Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Four-Way Fight: Ciudadanos

In 2011, over the four days prior to the day of reflection (when campaigning and party political comment and opinion are supposed to cease), there wouldn't have been a case to have filled those four days with profiles of political parties. There were (and are) all sorts of parties knocking around, some of them regional, some of them more broadly based, but in 2011 there were only two which mattered - the Partido Popular and PSOE. The intervening four years have changed this. The number of parties which matter has doubled. The fight is not an even four-way fight - not where the estimations of seats in Congress are concerned - but it is a fight nevertheless, and it is one that is destined to change Spain's political scene, not just because two new parties could feature in the next government but also because these two parties represent a different type of politics. They are Ciudadanos (C's) and Podemos.

The first thing to say about the C's is that they aren't so new. As with other aspects of their existence, such as what they actually stand for, branding them as new is too easy. Initially moulded in 2005, they came from a movement called Ciudadanos de Catalunya - citizens of Catalonia - formed through disenchantment with established politics in that region. Within a year this platform had become a political party, adopting the name Ciudadanos-Partido de la Ciudadanía (C's for short). The party's first participation in an election was for the Catalonia regional election in November 2006. By then, its first president, who hadn't been one of the founders of the platform, was a 26-year-old Catalonian swimming champion and student of law who had briefly had a dalliance with the PP's Nuevas Generaciones. His name? Albert Rivera. 

That first election was to prove to be the making of the C's and of Rivera. Never before had a social movement or platform been able to convert itself into a political party and actually gain representation. It might not have seemed so at the time, but from the modest but nonetheless surprising gaining of three seats in the Catalonian parliament, Spain's new political age was being born.

The important point to be made about the C's is that they weren't in 2006 and nor are they now a radical party. Often lumped together with Podemos, they are done so through a misunderstanding that stems from apparent newness. Where similarity exists with Podemos is on issues such as inclusiveness (a more participative approach to the political process) and being adamant in a rejection of corruption and of the political status quo of the hitherto two-party system of the PP and PSOE.

Unlike Podemos, which was to grow out of an altogether wider and more vocal social movement and secure sudden and stunning electoral success, the progress of the C's has been more like a business which, once strong in its home market (Catalonia), expands into newer markets. The great achievement has been in not stumbling in a desire to grow.

Though they might not like to admit it, the C's have been aided by Podemos and by the intense focus placed on a new political age that Podemos have done so much to create. They have caught a wave, but it has to be acknowledged that, in their less vocal way, they (and the now forgotten Partido X) did the groundwork for Podemos to emerge so spectacularly.

As they aren't a radical party, where does the appeal lie? Partly, and this cannot be ignored, they have some attractive and youthful figureheads in the likes of Rivera and the now leader of the opposition in the Catalonian parliament, Inés Arrimadas. But good looks only get a party so far. The appeal comes from the assault on the corrupt two-party system and from policies of greater social justice and equality and probably also comes from the fact that, of the two parties taking on the PP-PSOE cosiness, they aren't as scary as Podemos.

Such an analysis reveals why the C's are described as both left and right-wing. Observers who draw these conclusions are again misunderstanding the party. It is a hybrid which can, on the one hand, hold firm views against Catalonian independence (a stance associated mainly with the right and one for which Rivera once received death threats) but which, on the other, can promote progressive taxation in a manner akin to the left.

For those who seek to condemn them as being almost a PP in disguise, there is evidence from a strong pro-business bias as well as a commitment to language teaching that has distinct echoes of the PP's trilingual teaching system in the Balearics. 

A clearer assessment of the C's might be, however, that they are wholly of a modern age, minus any baggage, with a mostly intelligent programme. Success on Sunday should come as no surprise.

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