9 March 2015

The next Spanish general election could be a four-way race

Spaniards will head to the polls for general elections in the autumn, or in January 2016 at the latest. In light of the extraordinary rise of the anti-establishment party Podemos over the past year, the vote was already widely expected to put an end to the ‘duopoly’ of the centre-right Partido Popular and the Socialist Party.

As if this was not enough of a change, though, the latest opinion polls suggest Spain may well be on course to become a four-party country. This is due to the rapid surge of Ciudadanos (Citizens), a rather different beast from Podemos but yet another sign that Spanish voters are eager for something new.

According to a new Metroscopia poll published by El País yesterday, Ciudadanos would be the fourth-largest party in a general election, trailing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular by only 0.2%. As the graph below shows, support for Ciudadanos has skyrocketed from 8.1% to 18.4% in just two months.

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Ciudadanos: Who are they?

Ciudadanos is much older than Podemos. It was founded in Barcelona in 2006 as a civic platform backed by a group of Catalan intellectuals opposed to Catalonia’s independence. Since then, Ciudadanos has mostly operated as a regional party. It currently holds nine seats in the Catalan parliament and two seats in the European Parliament.

The leader of Ciudadanos is the telegenic Albert Rivera, a lawyer and a former professional swimmer who is currently a member of the Catalan parliament. Incidentally, Rivera is one year younger than Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.

Ciudadanos presents itself as a moderate, centrist force whose aim is to attract disappointed voters from both the centre-right and the centre-left. Its economic programme, called ‘The sensible change’, is being prepared by two well-known Spanish economists: Luis Garicano of the LSE and Manuel Conthe, a former head of Spanish financial markets watchdog CNMV.

The first bits of the programme, on labour market reform, have already been unveiled. The key proposals include:

  • Scrap fixed-term contracts for new hirings and introduce instead a new open-ended contract whereby workers would gain protection rights gradually with tenure. This is very similar to what the government of Matteo Renzi has just done in Italy;
  • Introduce state-funded top-ups for workers on low salaries, similar to the UK’s Working Tax Credit;
  • Improve the formation and training of long-term unemployed people, and grant tax cuts to companies that hire them.

The economic programme of Ciudadanos is still a ‘work in progress’ – and further details will be fleshed out over the coming months. The impression is that the party wants to offer voters a mix of liberalism and social democracy. According to its website, Ciudadanos wants to cut down on paperwork and time needed to start a business in Spain, open up the domestic market to greater competition and attract more foreign investments. It also envisages making budget savings by slimming down public administration and streamlining local government.

Needless to say, Ciudadanos makes a big deal of ‘democratic regeneration’ – that is, boost the transparency of the Spanish political system, step up the fight against tax evasion and corruption, and so forth.

What about Europe?

On the euro and Europe, the economic programme of Ciudadanos reads,

Spain’s progress goes via Europe […] It is now everyone’s responsibility to deal with the legacy of the [Eurozone] crisis. Furthermore, a monetary arrangement that allows for unemployment rates of over 20% during years cannot last long. We believe in more Europe, but we are aware that it is not realistic to speak of a Federal Europe now, since there is not sufficient political support to push ahead with it.

Therefore, Ciudadanos proposes that Southern Eurozone countries “seriously commit themselves to a programme of structural reforms.” In return, Northern countries will have to show more solidarity – for example by agreeing to create a common fund to fight high unemployment.

Could four be better than three?

As I said, the recent poll surge of Ciudadanos confirms that Spanish voters are fed up with the traditional two-party system. Bear in mind that it only became clear a couple of months ago that Ciudadanos would contest the next general elections in the whole country.

Compared to Podemos, the party led by Albert Rivera proposes a less radical economic agenda and can be seen as more likely to join a coalition government with one of the two traditional parties. This has two important consequences. First, it could shift undecided voters away from Podemos – particularly those who haven’t been impressed by SYRIZA’s negotiating record in Europe so far. Incidentally, the poll I mentioned at the beginning of this post shows support for Podemos has fallen by over 5% in only one month and now looks to be on a downward trend – although, of course, the party of Pablo Iglesias remains in the lead.

Second, provided it wins enough votes to be the kingmaker, Ciudadanos could offer both Partido Popular and the Socialist Party a third alternative to either an alliance with Podemos (which looks unlikely at this stage) or an uncomfortable Gran Coalición between themselves. In other words, depending on the distribution of seats in the next Spanish parliament, coalition formation might end up being easier in a post-election scenario with four big parties than it would be with just three of them.

The raft of local and regional elections across Spain over the coming months will probably give us a better understanding of the real weight of each party and the alliances that could potentially materialise at the national level.