Spain: The Crisis in the Established Parties and the Rise of the Citizens

The established Spanish parties of right and left have been losing support, amidst failures of leadership and policy, and public scandals. At the same time the Citizens, a movement of the radical centre, has emerged as the leading force in Spanish politics. The Citizen’s movement is gaining momentum in the run-up to key regional election contests in 2019, and the general election in 2020.

The People’s Party – Politically Adrift? The governing, centre-right, People’s Party (PP) is currently facing a major slump in public support. The latest opinion polling puts the PP on 19.5%. This represents a fall of 13.5% compared to the PP result in the June 2016 general election.


This haemorrhaging of support by the PP can be attributed to a number of factors. There is widespread public dissatisfaction with Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister and veteran PP leader, and his cautious, managerial, style of leadership. More specifically in the sphere of economic policy, with Spain undergoing a slow economic recovery after years of austerity, there is a desire for a new sense of strategic direction. Rajoy is also held responsible, by a section of the electorate, for the failure to resolve the constitutional crisis in Catalonia. Regional elections were held in Catalonia on 21 December 2017. These elections were intended tp make possible the formation of a new pro-unionist government following the earlier, unofficial, Catalan independence referendum, and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid. The elections saw the PP, humiliatingly, gaining only 4.2% of the vote. This regional electoral failure has had negative consequences for the reputation of the PP at national level. The elections also produced a narrow majority for pro-independence Catalan parties. After five months of impasse a new Catalan administration was finally formed on 14 May 2018. The new government is headed by Quim Torra, a supporter of Catalan independence and ally of the former, displaced, Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont. The confirmation of Torra as regional President appears to mark another defeat for Rajoy’s Catalan policy.


The PP has also been feeling the impact of the latest in a series of scandals. On 25 April Cristina Cifuentes resigned as the PP head of Madrid’s regional administration. Cifuentes had been under pressure since March when it had been alleged that she had faked a postgraduate university degree. The final blow came, however, when video footage was published on-line of an incident which took place in 2011 in which Cifuentes appeared to have been caught shoplifting. Cifuentes subsequently also resigned as head of the Madrid region PP, and as a regional councillor. Prior to her resignation Cifuentes had received strong support from PP parliamentarians and other senior party figures. Madrid is one of the five administrations currently controlled by the PP following the 2015 regional elections in which the party was generally considered to have performed poorly. Madrid will be a key battleground in the next regional elections which are set to take place in 2019.


The PSOE – Failure on the Left? The setbacks suffered by the PP have not been paralleled by advances by their left-wing rivals, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) led by Pedro Sanchez. The PSOE is currently polling at 19%, a small, but significant decrease compared to their vote of 22% in the 2016 parliamentary elections. The PSOE has shown some recent capacity to consolidate its vote on the left it has also losing the support of centrist voters. The moribund state of the PSOE suggests that, as with the PP, voters are currently reluctant to give their support to an established mainstream political party.


Podemos – The Insurgent Tide Goes Out? The left-wing Podemos movement led by Pablo Iglesias was founded in January 2014 amidst a wave of anti-austerity discontent. In the December 2015 parliamentary elections Podemos gained 20.7% of the vote. This rose to 21.3% in the June 2016 elections. Since then Podemos has shown a long-term overall decline in popularity with its rating standing at 16% at the end of 2017 and 15% at the start of 2018 – although the latest (May 2018) polling shows an apparent jump in support to 19.8%. This downward trend in support for Podemos has been paralleled by a series of splits over the movement’s strategy and political direction. In February 2017 there was a major clash between Pablo Iglesias and another founding member of the movement, Inigo Errejon, who favoured a strategy of co-operation with the PSOE. This conflict ended with Iglesias reasserting his control of the party. New divisions within Podemos emerged during the Catalan regional election campaign in December 2017. A dispute developed between the Catalan Podemos party organisation which took a pro-independence stance and the more centralist main party structures. In April 2018 fault lines within Podemos once again came into view when Carolina Bescansa, a senior Podemos MP, appeared to accidentally leak details of a plan to challenge Pablo Iglesias, in alliance with Inigo Errejon, for the leadership of the movement. These splits have taken place in a context where Pablo Iglesias no longer enjoys the reputation as a charismatic vote getter that he had after the foundation of Podemos, and in which the movement’s record in local government is coming under increasingly close scrutiny. The fractured state of Podemos has said to dissatisfaction, and greater assertiveness on the part of the smaller left-wing parties which normally co-operate with Podemos.


The Citizens – The New Force in Spanish Politics? The Citizens movement led by Albert Rivera is now the most significant political force in Spanish politics. The latest (May 2018) opinion polling puts the Citizens on 29% of the vote, with a clear lead over all the other political parties.


The activities of the Citizens Movement, which was founded in June 2005, were originally focussed on Catalonia, and in particular the urban electorate of the Barcelona region. In Catalonia the Citizens offered the electorate a locally based unionist alternative to both the regional nationalist parties and the Madrid based PP. In the six years after it was established the Citizens movement showed steady electoral growth. In the 2006 Catalan regional elections it gained 3% of the vote. By 2012 this had doubled to 7.6%.


In 2013 the Citizens reinvented itself as a national movement. On the national stage the Citizens profiled themselves as a liberal, centrist, movement. Conventional wisdom, at this time, tended to see the Spanish political landscape, with its established left and right blocs, as being hostile to such liberal experimentation. In the December 2015 Spanish elections the Citizens gained 13.9% of the vote. In June 2016 the Citizens vote fell slightly to 13.1%.


A major electoral breakthrough for the Citizens came in December 2017 in its old Catalan heartland. The Citizens in Catalonia led by thirty six year old Ines Arrimadas emerged from the regional elections as the largest political party with 25.4% of the vote. The Citizens had developed a strong regional base in Catalonia over the course of previous elections, but they saw a new surge in support in these elections from unionist voters alienated by the tactics used by the PP government in their attempt to suppress the unofficial independence referendum.


The success of the Citizens at regional level has also boosted their support nationally. The Citizens have been picking up support from across the political spectrum, but particularly from the PP. This influx of supporters from the PP has been accompanied by a shift in the Citizens political profile towards the centre-right. The Citizens have placed a strong emphasis on the role of the free-market in defining Spain’s future strategic direction. The Citizens and the PP are set to engage in increasingly fierce competition as they seek to secure the loyalties of the same centre-right electoral constituency. Significantly after the resignation of Cristina Cifuentes the Citizens withdrew the support they had previously provided to the PP Madrid regional administration. In terms of longer term coalition-building the Citizens have sought to keep their opportunities open. Albert Rivera has stated that he would be ready to work with either the PP or PSOE.

As a new party of the radical centre the Citizens bears some resemblance to En Marche led by Emanuel Macron in France. There is, however, a specifically Spanish aspect to the Citizens identity which is reflected in its development out of the interaction between regional and national politics.


The Citizens are currently in a powerful political position but it will need to maintain its momentum, in the face of well entrenched opposition, if it is to carry this popularity through to the 2019 regional elections and the general election due in 2020.



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