Graffiti artists have added social commentary to many of the billboard advertisements in Madrid, and election campaign posters are no exception. The improbably smooth forehead of Albert Rivera, who leads Ciudadanos, has ‘fascista’ written all over it.
The would-be Banksy of the Madrid metro doesn’t elaborate, but the charge seems unlikely. Rivera’s party is, by (almost) anyone’s definition, firmly in the centre ground; it’s endorsed by Guy Verhofstadt, the former Prime Minister of Belgium and one of Europe’s leading federalists.
Images of Pablo Iglesias, who leads Podemos, are mostly left alone. Perhaps the vandals like his pony tail, or his parties proposal of a universal ‘citizen’s wage’. After all, spray paint isn’t cheap. He is, however, vilified in the pages of El Pais and Tiempo. One conservative commentator called his party a ‘modernized expression of nihilism’ and a ‘threat to liberal democracy’.
Such emotionally charged rhetoric is understandable in context. Spain’s political elite are experiencing a rout. For almost forty years, power has been passed like a baton between the conservative Popular Party, which represents the fag-end of Francoism, and the left-of-centre Socialist Worker’s Party, which isn’t nearly as radical as its name suggests. For the first time since Spain embraced democracy, neither party has won a majority of seats in the Cortes Generales.
Yesterday, Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party won the largest share of the vote, taking 123 seats – 53 short of an overall majority. The Socialists won 90 seats, and Podemos won 69 seats. Ciudadanos came fourth with 40 seats. This is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, Spain’s voting system is even more anachronistic than our own; it over-represents small, rural constituencies, which advantages the established political elite. In other words, this shouldn’t happen. Secondly, revolutions are supposed to be brought about by revolutionaries, a word which describes neither Rivera or Iglesias.
The Podemos manifesto borrows more from Piketty than Marx. Behind the bluster, this is a party of old-school social democracy. Its charismatic young leader gives barnstorming speeches in which he derides cuts to welfare and public services, and talks about an economy built on something more than ‘speculative bubbles’. Iglesias’s interest in Latin America’s pink tide has been used against him, but it is worth mentioning that he is an academic too.
Ciudadinos is variously described as centre-left and centre-right. It’s rather like the BBC in that respect; those who criticise it reveal their own bias in doing so. It was initially formed to oppose Catalan independence. The ‘citizens’ are socially liberal (they want to legalise prostitution and marijuana) and economically conservative. Individual members have been accused of association with the far right, but this is far from endemic. Rivera describes his programme as ‘Reform without break; change, but not revolution.’ His speeches are punctuated with references to statistics, which is hardly the hallmark of a demagogue. Before the election Iglesias talked about the ‘historic compromise’ that would have to be made if the polls were proven right. These are not the words of a man who represents a threat to liberal democracy.
As Francesco de Carreras Serra, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Barcelona, writes in El Pais: ‘You don’t have populist right-wing parties, or xenophobic anti-European and anti-immigration parties, your emerging parties are modern, with young leaders and very capable communicators.’
In Britain small parties that threaten to tear down the system always fail to do so. These political abortions make their excuses; first-past-the-post usually takes the blame. But in Spain this difficulty has been overcome, precisely because the men leading the movements are so credible. They aren’t extremists, despite what their opponents say.