BARCELONA (Reuters) - Albert Rivera, the 35-year-old leader of upstart political party Ciudadanos, has become Spain’s best-rated politician by cutting through his country’s increasingly volatile politics with a simple message: moderation.
Though it was founded nearly a decade ago, Ciudadanos(“Citizens”) has in recent months risen quickly to the top of opinion polls ahead of a general election that many see as Spain’s most important in 30 years.
A dire economic crisis and corruption scandals that engulfed both the business and political elite have encouraged new entrants to Spanish politics over the past couple of years. One such is the leftist Podemos party that caught international attention with radical anti-austerity slogans similar to those of Greek’s ruling far-left Syriza.
Rivera, however, wants to infuse Spain’s politics with more transparency, accountability and meritocracy through what he calls “sensible change.”
He calls for dialogue among parties, business leaders and unions and pledges moderate free-market policies, including tax policies to encourage entrepreneurship and more spending on research and development.
“People want profound changes but they also want to keep what is working, like the welfare system, a productive economy, the constitution or Europe and the euro,” Rivera said in an interview.
“Those who come to our political rallies are the people who made the transition to democracy in the 1970s and their children who want to preserve their legacy,” he said from his tiny office in the basement of Catalonia’s regional parliament in Barcelona.
The polls show Rivera’s approach is striking a chord.
A Metroscopia survey released last week showed the party had around 20 percent of the general public’s vote - up from just 8 percent in January and on a par with Podemos, the ruling People’s Party (PP) and the opposition socialist party PSOE.
Over the last 12 months, Ciudadanos party members have expanded 10-fold to 22,000. Some 100,000 people have signed up as sympathizers.
Appreciation for Rivera himself is also on the up. The former lawyer, who often wears jeans with a formal jacket in parliament and is sometimes referred to as a “posh rebel”, is consistently rated as the country’s most well-regarded politician in opinion polls by a wide margin.
Nonetheless, some others remain skeptical of Rivera and accuse him of caring more about publicity than policy.
In Catalonia, where the party was founded nine years ago, many people remember him best for appearing naked on a campaign poster for regional elections in 2006.
Others recall his tendency to speak Spanish in the regional parliament, where the official language is Catalan. He angered opponents, but gained headlines.
Ada Colau, who will run for Barcelona town hall in May as the leader of a coalition of left-wing parties including Podemos, says Rivera and Ciudadanos are no more than a creation of top business people to maintain the status quo.
“They say they want change but their candidate to the town hall elections in Barcelona is a former member of parliament for the PP who has been engaged in politics for decades,” Colau said.
Still, political analysts say that Rivera’s knack for holding the center-ground puts him in a strong position to broker power after the next election should neither the Socialists nor the ruling PP party gain enough votes.
According to people close to the ruling administration, PP leaders are trying to build bridges with Rivera, even though Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is challenging him in public. The socialists are calling Ciudadanos the “civilized right” and have said they could secure an alliance with the party.
But Rivera, whose Ciudadanos sits alongside Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Germany’s FDP and France’s Modem, says he is not interested in discussions unless the other parties change.
“The scenario (after the elections) can be one of chaos but it can also create new opportunities. It will depend whether we, the new parties, can provide not only change but also stability and whether the old ones assume that the current political cycle is over,” he said.
Should those conditions be met, he added, Spain could recover the spirit of consensus that helped the country secure one of the quickest transitions from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s.
“We’re at a similar moment. Of course today we have democracy but the democratic regime needs a profound review, a second transition,” said Rivera, whose office wall bears a poster of Martin Luther King and his phrase: “I have a dream.”
The other change Ciudadanos wants is economic.
It has pledged to increase funding for education, research and development and pass a wide-ranging tax reform to boost entrepreneurship and create jobs for the close to five million unemployed - one fourth of the workforce.
But it recognizes that Spain’s current economic climate will not fund widespread spending, pointing out that high-speed trains and other costly infrastructure projects may have to take a back seat.
And despite years of austerity measures, Rivera says it is inevitable that some sacrifices still lie ahead.
The party announced in February that its economic manifesto would be handled by London School of Economics’ professor Luis Garicano, a move that drew widespread approval from Spanish business elites and international financial analysts.
Reporting by Julien Toyer; Editing by Sophie Walker