Spain’s historic liberal opportunity

Albert_Rivera_-_02Buckling under the weight of economic stagnation, endemic corruption and institutional failure, the old duopoly in Spanish politics of the right-leaning Popular Party (PP) and centre-left Socialists is finally breaking down. With just days to go until the general election on 20 December, voters look to be splitting four ways. On the hard left, Podemos has profited from the frustrations of many, but in the centre ground Ciudadanos (C’s) offers new hope for liberal minded voters.

Liberalism tends to be a dirty word in Spain. The country has had precious few popular liberal movements in its history and the label tends to be hijacked by the right, meaning many Spaniards equate the term with a “one rule for them, one for us” mentality, or corporate cronyism.

But now ALDE member, Ciudadanos dares to hope that it will not only enter parliament for the first time, but do so in style, with opinion polls showing a dead-heat between C’s and the Socialists and well within reach of becoming the largest party, overtaking the governing PP.

While Albert Rivera, the party’s Catalan leader, tends to shy away from the liberal moniker, he is not shy about co-opting the legacy of former Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, founding father of Spanish democracy. He ruled for five years between 1976 and 1981 and is widely respected as the man who put Spain on the right path after the death of Franco. Subsequently Suárez become President of the Liberal International in 1988.

Indeed, liberal values are at the heart of C’s programme. The party’s call for zero-tolerance of corruption, fairer labour laws, a better deal for the self-employed and an emphasis on education, makes it at home with its European ALDE allies. The party believes these measures will be effective in tackling Spain’s sky-high unemployment level, in contrast to the more statist solutions coming from the left.

Viewed from Barcelona, C’s also offers a liberal antidote to the toxic nationalism that has held the weather for the last few years. In Catalonia, we’ve seen politics at its most cynical, with Catalan premier, Artur Mas, using nationalism to cover his party’s corruption. The supposed conservative is now attempting to do a grubby deal with the anti-system, anti-capitalist hard left to stay in power. We’ve suffered the politics of division, with Mas’s coalition partner even asserting genetic differences between Catalans and other Spaniards. Now we have the danger of Catalonia’s top politicians deciding which laws they should abide by and which courts they can declare themselves immune from. All this from a party, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, that is absurdly also an ALDE member at the European level.

Truthfully, C’s proposals for dealing with the Catalan question are probably not ambitious enough to deal with the ongoing crisis, but no Spanish party has yet come up with a convincing way to deal with the frustrations of 48% of the Catalan population.

It’s increasingly likely that all eyes will be on Rivera in the days following the election. It seems certain that no party will have an absolute majority in parliament and assuming C’s doesn’t end up as the largest party, he will be seen as the likely kingmaker for the next government. Rivera says he has learned some lessons from the experiences of the British Liberal Democrats and will not go into government unless he is Prime Minister, but C’s has a pragmatic track record at a more local level of allowing the investiture of leaders from either the PP or Socialists in return for concrete measures to stop corruption and promote economic growth.

For the first time since the dawn of Spanish democracy this could be the liberal moment for Spain. But power isn’t going to be handed to C’s on a plate. The vested interests of the PP and Socialists are strong and the Catalan question has the potential to break Spain apart. Power and influence will require tough decisions and accommodations with uncomfortable bedfollows. Ultimately despite his best efforts, Rivera may even find that power comes with the same price that Nick Clegg paid in the UK. All that notwithstanding, what a time to be a liberal in Spain!

[Did you know that there is a Lib Dem in Spain group? If you support the party and live in Spain then do join them.]

Photo by Carlos Delgado.

* Martin Petts is a Liberal Democrat member living in Barcelona, Spain

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Very interesting and positive piece, thank you , Martin. As someone of half Italian , quarter Irish , origin, whose partner is originally from America and herself with several origins, I , especially via Liberal International , follow these stories a lot . It s much better to hear from someone at source , as you are. Wikipedia , terrific on nearly every front , does imply too many Liberal parties , internationally ,are centre or centre right ,I am never convinced . If you look at the extraordinary documents , manifesto s , declarations , etc , of Liberal International , including the first , in 1946, from Brussels , which pre dated the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights ,they are thoroughly progressive and deeply humanitarian . Liberalism , and , even , but to a lesser degree , social democracy , has always defined itself , both in of itself , and as a result of what it is up against . In countries that are fascistic or communistic , our kind of parties have leaned right a little only and mainly because of a staunch belief in , and , need for , liberty . In the US or Canada , strong democracies , they , like our party , lean centre left . Spain can claim both in its heritage .It would be good to hear more from you , martin,as things pan out , there .

  • Very interesting piece. I had pickec up that ‘liberal’ tended to be associated with the (really not at all liberal) PP, although Spain’s currently quite liberal social legislation is from PSOE’s Zapatero era. I also understood that smaller regional groupings were prouder to be termed ‘liberal’ – esp the Coalicion Canaria? In any event, I wish the Cs and also PSOE well, but fear fir the Cs if they end up returning the PP to pwer!

  • Alex Macfie 17th Dec '15 - 6:28pm

    @johnmc: That could just be the use, common on mainland Europe of the word “liberal” as a term of abuse to mean an extreme Thatcherite (without consideration of whether they are socially liberal). It holds no more validity as a definition of “liberal” than its occasional use in this country as a term of abuse to mean a Marxist Corbynite trendy-lefty.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 17th Dec '15 - 7:38pm

    Hardly liberal:

    “Ciudadanos also has a restrictive and infantalising attitude to women regarding the question of abortion. Their policies include requiring parental consent for women under the age of 18 who wish to terminate a pregnancy, and a mandatory five day “reflection period” to ensure that adult women “take a free, conscious and responsible decision”.

    The party has proposed a twelve week abortion term limit, which could only be extended in the case of a serious risk to the health or life of the mother, serious deformity to the foetus, or, bizarrely, in the case of “a rape and prolonged kidnapping lasting for more than 12 weeks”. Perhaps just as revealingly, this is the only time women are mentioned at all in their manifesto.”'s-counterrevolutionaries

  • Hannah Bettsworth 18th Dec '15 - 10:15am

    I would just like to add at this point that the reason I’m affiliated to Ciudadanos (think £3 membership of Labour but without having to spend money or getting as many voting rights) is that the PP sent me a letter attacking C’s for being *too liberal* on abortion!

    Of course, for someone like me who wants it to be legal to have an abortion on demand without having to justify a medical decision, I’m more radical than pretty much all political parties. However, C’s policy is pretty much in line with most other EU states – they say as much in the link Martin gave in that they want to be like Germany/France/Italy/Denmark. It’s not actually too far off our own laws with the two doctor requirement, which I think needs lifted but wouldn’t stop me backing a party!

  • Thomas Shakespeare 18th Dec '15 - 11:47am

    I still think some of the rhetoric on women is troubling. The leading candidate in Cantabria said ‘Ciudadanos wanted women “to be at the centre of the family” and that legislation should help women “develop all of their femininity”. ‘

    I agree that its great that there is a strong liberal movement in Spain but I’m concerned that some of their language and policy positions don’t natch their core values.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 18th Dec '15 - 11:48am


  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Dec '15 - 11:58am

    Thomas, I agree some of the language is not as we would wish it to be in our own country, but I think as Hannah says, Spanish society is coming from a different place and a journey towards greater equality is to be welcomed, even if some of the framing rhetoric is confusing and obfuscatory.

    For a comparator, I invite you to look at the history of the debate in Ireland on similar issues, and the positions taken up in the past by ALDE observer-party Fiann Faill.

  • Hannah Bettsworth 18th Dec '15 - 12:09pm

    I think the important point there is how the leadership deals with people who step out of line – which, if you’re quoting the Spain Report, is detailed in the next line: “Mr. Rivera said he did not share Dr. Pracht’s opinion on abortion and that current Spanish law on the matter was adequate.”

    I also defended (and voted for) Ogra Fianna Fail’s entry to LYMEC – sometimes you have to accept that member parties in other states won’t meet all of your standards and that if you have them in your group they’re then in your sphere of influence, as opposed to seeking ideological perfection and hindering development of the European liberal movement.

  • I remember when the liberal Democratic Alliance first became the official opposition in South Africa, the ruling ANC ran a major propaganda campaign to try to portray the DA as “racist”. All total rubbish, but it was uncritically swallowed by much of the left-leaning political commentariat over here. I have a feeling the same sort of thing is happening with Ciudadanos.

  • Hannah , Alex . Excellent . Thomas , good points , but we have the most secular and thus , relaxed society, on abortion , practically in Europe . I loath the issue being party political , once we were the party of David Steel and David Alton , would that we were now . Justin Trudeau , an otherwise good Liberal , disgracefully , in my view , and I say it as someone who favours legal abortion , on becoming Liberal leader of Canada , announced , in that party , no candidate would be selected who disagrees with his , and the so called party view , on abortion . This is wrong . these issues , as Tim Farron , and most in the uk apart from the far left , feel , should be for individual conscience .

  • Jonathan Brown 20th Dec '15 - 7:34pm

    Really interesting article Martin, thanks. I’ve been aware of C’s for a while but my Spanish isn’t good enough to be able to understand the nuances of their policies.

    One thing I find very encouraging, and this is sort of in answer to wary questions about how right wing or left wing liberal parties are, is the emphasis on fighting corruption and being in favour of reform.

    We are so used in this country to seeing the principle political axis as being left/right on an economic spectrum, that even we Lib Dems, who reject this as being too simplistic a definition of politics, can miss the importance of alternative ones. In many countries I think the fight against corruption is probably more important than the governmen’t nominal position on a left/right axis, as the effects of corruption on politics, the economy, society, everything, can be so toxic.

    All of my Spanish friends, no matter where they see themselves on the left/right political specturm or what their views on Catalan independence are, see corruption as a huge problem.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Mark Frankel
    This strikes me as a bit overblown. The American civil war killed 600,000. What will be the death toll under a new Trump presidency?...
  • Martin Gray
    Centrist governments support the rules of international order. Sadly , when it comes to the Palestine those rules , those values , have all but been abandoned...
  • Peter Hirst
    For all its faults, America remains a democracy and we must retain our links. Brexit allows us to show flexibility in our strategic relations. We must now allow...
  • David Raw
    As a long time student of political history who first joined (and was employed by) the Liberal Party way back in 1962, I've come to believe that the basic quali...
  • Peter Hirst
    Putting country before party seems to me to be quite apposite in the context of the last decade. The Party system is a weakness of our present structures. It is...