Spain’s new centre-right party is not a liberal guardian of the country’s future

Spain’s two-party political system is on the verge of ending. For the last forty-years, since the death of Franco, Spanish voters have provided either the left or right with a mandate, sometimes a majority, to govern. However, if polling data for the election on December 20th is correct, the Popular Party (PP), who swept to victory in 2011, will not gain a parliamentary majority and one of two new political parties - Podemos or Ciudadanos - will help govern Spain.

Thankfully for the ruling PP, one of these parties is amenable to their philosophy, and they are lying just behind them in the polls. Ciudadanos - ‘Citizens’ in English - was formed in Barcelona in 2006 where they gained three seats in the Catalan parliament. This year their support has skyrocketed. They are currently the second largest party in the Catalan parliament; their leader, Albert Rivera, has the highest personal ratings of all the leaders, and according to a poll published on Friday they are the country’s second most popular party.

But where exactly should this new party be placed on Spain’s political spectrum? While Ciudadanos has only stood in regional Catalan elections before and is not even a decade old, many commentators have begun the assessment by looking at its manifesto.

Based on their economic proposals, Ciudadanos are in the political centre. Their plans for a tax-credit style system to top-up earnings below the minimum wage and a fixed long-term employment contract to end the large amount of temporary ones are two popular policies. Unlike their fellow newcomers they are not calling for large investment packages to stimulate the economy, rather they want to cut corporation tax, lower income tax, abolish red tape. Their social policies too reflect a liberal inclination: they want to legalise soft drugs and prostitution.

But are conclusions reached only on the basis of their quickly produced manifesto reliable? Should other elements be considered when trying to understand such a young party? Like the dramatic rise of UKIP in Britain, should we take its manifesto at its word?

Anger over persistent cases of corruption and calls for politics to be more transparent, inclusive and open to ‘citizens’ has produced an urgent desire for change in Spain

Ciudadanos’ electoral success has only been recent. Until becoming the second biggest party in the Catalan parliament a few months ago, they only held three seats from 2006 until this year’s election. During this time their parliamentary behaviour provides an alternative interpretation of their politics: in October 2013, Ciudadanos walked out a parliamentary session after a motion to condemn totalitarian regimes, including Franco, was tabled. They also put forward a bill to ban the burka in Catalonia and proposed a 12-week abortion term limit that could only be extended in exceptional circumstances such as cases of rape or serious health risks to the mother.

As with other upstart parties across Europe, social media has helped shine a light on what the opinions of its lesser-known members of its team think. For example, on Saturday, a Cuidadanos party spokesman in Murcia, the southeast of Spain, tweeted to his followers not forget about the “Feminnazi laws,” “open doors to immigrants,” and “the payouts ‘for existing’ that these immigrants and other layabouts receive.” Moreover, in 2013 their deputy in the Catalan parliament, Manuel Villegas, argued for the withdrawal of health coverage for immigrants without resident permits.

Furthermore, its impressive performance in the polls - they registered just 3.1 percent in January but 19 percent at the beginning of December - has been down from absorbing votes from the right. According to one poll 42.8 percent of its supporters have come from one party: the PP.

The political space Ciudadanos are now occupying has been created by an economic recovery that failed to bring unemployment below 20%. It’s a recovery that raised the number of temporary contracts and lowered average annual earnings. Anger over persistent cases of corruption and calls for politics to be more transparent, inclusive and open to ‘citizens’ has produced an urgent desire for change in Spain.

Podemos, who reached 27 percent in the polls last year, have seen their support decline over the year due to various reasons, the most significant being an association with Syriza. Yet as a party they are providing not only more comprehensive solutions to the economic crisis but also providing a set of social policies that extend the right to abortion for under 18s in cases of abuse who find themselves in a situation of vulnerability at home - parental consent in this case would be required.  Furthermore they wish to guarantee healthcare coverage to undocumented immigrants.

After next Sunday’s elections, as the Spanish go off on their Christmas holidays, Ciudadanos and the PP look likely thrash out a deal for a five-year government. The liberalisation of prostitution and drugs are almost certain to take a backseat, while issues of immigration and women’s rights are likely to be debated. The party that is likely to help govern on such huge decisions appears not to be one of a convincing liberal tradition. Their time in the Catalan chamber, which has shown their intolerant beliefs as well the prejudices of their new supporters, help us see more of their agenda. Judgements that rush to see Ciudadanos as a party of the centre are unwise, and do not recognise the winds of right-wing populism that have blown it in the past. So let’s make sure we remember that breaking the two party system in Spain will not necessarily mean a break from the right.

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