In normal times, being elected as the first female leader of a Spanish political party, on International Women’s Day no less, would be seen as a good omen.
Unfortunately for Inés Arrimadas, she took over the reins of the center-right Citizens just as the coronavirus pandemic spread to Spain. With the country under lockdown, the leadership change in a party that has been reduced to a mere ten seats in Congress drew little attention.
But the health crisis has also given the Citizens an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the other two right-wing opposition parties: the conservative People’s Party and far-right Vox.
The Citizens share power with the People’s Party and Vox (Voice) in three regions of Spain, but nationally they support left-wing Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
People’s Party leader Pablo Casado has accused Sánchez of lying about the number of coronavirus cases in Spain and misleading the country about the economic consequences of the disease. The conservatives abstained from the most recent vote in Congress to extend the state of alarm, which they now call a “constitutional dictatorship”.
Not to be outdone, Vox‘s Santiago Abascal — whose party voted against the emergency measures — called on Spaniards to clog the streets with their cars in a form of socially distant protest.
Arrimadas shared some of their criticism, denouncing Sánchez’ “huge errors,” but she also argued the way to correct them was to work with the government. The Citizens voted in favor of maintaining the state of alarm, putting Sánchez, whose government doesn’t have a permanent majority, over the top.
Arrimadas’ tone differed not just from the other two right-wing leaders but from her predecessor, Albert Rivera, who opposed extending the state of alarm that has confined Spaniards to their homes, and kept businesses closed, for two months.
Rivera resigned after leading the Citizens to a disastrous election result in November. The party lost 44 of its 54 seats. Rivera tried to overtake the People’s Party as the largest party on the right by appealing to conservative voters while the People’s Party itself was being pulled further to the right by Vox. The Citizens were sucked into this gravitational pull and lost touch with the center.
Rivera’s decision to join forces with the far right in Andalusia in 2018 and Madrid and Murcia last year prompted high-profile resignations, including that of Manuel Valls, the former French prime minister who led the Citizens in Barcelona. Valls lamented that the party, once “liberal, progressive, pro-European,” had become “effectively in step with a reactionary and anti-European party” — Vox.
Valls has praised Arrimadas’ decision to support the government while a right-wing lawmaker, who backed the Citizens’ rightward drift, has quit.
Arrimadas has been at the helm for only two months. It is to soon to tell if her cooperation with Sánchez marks the beginning of a longer-term course correction or if was an extraordinary measure for an extraordinary time.
Those in the party who want to be considered as a possible future coalition partner in a Socialist-led government will be hoping for the former.