The other night, the leaders of Spain’s new political parties went up against each other in a televised debate set in a bar, with both of them sat at a table sipping coffee. It was shown on a private TV station and if you want to watch it online, the TV station seeks payment. In appearance and rhetoric, Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos seems a more convincing political leader than Pablo Iglesias of Podemos. If you go to the Ciudadanos website, the policy outline appears progressive: they say they will expand social security; they say they want a quality universal public health system; they say they want a free, universal and secular education system; they say they want a judiciary free from political influence. They describe themselves as drawing on Enlightenment values that include ‘progressive liberalism’ and ‘democratic socialism’, and call for greater citizen participation in representative institutions. Though Podemos claims that it emerged from 15M, Ciudadanos could, with equal legitimacy, and were it not for the fact that it has been around for nearly a decade, claim the same thing. Both parties are an attempt to channel the deep rejection of Spain’s political order and the search for some kind of new dispensation that characterised 15M. One could take the original Democracia Real Ya! statement that heralded the 15M explosion and map each of its statements to some aspect of Ciudadanos’s stated ideals.
Ciudadanos has been around for a lot longer than Podemos. It formed part of a pan-European alliance with Declan Ganley’s Libertas in the 2009 elections, and caused a split in its ranks by so doing: one of its high-profile members resigned based on the anti-abortion stance taken by Ganley and other groups in the alliance, but Albert Rivera persisted. Like Ganley, his US defence contractor associate, Rivera too is opposed to ‘crony capitalism’ and claims he will replace it with a more ‘reasonable’ form of capitalism.
In contrast to the claims about universality the party makes on its website, public pronouncements from party officials make clear that this does not apply to immigrants. This kind of ambiguity appeals to a particular mindset in Spanish society: people who are guided by the vague ideas about social justice cited by all parties including the Partido Popular, but who often veer into resentment towards people gaming the system for their own ends. Ciudadanos supports Spain’s membership of NATO, and its website also says it will make sure Frontex has the necessary resources to control immigration flows.
Whereas Iglesias has a vaguely counter-cultural air, Rivera is polished and business-like. I wasn’t aware of Rivera’s personal history before writing this article, and while writing it occurred to me that he reminded me of the law students at a private university whom I met when I lived in Madrid. These were people who were fundamentally right-wing in outlook, and who dressed in the de rigueur garb for the well-to-do in Spain: Lacoste polo shirts, Barbour jackets, loafers and so on, but who were able to combine this conservative aesthetic with an openness to debate, espousing convictions rooted in classical liberalism. They enjoyed and welcomed debate on social and political matters, especially when these entailed a radical challenge, because they were firm enough in their faith, and their social standing, that they would cope comfortably, even if, on the whole, their way of seeing the world was not altogether different from their Aznar-voting parents. They could agree on certain things from a radical perspective, perhaps founded on the confidence that such things would never become a reality. These are not the kind of braying halfwits one might find in their closest analogues in Britain or Ireland. I checked: Rivera is a lawyer, educated at a private university. Iglesias, on the other hand, comes across like the kind of people I used to know who studied in the politics faculty at Madrid’s Complutense university (he was, after all, a lecturer there) and whom I would accompany to parties in okupas. Their respective worlds are not so far apart, and it strikes me that the staging of the debate in a bar, in a sit-down encounter, appeals to a middle-class, university-educated political sensibility that dreams of seeing these currents collide. The spectacle of politics unfolding on these terms must be particularly appealing to educated middle-class twenty- and thirty-somethings whose expectations of upward mobility and just reward for their years of study have been dashed in long years of social and economic crisis. Perhaps many of them feel such encounters as a sign that their generation is finally being given a shot.
Rivera will appeal to people who think government is first and foremost about having technically competent officials in place, skilled managers rather than skilled orators. The uncomfortable reality for Podemos’s leadership is that the very terrain they staked out in the political arena -an opposition to corruption, a commitment to transparency, participation and social justice, young and untarnished leaders- has now been occupied by a competitor that promises the same but without the threat of radical change that Podemos’s associations with Latin America and the Spanish radical left inevitably suggest. What is more, Podemos’s competitor is viewed favourably by Spain’s business and media elites, who on the whole are not wedded to any political party in particular, and will see to it that Ciudadanos’s glaring contradictions go unquestioned.
The TV encounter garnered record audiences, with some 5 million tuning in to watch the leaders of two political parties that are not even the main parties in Spain currently. You get the sense that the contest between Ciudadanos and Podemos could soon become the foremost political contest in Spanish society, provided Podemos keeps its radical origins well hidden, its proposals moderate, and its key spokespersons at the forefront, presenting a semblance of democratic debate. People may even argue that this represents meaningful political change generated by 15M. It is a superficially attractive image. But this is a spectacle shorn of the mass open participation and horizontal democratic forms that characterised 15M and many of its outworkings. With its unerring fixation on figureheads, it is in fact geared towards de-mobilisation and passivity and hence likely to stabilise, not re-order. It is, on the whole, a dismal spectacle.