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Home Opinion Ciudadanos: A third way or a Trojan horse for the left?
State of the Left Spain

Ciudadanos: A third way or a Trojan horse for the left?

Jorge Galindo and Antonio Roldan - 20 March 2015

A centrist force is now threatening the already beleaguered PSOE, but it will also weaken Podemos’s role as a potential kingmaker
Ciudadanos has been the latest party to join the fiesta of Spanish politics. Since the centrist platform announced it would run for the national election in December five months ago, its electoral growth has been nothing short of spectacular.

Some of the international press has been quick to picture Ciudadanos as the Podemos of the right. Is this true? Is Ciudadanos exclusively a right-wing phenomenon? What does Ciudadanos mean for the left in Spain? How is Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) dealing with the new political panorama? First, let us briefly go through the party’s background.

Ciudadanos was created about nine years ago in Catalonia by a group of centre-left intellectuals as a response to the rise in Catalan nationalism. Ideologically, the party defines itself as a moderate pro-business party, equally influenced by Scandinavian social-liberalism and by the European centrist liberal tradition. Taking British politics as a reference, Ciudadanos would fall somewhere in between Tony Blair’s third way and the Liberal Democrats.

Ciudadanos’s proclaimed goal is to reinstate equality of opportunity in an economy plagued with regulatory-driven segmentations and privileges, which puts the party in line with the reformist agendas of Matteo Renzi in Italy and of Manuel Valls in France.

However, in the coming months, the party led by the charismatic Albert Rivera faces a dilemma: satisfying both centre-left and centre-right voters implies building a delicate and sometimes contradictory coalition.

So far, the party has overcome this latent tension by presenting itself as the truly reformist party, in opposition to the status quo (represented by the two large traditional parties) and to the leftist regression represented by Podemos. The move, if successful, will have deep effects on leftwing Spanish politics.

What does Ciudadanos mean for the left?

Assuming that the current trend consolidates and Ciudadanos manages to expand its influence beyond its primary support base of urban voters (a precondition to translate votes into seats, given Spain’s electoral system), the party is likely to transform the Spanish political outlook.
The first implication will be electoral. Ciudadanos will weaken Podemos’s bargaining power and its chances of entering government after the elections. This is because Rivera’s party will constrain Podemos’s growth beyond the left by itself attracting centrist voters looking for an alternative outside the PP-PSOE establishment. Moreover, after the election, a strong Ciudadanos would provide the key to form stable majorities, weakening Podemos’s role as potential kingmaker.
Secondly, Ciudadanos poses a political-ideological challenge for the PSOE, particularly as regards their economic program. Whereas Podemos is tilting towards a broad, rather undefined, traditional ‘conservative leftwing’ agenda – including more labour protection and nationalisation of certain industries – Ciudadanos brings in a centrist set of very concrete reformist proposals. As a result, Ciudadanos is taking control of the reformist discourse, effectively occupying a space that traditionally belonged to social democracy in Europe.

The PSOE is responding to this with a non-strategy of ‘indecision in between’ that can only weaken its future prospects. Terrified by the rise of Podemos, the PSOE is trying to protect their traditional electoral base, promising it will undo whatever policy changes the current government implements and renouncing any strong reformist programme.

In doing so, the party is not tackling some areas in which they could have a strong say vis-a-vis Ciudadanos and Podemos. Those include, but are not limited to, addressing inequality in all its dimensions through the creation of a more universal welfare provision system (such as Swedens), tackling the roots of high structural unemployment by improving public education or a more ambitious pro-growth agenda on Europe. The possible causes of PSOE’s apparent political paralysis deserve greater exploration.

A deeper problem in PSOE

The very fact that the confrontation between different leftwing political trends is not happening within the PSOE but rather through the creation of new platforms says a lot about the recent history of the Spanish political system.

During the transition to democracy, newly created political parties were forced to build strong and hermetic internal structures to ensure stability after Francoism. Large, solid platforms emerged, but an unexpected side effect was the consolidation of closed, hierarchical party units where loyalty and “being part of someone’s team” became more important than talent and actual political capacity to grow within the party.

Over time, the hermetic internal structure of traditional parties prevented their elites from renewing themselves in a healthy, effective and talent-oriented way. Both human capital and ideological diversity within PSOE´s elites deteriorated.

It has been only after six years of crisis that the PSOE has initiated a renovation of its leadership team through a primary election with voting rights limited to party members. But it only happened after a poor internal debate and with no significant modifications on the party's structure. As a consequence the existing hierarchy has kept the power on the whole process of renewal, hence limiting its scope and breadth. On the contrary, the new parties offer very strong leaders that built their profile as outsiders, with fresh ideas, an independent narrative and no ties to the past.

Ciudadanos, like Podemos, are posing a major test to PSOE. If no independent voices within the socialists rise with a coherent and brave narrative to bring Spain forward, voters will find it somewhere else. And this is already happening.

Jorge Galindo is founding editor of Politikon* and a PhD candidate at the University of Geneva

Antonio Roldan is a political risk analyst and a PhD candidate at the LSE’s European Institute**

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politic

* Politikon remains a non-partisan analysis group that maintains relations with all parties within the Spanish political spectrum.

**Antonio Roldan’s studies are supervised by Luis Garicano, who leads Ciudadanos’ economic policy platform

Tags: Jorge Galindo , Antonio Roldan , State of the Left , Spain

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