socialists is finally breaking down. With just days to go until the general election on 20 December, voters look to be splitting four ways. On the hard left, Podemos has profited from the frustrations of many, but in the centre ground Ciudadanos (C’s) offers new hope for liberal minded voters.

Liberalism tends to be a dirty word in Spain. The country has had precious few popular liberal movements in its history and the label tends to be hijacked by the right, meaning many Spaniards equate the term with a “one rule for them, one for us” mentality, or corporate cronyism.

But now ALDE member, Ciudadanos dares to hope that it will not only enter parliament for the first time, but do so in style, with opinion polls showing a dead-heat between C’s and the Socialists and well within reach of becoming the largest party, overtaking the governing PP.

While Albert Rivera, the party’s Catalan leader, tends to shy away from the liberal moniker, he is not shy about co-opting the legacy of former Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, founding father of Spanish democracy. He ruled for five years between 1976 and 1981 and is widely respected as the man who put Spain on the right path after the death of Franco. Subsequently Suárez become President of the Liberal International in 1988.

Indeed, liberal values are at the heart of C’s programme. The party’s call for zero-tolerance of corruption, fairer labour laws, a better deal for the self-employed and an emphasis on education, makes it at home with its European ALDE allies. The party believes these measures will be effective in tackling Spain’s sky-high unemployment level, in contrast to the more statist solutions coming from the left.

Viewed from Barcelona, C’s also offers a liberal antidote to the toxic nationalism that has held the weather for the last few years. In Catalonia, we’ve seen politics at its most cynical, with Catalan premier, Artur Mas, using nationalism to cover his party’s corruption. The supposed conservative is now attempting to do a grubby deal with the anti-system, anti-capitalist hard left to stay in power. We’ve suffered the politics of division, with Mas’s coalition partner even asserting genetic differences between Catalans and other Spaniards. Now we have the danger of Catalonia’s top politicians deciding which laws they should abide by and which courts they can declare themselves immune from. All this from a party, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, that is absurdly also an ALDE member at the European level.

Truthfully, C’s proposals for dealing with the Catalan question are probably not ambitious enough to deal with the ongoing crisis, but no Spanish party has yet come up with a convincing way to deal with the frustrations of 48% of the Catalan population.

It’s increasingly likely that all eyes will be on Rivera in the days following the election. It seems certain that no party will have an absolute majority in parliament and assuming C’s doesn’t end up as the largest party, he will be seen as the likely kingmaker for the next government. Rivera says he has learned some lessons from the experiences of the British Liberal Democrats and will not go into government unless he is Prime Minister, but C’s has a pragmatic track record at a more local level of allowing the investiture of leaders from either the PP or Socialists in return for concrete measures to stop corruption and promote economic growth.

For the first time since the dawn of Spanish democracy this could be the liberal moment for Spain. But power isn’t going to be handed to C’s on a plate. The vested interests of the PP and Socialists are strong and the Catalan question has the potential to break Spain apart. Power and influence will require tough decisions and accommodations with uncomfortable bedfollows. Ultimately despite his best efforts, Rivera may even find that power comes with the same price that Nick Clegg paid in the UK. All that notwithstanding, what a time to be a liberal in Spain!

Photo by Carlos Delgado.

Author: Martin Petts

Martin is the founder of Lib Dems in Spain and lives in Barcelona. He works as a web developer.

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