Is it and advantage for Albert Rivera and his party (Ciudadanos) to be Catalan? Or is it a hindrance? The jury is still out on that one but when they return a verdict, we will learn something about what Catalonia and Spain will be like in the future. I am quite certain that Rivera would rather face the huge challenges that lie ahead without such an annoying appellation contrôlée. He would much rather just be the leader of another normal Spanish political party. In fact --if I may--, Rivera would want Catalonia to be just like any other piece of the peninsular mosaic, as Spanish and as different as Murcia and Asturias. That is precisely the raison d'être of Ciudadanos. If Rivera ever won an election in Catalonia or Spain, you could argue that his dream would start to come true. For now, though, this is highly unlikely.
Presently Rivera is caught between a rock and a hard place. Good old Spain bares her teeth at him, because of his first name, too. It wasn’t a football hooligan but the Spanish government’s representative in Andalusia who recently stated that he would not want his land to be ruled “from Catalonia” by a politician named “Albert”. The incident may be somewhat trivial --it certainly is for those of us who have long given up on the idea of a plurinational Spain--, but I reckon that those who believe in democracy ought to say something about it in Spain. To me, the incident reeks of institutional bigotry. Otherwise, what would have happened if Rivera had been criticised for being Basque, Aragonese, Romani or from northern Africa?
Perhaps it is Rivera himself who should have said something. For instance, he could have said that the president of Catalonia until 2011 was Córdoba-born José Montilla. But while the leader of Ciudadanos may not renounce what he often calls “my homeland”, he dare not go as far as praising its internal diversity. That would deny his own discourse, which is based on the notion of a Catalonia gripped by bigot nationalists. His former sidekick in parliament, Jordi Cañas, often equates them with nazis.
Montilla or Mas
Therefore, Rivera chose not to mention Montilla, but his successor, Artur Mas. Mas is the favourite bogeyman of Spanish Spain. Anyone who has a go at him --be it Rivera or Bono-- will always get their reward. So Rivera has replied to the gibes of the PP in Andalusia with a time-honoured slogan (“Catalonia is Spain”) and a wicked accusation: “Is it, perhaps, that you agree with Artur Mas?”. It is a gentle reminder for the Spanish public opinion that Albert and Artur may both be Catalan names, but there are good and bad Catalans. Some Catalans are loyal while others are not. Rivera is one of the good guys and it is shocking that he should have to remind us, after so many hours on telly and so many front page stories.
What about in Catalonia? Yesterday the entire pro-independence camp was having a ball following Rivera’s trouble with southern Spain. It is very true that you can only but chuckle when the nemesis of Catalan nationalism comes under attack precisely for being Catalan. However, I am certain that a clever politician such as the leader of Ciudadanos will come up with a way to turn the situation to his advantage. He will use this opportunity to centre his image and come across as the victim of two radicalisms. That might work in Spain (to a point), but he can’t use the same strategy in Catalonia, where Ciutadans’ purpose is to corral separatism. If he refuses to put up a fight, Rivera might just become irrelevant. A century ago, Francesc Cambó was told that he could not expect to be Bismarck and Bolívar all at once. Likewise, Rivera will struggle if he hopes to be Roca and Lerroux at the same time (1).
(1) N.T. Miquel Roca and Francesc Cambó were two Catalan politicians who sought a political career in Madrid, with limited success. Alejandro Lerroux’s role in Catalan politics was akin to Albert Rivera’s today, albeit in the 1930s