As Podemos Falls, Spanish Liberals Rise in Polls

A centrist Catalan party is channeling Spanish anger in the direction of sensible, liberal economic reforms.

Albert Rivera, leader of the Spanish Ciudadanos party, in Madrid, December 13, 2014
Albert Rivera, leader of the Spanish Ciudadanos party, in Madrid, December 13, 2014 (Ciudadanos Cs)

Spanish voters disillusioned about their country’s left- and right-wing parties are moving away from radical leftists who look to Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza for inspiration. The centrist Ciudadanos party is gaining popularity instead as Spain prepares for parliamentary elections later this year.

Only nine years old, Ciudadanos is originally from Catalonia, where it opposes the regional independence movement. Its leader, Albert Rivera, attributes the party’s nationwide appeal to its sensible policy proposals.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Rivera says he shares the radical Podemos party’s diagnosis of what ails Spain. But their solutions are obsolete, he argues.

They stand for a very interventionist model, for more state control. They blame the system. We blame the people who have corrupted the system.

Unpopularity of the old parties

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party has been embroiled in graft scandals since it won the last election. It has fallen from 44 to around 25 percent support in the polls.

The opposition Socialists aren’t doing much better. After winning 29 percent of the votes in 2011, they have been polling in the low twenties since the beginning of this year.

Podemos, which shocked Spain’s traditional parties when it reached 30 percent support in polls earlier this year, has come down to around 20 percent support.

Open Europe’s Mats Persson argues this is still amazingly high for a party that didn’t even exist two years ago.

But the radicals should worry about their electoral prospects — “not least since the Spanish electoral system gives disproportionate weight to rural constituencies where Podemos is a lot weaker,” according to Persson.

If voters are switching to Ciudadanos, Rivera believes it is because Spain is moving on.

Podemos channels people’s anger — and people are very angry. But I think what is happening now is that people are saying, “OK, I am angry but now let’s get to work.” People have moved on from simple anger.

Far-left program

A closer look at Podemos‘ economic platform may have also scared moderate voters away.

According to Persson, Podemos‘ brand of leftism “comes with a clear Marxist/Trotskyist twist and is not only spending policies but about uprooting the post-Franco democratic settlement.”

Promising a complete overhaul of the country’s economic and political system may have worked for Syriza in Greece, where the established parties’ inability to pull the country out of years of recession disgusted mainstream voters, but the conditions in Spain are less dire. Unemployment is high, but the economy has started growing again.

Podemos nevertheless proposes to nationalize key industries, stop profit-making companies from laying off workers and creating more jobs in the public sector, financed by higher taxes.

The party also wants to lower the retirement age from 65 to sixty and make welfare more generous after Rajoy’s government made cutbacks.

Most perilous in the short term is Podemos‘ support for a “restructuring” of Spanish debt — which simply means not paying part of it back — and withdrawing from the euro.

With Spanish banks depending on European financial support and the Spanish state depending on the European Central Bank to help finance its borrowing, an election victory for a party that advocates such positions could trigger another financial crisis in a country that is only just recovering from the collapse of its property market in 2007-8 and the subsequent European sovereign debt crisis.

Liberal revival

Podemos rallies against liberalization and free trade, saying globalization benefits the few and not the many. Ciudadanos takes the opposite view.

“The liberal label has never been well explained in Spain,” says Rivera.

People think that a liberal vision of the economy is incompatible with social sensitivity. I think they are perfectly complementary. I don’t want a Spain without public education, a public health system and public pensions. But neither do I want a Spain where the economy is dominated by state intervention and monopolies.

His party calls for corporate and income tax cuts as well as eliminating deductions and loopholes that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

It would ease immigration policies to attract investors as well as workers and abolish or merge municipalities with less than 5,000 residents.

Coalitions

Rivera rules out a coalition government, although the polls say his party could be the kingmaker in the next parliament.

Rather, he desires ad hoc coalitions on specific issues.

Maybe we will have one ally for economic themes, another one for social issues, a third for democratic issues and everyone together if we face an international issue of state.

That seems like wishful thinking, but a liberal influence on Spanish policy would certainly be welcomed in the rest of Europe, where other countries have long urged Spain to reform.

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