Ciudadanos received the third highest vote share in the Spanish general election in April, however several key figures recently resigned from the party, citing leader Albert Rivera’s decision to pivot toward the right of the political spectrum and engage with the radical-right party Vox. Ben Margulies writes that the affair highlights some of the difficulties new liberal parties like Ciudadanos face when dealing with challengers on the radical-right.

The Spanish newspaper El País recently ran an article about the leader of the country’s main liberal party, Ciudadanos. Titled, “Albert Rivera, en la tormenta perfecta” (Albert Rivera, in the perfect storm), the article describes the party and its leader as pinned between “two great storms,” as it attempts to manoeuvre through the fragmented landscape produced by the recent Spanish general and regional/local elections. Rivera has a tricky course to navigate, one that has already begun to fragment his relatively young party and strain its European alliances.

In many ways, Ciudadanos is living a problem common to some – though not all – centrist and centre-right parties in Europe and elsewhere. Specifically, it seems such parties and alliances are increasingly suffering divisions over their positioning towards the populist radical right. These seem especially acute under two sets of circumstances: first, when the centrist party specifically proclaims itself to be part of a specifically liberal or anti-populist project, as Ciudadanos has; or second, when there is a tradition of excluding the radical right through a cordon sanitaire, which can split parties and party alliances between defenders and critics of the cordon.

How is this playing out in Spain? Ciudadanos, founded in 2006, is one of several new formations that has emerged on the national stage in the past decade as corruption and austerity capsized the previous two-party system. Initially, Ciudadanos portrayed itself as a liberal, centrist party that sought to supersede left-right divisions, a theme Emmanuel Macron later took up in France. It also marked itself out as an opponent of Catalan nationalism – the party was founded in Catalonia, and Rivera, its first and only leader, is Catalan. It “defined itself as not nationalist, liberal and social democratic.”

Following its initial breakthrough in 2015, Ciudadanos was willing to forge coalition deals with the centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) as well as the conservative Partido Popular (PP). The Catalan secession bid of 2017 marked a sharp departure from this strategy. It triggered a hard-line centralism on the part of Rivera’s party, which demanded the suspension of Catalan autonomy. Then, when the PSOE toppled the conservative Rajoy government in June 2018 and opened talks with Rajoy, Ciudadanos responded with charges of treason. Rivera called the Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, ‘the preferred prime minister of all Spain’s enemies.’

Albert Rivera, Credit: ALDE Party (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Catalan crisis also provided an opening for Spain’s first successful populist radical-right party, Vox, which won seats in the Andalusian assembly in December 2018 and then the national legislature four months later. The weakness of the PP led Rivera to attempt to replace it as the leading party of the right, which paradoxically forced it to adopt a clearer right-wing profile. At the same time, any effective right-wing government now required Vox.

It was the emergence of Vox that created the “perfect storm” of El País’s article. Ciudadanos has chosen to align itself with a clear right-wing bloc, including the PP, the main party of the Spanish right, and Vox. This has meant aligning not just with Vox’s distaste for Catalan nationalism and Spanish quasi-federalism, but also with Vox’s hostility to immigrants, feminism and contemporary laws around gender-based violence. In Andalusia, it meant accepting Vox’s support for a PP-C’s regional government. Since the April/May election cycles, it has meant Ciudadanos at least considering tolerating such agreements with Vox at the regional and municipal levels, and refusing under any circumstances to support a new Socialist government in the Congress of Deputies in Madrid.

But these twin policies – the absolute veto against Sánchez and the ambivalent courting of Vox – have begun to fracture the party. In June, two members of the party’s executive committee, economics spokesperson Toni Roldán and MEP Javier Nart, resigned in protest at Rivera’s turn towards the right. Roldán condemned Rivera’s refusal to form a government with the PSOE, and the alliance with the far right (“How can we lead a liberal project if we don’t separate ourselves from the far right, which are its opposites?”). A pair of Ciudadanos figures publicly expressed support for the dissidents on social media.

Of course, not all liberal or centre-right parties reject alliances with the far right. In fact, it’s quite common, as Tim Bale observed way back in 2003. Dutch, Danish and Norwegian liberal parties have all entered pacts with populist radical right parties. But Ciudadanos’s history and the Spanish context mean that it cannot embrace the far right as forthrightly as some centre-right parties do. This is in part because the party emerged as a sort of centrist riposte to the two-party system – as Roldán put it in his resignation speech, “We came to overcome the dynamic between reds and blues and we have become blues.” An alliance with the far right is hard to sustain with such a heritage.

Ciudadanos identifies itself as part of the liberal party family, and as an ally of Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche. But the Macron project for European liberalism is specifically Europeanist and anti-populist, at least rhetorically. Rivera’s swerve to the right has not been greeted warmly by Macron and his party, which denied commending Ciudadanos for its coalition policies. The pressure from Macron and his European project has further complicated Rivera’s position.

Centre-right parties and alliances can also find themselves at odds over the question of a cordon sanitaire. In some countries – notably Germany, France, Sweden and Belgium – it has been customary to renounce any sort of pact with the populist radical right, whether in the form of a coalition government or informal governmental support. The question of breaking this cordon, or of moving towards the right to win back populist voters, can prove fractious.

Sweden provides one good example of this latter type of intra-right conflict. From 2006 to 2018, Sweden’s four centre-right parties formed a common Alliance for Sweden, holding government from 2006 to 2014. When the alliance began, Sweden had no populist radical-right party in its parliament. However, the Sweden Democrats (SD) first entered the legislature in 2010, and have technically held the balance of power since. In 2014-18, the right had to tolerate a left-wing government in office in order to preserve the cordon. In fact, the common right-wing strategy began to break down during the term of this parliament: the Moderates began to advocate forming a right-wing government with Sweden Democrats’ support, which the smaller Centre Party (once the farmers’ party) refused to support.

In the 2018 election campaign, the Moderates and the Christian Democrats said they would accept SD support to form a right-wing government; the Centre and Liberal People’s parties would not. (Notably, the Moderates lost voters to the Sweden Democrats and the Centre Party in almost equal measure.) When the Sweden Democrats won 17.5 percent of the vote and again held the balance of power, the Moderates tried to form a government on their terms, but the Centre and Liberal parties responded by voting down the Moderates’ candidate. Ultimately, the Centre and Liberal parties chose to tolerate a centre-left government.

As in so much of European politics, much of the division within the contemporary centre-right stems from the growing divide between a preference for a liberal, transnational, cosmopolitan order – the pole represented by Macron – and a more national-conservative order. This divide between liberals and conservatives has long existed on the right, and partly explains the diversity of centre-right party families (liberals, Christian democrats, secular conservatives). What is distinct now is that the emergence of the populist radical-right has compelled conservatives to choose between sets of values that did not conflict so strongly before. These choices are much more moralised than more materialistic, socioeconomic policy preferences – imposing a cordon sanitaire indicates a strong moral aversion to a certain political actor.

The exhaustion of contemporary neoliberal elites has, in Spain and France, reinforced these conflicts. New centrist parties have emerged in both countries with the goal of renewing the post-1989 order, with a “Third Way” stance reminiscent in some ways of the 1990s. However, the populist radical-right is precisely opposed to that order, meaning that these new centrist parties cannot credibly align with the radical right without causing internal disputes and possible reputational damage. These new Third Way parties may enact immigration restrictions individually (as Macron has), but they cannot simply risk their identity and brand by aligning with their polar opposites.

Many centre-right parties will continue to engage in alliances with the populist radical-right or far right without any serious internal ructions. However, the growing moral divide between liberals and nationalists on the right – especially in societies where this division finds embodiment in a cordon sanitaire – means that such alliances may become more divisive in some contexts should the radical right remain strong. Similarly, new liberal parties promising a regeneration of the status quo will automatically put themselves at odds with the radical right, and may struggle to convince their own supporters and militants to accept tactical alliances.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Ben Margulies – University of Brighton
Ben Margulies is a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Brighton.

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