Why you should care

This young Barcelona politician could make a splash on Spain’s national stage as he takes a minority position at home. 

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So many Catalan flags drape from Barcelona balconies these days that unsuspecting tourists might think it’s a festival. The capital of Catalonia — the highest contributor to Spain’s economy — is gearing up for a referendum on Nov. 9 in which Catalans will say whether they’d like to split from Spain. Madrid says the vote’s illegal. The regional government stands firm. Each side accuses the other of “undemocratic behavior.”

Albert Rivera just asks: “Why can’t we all get along?” The 34-year-old Catalan politician is leader of the young centrist Citizens Party which, under the slogan “Better United,” is telling Catalans that leaving Spain won’t solve their problems: namely, an unemployment rate of 20 percent, underfunded healthcare and educational systems and the largest public debt in the country.

He’s swimming against a tide of dissatisfaction with the Madrid government. And yet, he’s more than holding his own, even building a platform to move to a national stage.

He oozes self-assurance, with the manner of the young ambitious banker he was before entering politics.

Rivera’s political party launched eight years ago as a civil movement founded by intellectuals. “It feels it was only yesterday that I was distributing fliers on the street,” the young politician tells OZY, sitting in his small cubicle office in the Catalan parliament. Rivera and his colleagues were tired of nationalist rhetoric, and wanted transparent funding regulations, open electoral laws and Europe-friendly policies. Citizens want all parties to hold primary elections (as they do) and a politically independent judiciary. They also propose to boost the economy by cutting public administration and using the savings to support entrepreneurs and small businesses. In the context of Spain’s politics, it’s a radical reform agenda.

In 2006, the party got a foothold in Catalonia’s parliament and has been growing ever since, after successfully pushing to cut politicians’ salaries during the financial crisis and launching a major corruption inquiry. While still the smallest party in parliament, they managed to triple their seats in 2012 and this year won two representatives in the European Parliament. Now they want to break into national politics. “It gives me a little vertigo. But you know what they say when you have vertigo: you should look at the horizon,” says Rivera.

Albert Rivera

President of the anti-separatist Citizens Party, Albert Rivera speaks during a rally in Barcelona, Spain.

Source David Ramos/Getty

Rivera argues with eloquence — he’s a lawyer — and looks comfortable sporting an all-blue denim outfit and a sneaky smile that seems to suggest he knows a secret. He oozes self-assurance, with the manner of the young ambitious banker he was before entering politics. After arriving late to the meeting, he downs a coffee and sneaks glances at his watch as he talks. “This job is just non-stop, 24/7,” he complains, making it hard to get quality time with his 3-year-old daughter; he shares custody with her mother.

He knows he’s out of the local mainstream. Eighty percent of the region’s parliament voted for the referendum. Support for Spain’s ruling People’s Party, also against the referendum, is plummeting. But the Citizens Party is gaining. “They still have a lot of potential for growth,” says Luis Garicano, professor at the London School of Economics and author of Spain’s Dilemma. “They are new, they are fresh, and there are a lot of Catalans that could support them and are afraid to speak against separatism in public.”

While Catalonia’s pro-independence president Artur Mas argues that the vote will strengthen the region’s democracy, Rivera thinks that the president’s “with me or against me” strategy is dividing the Catalan people. “They’re creating two sides by focusing on what make us different,” says Rivera, “They are … saying, ‘Spain is stealing from us.’” Actually, only about half of the region’s national tax outflow is being reinvested into Catalan services. With a local annual fiscal deficit of roughly 11 billion euros in 2011, and the economic crisis still taking its toll, many Catalans would rather keep the money.

The Citizens Party’s newness could appeal to many Spaniards whose trust in the establishment is at a record low.

“Maybe one day he’ll see his arguments are those of a Spanish nationalist,” says Carles Campuzano, a congressman for Catalonia’s ruling CIU party, throwing a dirty word at him. Rivera’s views have made him the target of intimidation, threats and insults — including anti-Catalan and fascist — harking back to the hated Franco era. But Rivera says Catalans are no different from other Spanish. “It’s ethically wrong to raise a border between equals,” he says.

Growing up in Barcelona as the son of two shop owners, he says learned to appreciate hard work and had, as he puts it, “a thirst for justice.” He studied constitutional law and joined his university’s debate team — a background that is now coming in handy. He’s confident the rogue vote will not take place. Still, someone didn’t get Rivera’s memo. A huge clock in front of the city council counts down to the date of the vote. A sense of happy anticipation fills the air, as the latest polls suggest the “yes” will win.

Even so, Citizens could thrive on a national stage in the space between the Socialist Party, which is losing steam due to internal bickering, and the ruling PP, which is riddled with corruption scandals. Opposing Catalan secession could give Citizens street cred elsewhere. And Citizens’ newness could appeal to many Spaniards whose trust in the establishment is at a record low. “They want to change the system without rocking the boat much,” says Garicano.

Rivera teases when asked whether he’ll run for president of Spain in the 2015 elections. “It would be interesting to help my country after having helped my home,” he says. Yes, interesting, no doubt.

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