Last October, I joined a group of foreign journalists for an off-the-record meeting with Ciudadanos party leader Albert Rivera. We’d had plenty of these kinds of events with leading politicians before, and several with him, but on this occasion he seemed different to the man I remembered. He seemed more hurried and less at ease. What’s more, he no longer spoke with evangelical zeal about political regeneration and the battle against corruption. Instead, he spent much of the time talking, in highly derogatory terms, about Pedro Sánchez who had become prime minister a few months earlier. The Socialist leader, he told us again and again, had sold out to Catalan separatism.
In 2016, Rivera and Sánchez had been photographed shaking hands as they closed an agreement on a raft of proposals which they presented as the platform for a governing partnership. In the end, their accord, whose proposals broadly occupied the centre ground, didn’t receive the necessary parliamentary support, so it became just another footnote in Spanish political history. But the ferocity with which Rivera attacked his erstwhile partner two years later was striking – as if he was annoyed with himself for having once engaged with Sánchez. Sitting next to him at that press meeting I felt the full blast of his peevishness.
Early last year I wrote about Rivera and his exploitation of the Catalan crisis for electoral benefit and how it was time for him and Ciudadanos to confirm that, having shed their original social democrat values, they were now a party of the right. But even now, getting them to admit where they are on the political spectrum remains about as easy as nailing gazpacho to the wall.
Ciudadanos continue to insist they are “liberal” and “centrist”. That’s despite a refusal to support the centre-left Socialists in the national parliament and the fact that they see the conservative Popular Party (PP) as a “priority ally”. The claims of occupying the centre ground are also contradicted by a willingness to form local administrations with the far-right Vox party in Andalusia and Madrid.
For some former Rivera allies all of this has been too much. The former French prime minister Manuel Valls, who seemed such a coup when he agreed to run for mayor of Barcelona with the backing of Ciudadanos several months ago, has condemned the party’s dealings with Vox. Rivera then decided to split with Valls altogether after he supported the leftist Ada Colau as mayor. “There’s nothing worse than Ada Colau,” tweeted Ciudadanos spokesman Juan Carlos Girauta.
Such a hard line is clearly bothering at least some in the party. Francesc de Carreras, a co-founder of Ciudadanos, wrote a strongly worded letter to Rivera in El País recently, accusing him of betraying the party’s principles and of behaving like “a petulant teenager” due to his refusal to consider supporting a new Sánchez government.
The dalliance with Vox, meanwhile, has been a gift to the independence movement, which has long cast Rivera and his party as neo-Francoists merrily jack-booting their way into Spain’s institutions while being cheered on by angry unionist hordes. Yet, as De Carreras suggested, the party’s rightward lurch seems to be driven not so much by sinister ideology as by what Gerardo Tecé calls “National-Opportunism”. Tecé points out that the party that pledged to clean up Spanish politics made its début in a regional government in 2015 by propping up the Socialist administration in Andalusia, widely regarded as one of the most corruption-riddled of the modern era; it then continued its regenerative crusade by returning Mariano Rajoy to power in 2016 – before his government was ousted due to a torrent of corruption scandals.
Now that the territorial issue is apparently Ciudadanos’s single main concern, similar qualms arise. If the party is so keen for Sánchez not to rely on separatists to form a new national government, why doesn’t it offer him its votes, or at least an abstention? Because Sánchez is already in cahoots with them, Rivera will reply – a conspiracy theory which has no basis in fact. And if Ciudadanos is so determined for Barcelona not to fall into the hands of separatists why did it punish Valls, who ensured it did not?
This kind of anger-charged politics reminds me of Rosa Díez and her now all but defunct UPyD party. A disgruntled Socialist with strident unionist views, Díez once seemed poised to challenge the existing party duopoly. Yet her politics increasingly seemed to be driven by what she hated in others rather than a positive vision for Spain. Now marginalised from mainstream politics, she is just another ranty presence on Twitter.
Rivera, of course, has made a bigger impact than Díez, with 57 seats in parliament. But, as he fiddles with his Spanish-flag wristband and launches yet another tirade at the Catalan government while ruling out pacts with Podemos, the Socialists or nationalists, he looks like a bridge-burner rather than the bridge-builder he once promised to be.
It’s tempting to wonder if Rivera’s fury might stem from the fact that, deep down, he feels that he, not Sánchez, should be the one currently trying to form a new government. In the general election Ciudadanos performed well, yet still could not beat the PP, even when it had suffered a disastrous defeat. With those disappointing results from the 2015 and 2016 general elections under his belt, Rivera must be wondering what he has to do to break into the top two. His post-election insistence that he, not Pablo Casado, is leader of the opposition betrayed his frustration at coming so near to pulling off a major upset.
Alexei Sayle once said: “Anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ in anything other than a light-industrial capacity is a wanker.” It’s a harsh maxim, but he was making a good point. Words matter and being honest with the words you use matters, especially in the political sphere. Yet amid the breathlessness of Spain’s recent crises and election campaigns, respect for language has been gleefully buried. Spanish nationalists are not nationalists, they’re “patriots”; Catalan nationalists are not nationalists, they’re “democrats”; parties don’t do pacts with the far-right, they form governments “a la andaluza”. And Ciudadanos, following this linguistic mendacity, are moderate, centrist liberals.