Vanishing act

There was no clear winner in last Sunday's Catalan election, but there was a notable loser - centrist Ciudadanos. Formerly a dynamic alternative to right-of-centre voters done with a broken, unrepentant Popular Party, Ciudadanos has been slowly but surely disappearing over the last few years, and last weekend seemed to be its final vanishing act: it took seventh place, securing just six seats in Catalonia's 135-seat parliament. In the region's last election in 2017, the anti-independence party came first, taking 36 seats with 25.4% of the regional vote.

The party's former Catalonia representative, lawyer Inés Arrimadas, took overall charge nationally in November 2019, when her predecessor Albert Rivera resigned and quit politics altogether. Rivera's sudden departure was prompted by the party's disastrous performance in that month's general election, which saw it lose 2.5 million votes and 47 of its 57 seats in national congress. He did, at least, own the defeat, saying that "bad results belong to the leader". If that's true, then Sunday's drubbing belongs partly to Arrimadas in her role as president, but also to Ciudadanos' man in Catalonia, the extremely low-profile Carlos Carrizosa ("Who?", I hear you saying).

Ciudadanos, it seems, is being slowly edged out of Spanish politics, instead of retaining what was once an active, important role on the national stage. It could, for example, have filled a void by being the only party to rationally critique the Socialist government's shotgun approach to Covid, without resorting to the frothing hyperbole of Vox, or the supine compliance of the Conservatives. There has been no such voice in the Spanish parliament over the last twelve months, and consequently there's been no serious discussion about the government's restrictive measures. Ciudadanos' silence created a yawning vacuum where there should have been a questioning, independently minded opposition.

When it comes to Catalan independence, the centrist party's anti-secessionist message - the very stance on which it was founded in Barcelona in 2006 - has been drowned out by Vox's more strident rhetoric. This has won the latter party seats in Catalonia's parliament for the first time (eleven of them, in fact), which points to strong anti-independence sentiment in the region, and maybe also dissatisfaction with the Socialists' handling of the pandemic.

Ciudadanos' loss on Sunday is also attributable to the success of the Socialist candidate in Catalonia - Spain's former health minister Salvador Illa, whom many voters apparently regard as some kind of saviour for leading the government's response to Covid last year. But as Illa and his pro-independence opponents begin the long, complicated process of trying to form the region's next government, Ciudadanos can only figure out what went wrong. Hopefully, it can find a way back to the fray.