Ciudadanos and Anti-Politics

En los próximos meses los portavoces de las élites tratarán de convencernos de que los problemas de España se solucionan con un plan renove, con leves cambios de caras y con medidas cosméticas alineadas con el discurso de recuperación del Gobierno. Por eso hay que recordar algunas cosas evidentes, como las que señalaba Olof Palme: no se puede estar con los privilegiados y con los golpeados por la crisis al mismo tiempo.

[In the coming months the spokesmen of the elites will try to convince us that Spain’s problems can be solved with a revamp, with personnel changes and cosmetic measures in line with the Government’s discourse of recovery. So we must remember some obvious things, like that which Olof Palme was pointing to: you cannot be with the privileged and with those hit by the crisis at the same time.]

Pablo Iglesias

During a lecture in Madrid last year, the historian and intellectual Perry Anderson claimed that the new anti-establishment left in Spain found itself in “a uniquely fortunate position” in comparison to similar parties in other EU states. Unlike in most European countries, where left populist forces have had to compete with strong right-wing movements to win the support of those who have lost out under neoliberalism, in Spain only one anti-systemic movement had emerged, Podemos, which had become completely dominant. Anderson put this anomaly down to the fact that the traditional hard right in Spain, “in all its worst aspects”, had been “absorbed and incarnated” within the ruling Partido Popular, whose reactionary nationalism, closeness to the Catholic Church and wild anti-communist/ anti-bolivarian rhetoric had ensured that no political space to the right of it could open up for a new movement. Yet if a year ago it looked like the disillusionment and anger of voters would find expression in terms of a straightforward dichotomy between the traditional parties and the left-wing Podemos, what was not foreseen was the possibility of a fourth party emerging as a major electoral force, not by outflanking the PP to the right on issues such as immigration and traditional national values (as has been the case with UKIP and the Front National) but by occupying a rather ambiguous space in the centre. Through combining a mix of pro-market economic reforms and a defence of the existing constitutional framework, on the one hand, with a program that also espouses strong anti-corruption measures, more socially liberal values and a commitment to defending certain core public services, on the other, Ciudadanos has gone from being a small pro-Spanish party within Catalan regional politics to quite possibly holding the balance of power after next Sunday’s general election, all within the space of one year.

            Looking at the triple crisis Spain is currently undergoing (representative, socio-economic and territorial) what I want to argue is that part of what is so seductive about Ciudadanos’ discourse is its anti-political nature, which explains Spain’s woes in terms of a lack of good governance rather than, as with Podemos, in terms of an underlying conflict of interests. Seeing no need to confront the predominance of corporate and financial power either within the political institutions or across Spanish society, Ciudadanos have instead promised a return to prosperity solely through sound economic management and a series of innovative reforms,  all the while skilfully avoiding taking clear cut positions on more divisive issues such as growing income inequality, unsustainable levels of household debt and the epidemic of home evictions.

               Key here has been how the party leadership around Albert Rivera has been able to craft an effective narrative that concentrates on castigating the PP and Socialist Party as overseeing an anachronistic form of crony capitalism, while also, at the same time, offering disillusioned voters an alternative for  the regeneration of Spain based on the an idealized Northern European model of clean accountable institutions and a more dynamic economy. As with Podemos, here Ciudadanos differentiates between the old politics of bipartidismo and the new era of change, with Rivera even at times employing Pablo Iglesias’ favoured term of la casta to underline the oligarchic nature of Spain’s corrupt and out of touch governing class. Yet, while Podemos also employed this term as a way to emphasize the stark opposition between the shared interests of the political and economic establishment and those of the social majority, for Ciudadanos positive political change is not to be understood as coming from this type of “antiquated logic” of ‘us’ and ‘them’ partisanship but rather requires a much more inclusive and measured reform process. Here Rivera claims that by offering a program which does not seek to oppose workers and entrepreneurs, the self-employed and pensioners, nor which simply criminalizes either large corporations or unions, his party is uniquely positioned, as a truly transversal force, to govern Spain in the interest of “the immense majority”.

The Economic Crisis

In socio-economic terms Rivera explains his party’s transversality with the idea that “we are economically liberal and socially progressive” (“nosotros somos liberales en el económico y progresista en la social”). Hence Ciudadanos defends core public services, such as health and education, as universal rights that must be defended against cuts and austerity, while at the same time proposing structural reforms in the economy along established EU  lines as already undertaken in Austria and by Renzi in Italy. Such a recycled third-way stance is used to great effect by Rivera who, like Iglesias, is a skilled communicator and media professional that generally appears at ease debating on TV political panel shows and whose public persona, which blends no-nonsense pragmatism with civic minded concern, has resonated with many angry middle class voters hit by the crisis. Yet, at the same time, there are clear contradictions with this catch-all approach. These are nowhere more evident than in the party’s most widely discussed economic policy, el contrato unico, which is a proposal to reform the labour market so as to abolish the current two-tier system between temporary and permanent contracts. According to Ciudadanos this proposal seeks to address two key aspects of the economic crisis in Spain: increased precariousness of work and unemployment (which is still at 21% seven years after 2008). In terms of the first point, 40% of those in employment have a temporary ‘contrato basura’ which were originally designed for seasonal work such as tourism and fishing but which now are being used by companies as a way to minimize labour costs and employee benefits, with millions of workers trapped in a series of unstable short-term contracts lacking basic right, such as access to holiday and sick pay or collective representation. What Ciudadanos propose is a single type of employment contract that would ensure the same rights for all positions, regardless of the length of the contract, thus not only offering greater protections to those on short term contracts but also incentivizing companies to hire more permanent staff. While Rivera sells this measure as a robust and practical solution to an acute social problem, which successive reforms of both the Zapatero and Rajoy governments have been unable to get to grips with, it has also become obvious that such an equalization of workers rights would in reality involve a reduction of protections for the 60% of workers already on a fixed contract. In particular the right to statuary redundancy payments would be heavily curtailed, thus making it cheaper and easier for companies to let staff go.

            This downward equalization of worker rights exemplifies Ciudadanos’ wider approach to solving the economic crisis, which emphasizes the need for measures that “favour innovation and the reduction of obstacles blocking growth in businesses” (‘favorecer la innovación y reducir las trabas que impiden el crecimiento de las empresas”). Here the key to recovery is about freeing business from what they see as Spain’s over-regulated economy so as to encourage investment and stimulate “entrepreneurial spirit” across society. A clear implication of this discourse is that in the name of economic efficiency, the more zero-sum questions of wealth and income distribution are to be marginalized within the party’s discourse. Governing for the “immense majority” involves tackling the immediate crises of unemployment and precariousness, which, in turn, requires leaving aside questions such as falling and stagnant wages or the injustice of home repossessions so as to concentrate on sound economic management and the implementation of the type of market reforms that can supposedly tackle these overriding social problems. Here practical solutions must trump claims to social justice.  This logic can be seen in how Rivera rejected Podemos’ proposal for raising the minimum wage during his recent one-to-one debate with Iglesias:

Deseo activar la economía y ayudar crear empleo, no le destruya…la riqueza primera generarla y luego distribuirla…Insisto de una salario mínimo todo que lo queremos, 1,000, 1,200, 1,800 euro pero es que vaya menos contratos y quiero que contrate mas gente.

(I want to activate the economy and help create employment, not destroy it… wealth is first generated and then distributed… I can insist on a minimum salary of whatever you want, 1,000, 1,200, 1,800 euro but this means less employment and I want more people employed.)

Rivera continues by dismissing the relevance of Iglesias’ example of Scandinavian countries, where increasing the minimum wage after the crisis in 2008 has helped boost economic demand, and thus in turn economic activity, insisting such Keynesian policies are only possible in places like Denmark because they were already wealthy. Hence for all the party’s professed transversality and political centrism what one gets, then, is in fact a rather strict and orthodox form of neoliberalism were the only path to growth is by creating a business-friendly environment that will incentivize companies to invest and expand. From this ideological perspective, the costs of the recovery cannot be borne by capital but will have to come at the expense of of workers’ rights and the immediate welfare of the low-paid.

The Political and Territorial Crises

 In many ways it is surprising that Ciudadanos have managed to sell these economic policies as part of a programme for change, as they form a continuity with those pursued in Spain, and across Europe, over the last decades. Yet when combined with their stances on corruption, electoral reform and Cataluña, they have managed to present themselves as standing for a pragmatic but real alternative to the political establishment. The common framing employed by Rivera across each of these areas (the promise of modernizing Spain, bringing it in line with (northern) European standards) has been very effective in giving the impression of the party as an agent for what they themselves call “sensible change”. Here it is easy to sneer at less political voters who, lacking a clear idea of what constitutes their collective interests, tend to be more attracted by this supposedly non-partisan line. Yet at the same time, it is a discourse which has managed to speak to many of the core issues that people are concerned with in a way established parties have been unable to.

For example in relation to Cataluña, Rivera and Ciudadanos have managed to stake out a position that chimes with that of the majority in Spain, distinguishing themselves from the irresponsibility and jingoism of both the PP and Arthur Mas’ Convergencia Democrática de Cataluña, who together have driven the confrontation over independence for their own electoral gain, as well as the marginalized PSOE whose support in the region has collapsed. Having accepted they cannot hope to win a majority in Spain’s new electoral map and instead wanting to mobilize its core right-wing vote, the PP has engaged in a dangerous stand-off with Mas, portraying itself as the sole defender of Spanish territorial integrity and national sovereignty. In contrast Rivera has struck a more moderate note, putting forward a compromise that while maintaining the current constitutional system would devolve greater powers to the regions. He has called for dialogue and engagement with Mas and other pro-independence groups, and has articulated an outward-looking sense of Spanish identity  which he describes as post-national. For many Spanish people there has been something very attractive about a Catalan leader claiming he is proud not only to be Catalan but also to be Spanish and European. Such a discourse spoke to their desire to protect Spanish unity while, at the same time, offering an image of a more cosmopolitan Spain firmly positioned within the wider EU that reflected their own liberal values.

On the question of corruption, the party has been very successful in presenting itself as a break from the cronyism of the past – promising good governance, greater transparency and international best practice. While their analysis avoids drawing the type of deeper systemic connections that Podemos have made between the recent series of political scandals in Spain and the wider way political and corporate elites have come to be closely intertwined in recent decades, they have proposed a number of substantial reforms. Firstly they would make it a legal requirement for all parties to hold open primaries so as to break with the opaque and centralised closed list system in which candidates are simply chosen by the party hierarchy. Secondly instituting an external and independent auditing system for parties, similar to that required for organizations in other sectors, with a strict set of sanctions for any irregularities. Thirdly ending political appointments to the judiciary and to the boards of regional saving banks (or cajas). Fourthly banning the bizarre practice in Spain whereby the two main parties partially fund their election campaigns through loans from banks and financial institutions. Fifthly tackling the rampant revolving door system by barring minsters from working in the same sector as their ministerial brief for an “ample period” after leaving office. Here by endlessly repeating the idea that they are the party with “clean hands” and having avoided the type of vicious smear campaign that the Spanish media have directed at Podemos, Ciudadanos have made the issue of corruption their own. Together with their proposals for a more proportional electoral system, they have projected an image of a party with real reformist zeal.

Yet how long this message of modernization can actually remain appealing to a large section of the electorate is another question, particularly if they enter into government with the PP after the election. The promise of transcending ‘politics as usual’, of replacing partisan strife and endless ideological disagreement with good governance and sound policy, appears an attractive option for many within the largely depoliticized middle classes . Yet the reality of implementing strict EU deficit targets and the type of market reforms laid out in  Ciudadanos’ electoral programme would render such rhetoric meaningless before long. Hence while it is true that the progressive nature of many of their institutional reforms does distinguish them from the staleness of the established parties, this hardly seems likely to be able to take the edge off the harsh pill of four more years of austerity under a PP led government.

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