The brother-in-law

The brother-in-law, or cuñado, holds a prominent, yet unenviable, position in Spanish society, transcending the realms of the family tree to become something more than just a relative. He’s a symbol, a social phenomenon, a state of mind.

The exact characteristics of the archetypal cuñado are up for debate, but they tend to be negative. He is an extroverted, matey, slightly boorish, know-it-all who greets you effusively but doesn’t really listen to what you have to say. On the contrary, he loudly broadcasts his own opinions, often political, over Christmas dinner.

Albert Rivera
Albert Rivera: first in line in the conga.

“For the brother-in-law, everything is communism, everything is Venezuela, everything is Eta,” Lorena G. Maldonado, of El Español newspaper, has written. “In his holiday photo album he’s pretending to hold up the Tower of Pisa, he’s first in line when there’s a conga at a wedding, he stirs the Sunday paella and smiles as he says: ‘I’m Spanish, what do you want me to beat you at?’ He saw the property bubble coming a long way off, he was there, he already knew, he told you so…”

For many (Maldonado included), Spain’s highest-profile cuñado is Albert Rivera. That’s in great part because in 2016, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, in one of those finely calculated moves that he specialises in, cast the leader of Ciudadanos as such during a parliamentary debate. The slightly comic accusation was based on Iglesias’s claim that Rivera’s ideology derived from the same family as the right-wing Popular Party (PP). But there was also a hint of the more personal use of the term – the smug paella-stirrer – which has since stuck to Rivera like rice to a pan.

In some ways he does indeed fit the cuñado stereotype, if only in terms of aesthetics and style. There is the clean-cut-but-casual attire, the bumptious self-confidence, the apparent knowledge about any subject and ready response to every problem, which can both impress and grate. But even his critics now have to take Spain’s most popular national party leader seriously.

In recent months, Ciudadanos has been riding high in voter intention polls, even proving to be the most popular party in Spain, according to Metroscopia. Rivera, meanwhile, is regarded less and less as a mere opposition upstart who bangs on about corruption and Catalonia and more and more as a potential prime minister.

But while that possibility becomes increasingly feasible, the place Ciudadanos occupies on the political spectrum has remained somewhat fuzzy.

The brother-in-law, Maldonado explains, with a large dose of irony, “is neither on the left or the right; instead he’s straight up, salt-of-the-earth, genuine.” What Maldonado means is: that’s how he presents himself, although after a few glasses of La Rioja he’ll start on about communism and Eta.

Rivera, meanwhile, in a very cuñado-esque bit of rhetoric, told The Economist recently: “We have to move away from the old left-right axis”. Not so long ago, his party was describing itself as “centre-left”, its business-friendliness offset by mostly liberal social policies. But almost exactly a year ago, Ciudadanos redefined its ideology, removing “social democracy” from its statutes, leaving a definition of it as “constitutionalist, liberal, democratic and progressive”, which does little to clarify the issue (after all, who would suggest that being “unconstitutional, illiberal, undemocratic and regressive” was a good idea?). A dig into the archives further muddies matters, with Rivera flip-flopping on gay marriage, opposing abortion as a right, showing an ambivalent take on historical memory, announcing a refusal to support Rajoy as head of a new government in 2015, forming a putative governing pact with the Socialists in 2016, then supporting a new PP government (with Rajoy at its head) a few months later.

Confused? Understandably so. But then again, Spanish politics is a weird, many-mirrored place at the moment and similar charges of inconsistency could also be levelled at the Socialists or the Catalan secessionists.

But recent events in Catalonia, where Rivera’s party has been hogging the unionist limelight, have, finally, appeared to nail it down as a party of the right. With Rajoy’s PP still mired in a smorgasboard of corruption scandals and having failed to solve the territorial crisis, Ciudadanos has benefitted, winning the Catalan election under the candidacy of Inés Arrimadas and cheerfully surfing the wave of Spanish neo-nationalism. To put it crassly, the Catalan crisis has been kind to Ciudadanos.

Conspiracy-prone supporters of independence regularly claim Ciudadanos are right-wing extremists and rabid independentistas tend to portray them as fascist, a term that has lost its currency in this age of the easy insult and which really isn’t relevant in this debate. (One thuggish wag painted “Neo-fachas” on the doorstep of the party in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat recently; one twitter user accused me of receiving funding from Ciudadanos the other day for suggesting in an article that the party was moving away from the PP on the historical memory issue).

But no, they are not the crypto-Francoist, goose-stepping loonies their enemies desperately try to portray them as.

Yet it does seem that Ciudadanos finds itself in a rum, rather disturbing, position – let’s call it Rivera’s Conundrum.

Created as a nationwide force in 2014 with the promise of introducing a centrist, transition-style statesmanship to Spain’s tribal politics, in Catalonia the party has become precisely the opposite, doing as much as any other to rattle the cage of tribalism. The more polarised the territorial crisis has become, the more Ciudadanos has hoovered up anti-independence votes. And it has heartily contributed to that polarisation, positioning itself as yin to Carles Puigdemont’s exiled yang, with the PP often a hapless bystander.

One of my favourite cartoons of recent months was a picture of Rivera marching along, bashing a drum marked “Article 155” – the clause in the constitution allowing Madrid to implement direct rule. His insistence throughout much of last year that this drastic measure be introduced often left Rajoy looking timid and, dare I say it, moderate, in comparison.

Ciudadanos’s approach to this issue was on display recently in Madrid during a BBC World Questions debate, panelled by representatives of Ciudadanos, the PP, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and journalist Ana Romero. The most belligerent voice in the room was not that of the PP’s Francisco Martínez or ERC’s Alfred Bosch. It was Begoña Villacis, of Ciudadanos, whose insistence on attacking the Catalan independence movement at every turn – even, bizarrely, when the debate had moved on to Gibraltar – which gave the event a slightly sour aftertaste.

And there are signs that, in its determination to keep stealing voters from the PP, Ciudadanos’s hard-line playing to the gallery is seeping out of Catalonia, into its national politics (see its attempts to remove the Basque government’s historic right to controlling its own taxes, or its U-turn on the issue of life imprisonment).

So where does this leave Spain’s best-known brother-in-law? After years of shifting around, and with the corridors of power apparently beckoning, it’s time he made clear where exactly on the political right he and his party stand as a government-in-waiting.

Worryingly, Rivera’s Conundrum dictates that if he shows any willingness to step back, to make concessions – to stop banging the drum – he’ll lose votes. Given that Puigdemont’s Conundrum dictates similar terms for the ousted Catalan president, don’t expect to see much bridge-building any time soon.

Author: hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a freelance print and broadcast journalist who has been based in Madrid since 2003. Guy has covered Spain for the BBC, The Irish Times, Politico, Associated Press and Deutsche Welle and previously he was editor-in-chief of El País newspaper's English edition and founding editor of Spanish news website Iberosphere. Before living in Spain he worked as a journalist in Ecuador.

7 thoughts on “The brother-in-law”

  1. Excellent, Guy. I had indeed been confused. Only yesterday, as I reported coincidentally in a blog post this morning, two Spanish friends had surprised me with their insistence that Ciudadanos was, in some respects, to the right of the PP. And even further to the right of the Galician PP party. Obviously, I hadn’t been paying close enough attention to the bro-in-law. But I do recall that odd BBC performance.

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  2. Very good article. I would just add something nobody seems to dare saying: this “cuñadismo” is to me the quintessential populist approach to politics. However people from Ciudadanos will very liberally use the term populism, obviously when applied to others. They see themselves as what Macron is to France. If you wish to compare I would find a bit fairer to call then Alternative für Spanien.

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    1. That Anglian fascination for politicians like Pablo Iglesias is possibly due to the lack of an own version. I’m pretty sure that the Winston Churchill fascination of Albert Ribera is also due to the lack of anything comparable in the Spanish landscape. Put Churchill and Spitfire in one sentence. Add water. Instant nation. Ciudadanos long for a Grande Nation, a la Macron, of their own. Something to be proud of. Napoleon to Sartre. And Spitfires.

      Unable to define the greatness of Spain, Ciudadanos veer to the right is to win the PPs voters, whom by now are really not the brightest candles in the National chandelier. This was easy in Catalonia where people have realised that nationalism in Catalan is still nationalism and fear to lose everything became real. It needs a bit more effort in the rest of Spain. To blame the EU for everything wouldn’t work in Vigo or Murcia. Not yet. And no Spitfires.

      In the forties and fifties Spain built under license the Messerschmitt Me 109 and the Heinkel He 111. Both Spanish built models ended playing a role in the Battle of Britain. The 1969 movie, that is. Although Spanish planes played German roles nobody should dare to compare Ciudadanos with AfD.

      AfD is dangerous. AfD wird sich noch zeigen.

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  3. Excellent article by what appears to be a rare breed of journalists these days – one that is unfrightened by the powers-that-be and well-informed, coherent and cogent, interestingly and well written, and with that touch of irony which is just right. I want to write like that when I grow up!

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  4. Sorry, forgot to mention that, for me, the “Word of the Article” (as in “Woman/Man of the Match”), is “smug” – I haven’t used or heard it in years. I’m going out now for my daily cafe debate and find an excuse to use it!

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