Catalonia: the rise of Ciudadanos

Catalonia: the rise of Ciudadanos

Spain’s decision to hold regional elections in Catalonia on 21 December has severely backfired on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Just like David Cameron, Rajoy has now experienced the high-risk strategy of holding out for emotional voters to solve his domestic conundrum. The latest developments have not only sustained the secessionist movement in Catalonia; they have also refuted the notion that the Madrid government holds a monopoly on Spanish unionism, reflected by the victory for the pro-unity party Ciudadanos.

Who holds the balance of power?

The elections represent a victory for the independence movement in Catalonia. With all the independence leaders either in prison or exile, it was a crucial day for the future of Catalan independence. The three main secessionist parties, Together for Catalonia, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) achieved an independence victory by obtaining 70 seats out of a total of 135. In what was a very tight outcome, the independence movement has achieved the small majority required to form a government.

The exiled Catalan President Carles Puigdemont stated that the election outcome was a victory for ‘the Catalan republic’. The beleaguered Spanish Prime Minister, whose party obtained a dismal 3 seats, stated that he is open for dialogue with Catalonia’s separatist leaders. However, dialogue must be ‘within the remit of the law’, thus renouncing talks surrounding the prospect of independence. In truth, the election leaves Catalonia back to square one, with the independence victory reinstating their majority in parliament, albeit reduced.

The star of the silent majority

Although the secessionist forces now hold the balance of power in Spain’s richest region, the election victory of unionist party Ciudadanos was perhaps the most significant result. The liberal party, led by Ines Arrimadas in Catalonia, claimed 37 seats and is now the biggest party in the regional parliament. In notable contrast, Rajoy’s People’s Party came last in the election. This result demonstrates a clear alternative force for Spanish unionism, while Ciudadanos’ Catalan popularity could be a preview for a change in the dynamics of Spanish politics.

In the election build-up, it was clear that the so-called ‘silent majority’ would play a pivotal role in the outcome of the result. The ‘silent majority’ referred to many of those who hold the claim to Spanish and Catalan dual identity and championed reason over ideological dogma. Arrimadas, the 36-year-old Catalan, appears to have rescued the voters who felt positioned between a rock and a hard place when deciding between the pro-independence parties and Madrid’s political heavyweights.

The plural identity of Ciudadamos is an important factor in its rise and popularity. The party was founded in 2006 by a number of Catalan intellectuals who were anti-nationalist and sought a political alternative to the existing parties in the region. In 2014, the party acquired half a million votes in the European elections. Its growing significance facilitated its entrance into the national parliament a year later. Moreover, its leaders are young and charismatic and have been likened to France’s Emanuel Macron. Albert Rivera, the national leader of Ciudadanos, is a 37-year-old lawyer and former banker from Barcelona. Arrimadas, from Andalucia, is a business lawyer and moved to Catalonia in her 20s. She is also a passionate supporter of FC Barcelona.

Investor support

The rise in support for Ciudadanos will be welcomed by investors whose confidence in Catalonia has eroded as a result of political uncertainty. Ciudadanos and its young professional leadership are pro-business and view the independence movement as damaging to the economic health of Catalonia.

This year, over 3000 businesses have relocated their headquarters elsewhere in Spain amid fear of independence and exclusion from European institutions. In October, the month of the illegal independence referendum, unemployment rose by 3.67 %. In the same period, reduction in consumption and tourism reflected the effects of instability in the region.

Ines Arrimadas has used such evidence in order to convince voters that independence is economically treacherous. In the lead up to the elections on December 21, Arrimadas questioned the responsibility of Catalan’s pro-independence politicians: ”What these gentlemen have provoked in Catalonia is institutional madness, economic debacle, and social fracture”. She further stated that if they remain in power, it will result in a further exodus of businesses and investor confidence in what has been Spain’s best-performing economy.

Moreover, Ciudadanos is staunchly pro-EU and enthusiastic supports of Macron and his ‘En Marche’ party. After Macron’s presidential victory, Rivera stated that it was ”confirmation that a liberal progressive and European centre is the best political option to face the challenges of the twentieth century”. Ciudadanos’ pragmatic and reasoned Spanish unionism and support for the EU is a crucial foundation of their support while investors will hope to see its political rise continue.

National significance

The recent Catalan elections are the latest marker to underscore the political growth of Ciudadanos. According to a poll taken before the elections, Ciudadanos’ national popularity rose to 17.5%. Its defence of Spanish unionism and attitude against corruption has attracted voters that are disillusioned with the status quo in Madrid. In contrast, the Popular Party has experienced a decline in 3% from its general election vote in 2016. With political uncertainty set to continue in Catalonia and the notable vulnerability of the Spanish government, Catalan secessionism is not the only concern for Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party.


Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Niall Walsh

Niall Walsh is a political risk analyst for GRI. He holds a BA in History and Spanish from University College Dublin and an MA in International Relations from Leiden University. His main focus concerns national and regional political risk in Latin America.