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In Spain, small town is laboratory for new era of compromise politics

Source: Reuters - Tue 15th Dec 2015
In Spain, small town is laboratory for new era of compromise politics

The local politics of this small Spanish town known for beach horse-racing and manzanilla wine offer a window into the ambitions of Ciudadanos, the centrist party most expected to shake up Spanish government in years to come.

As junior partner of a leftist local government for the past eight years, Ciudadanos has helped drive the economic agenda it is campaigning on nationally ahead of December 20th elections: namely, whipping an old and costly bureaucracy into shape.

City debt has been cut to EU62 Mln from EU108 Mln in 8 years. The number of civil servants has fallen to 700 from 1,300. And politicians now need approval from the city council for any official expense of more than EU100.

"The situation used to be chaos. Finances were upside down," says Juan Marin, a businessman who led Ciudadanos' first campaign in Sanlucar and was deputy mayor between 2007 and 2015, when the party joined the local Socialist government. "Both parties shared a sense of emergency and worked efficiently."

What goes down in Sanlucar, a town of 63,000 people, may not go down at the national level, of course. Unlike neighbours Italy and Greece, Spain has little experience in coalition and consensus governing.

Still, opinion polls suggest that Ciudadanos will fare well enough in the upcoming elections to have big influence on how Spain is run in the future.

The 10-year-old liberal movement burst into the political limelight this year thanks in part to a telegenic 36-year-old leader. It is expected to become the third party in parliament after the elections.

This means that, depending on the performance of Spain's two main parties - the ruling Popular Party and opposition Socialists - Ciudadanos could become the main playmaker in parliament for a national government run by either side.

The party says it wants to offer a third way in European politics by reconciling the welfare-tightening and other austerity measures Spain is undertaking to protect its economy from further shocks with measures to rekindle growth.

It is a recipe that others in Europe, most recently the centre-left government of Matteo Renzi in Italy, are trying to follow as well.

In Sanlucar, Ciudadanos' efforts to cut public administration costs have had a positive effect: the city's public accounts have been in surplus for five years in a row. That's allowing the local government to work on changing an outdated tax system that has hampered local business.

Critics say Ciudadanos has done little to improve basic economic problems in Sanlucar, including a unemployment rate of 41%, the highest in Spain among cities of more than 40,000 inhabitants.

Many of the roads and the typical white houses of the old town need refurbishment, residents say. And Sanlucar lacks key tourist services that would allow the city to capitalise on some of Spain's best beaches and historical heritage.

"Take the sports halls, which Marin was in charge of. Did they improve? No. He was just a crutch for the socialists," says Antonio Rodriguez, a 52-year-old builder.

PUSHING FROM THE SIDELINES

Still, Ciudadanos' style of governing alongside a ruling administration is an important litmus test of how the party could influence national economic policy.

So far, neither the Popular Party nor the Socialists have said they would want to form a coalition government with Ciudadanos should they fail to get enough votes to govern alone.

Ciudadanos' leader Albert Rivera says that, even if asked to join a government, his party would prefer to provide support from parliament benches without actually having ministry portfolios.

This year, Ciudadanos took this outside-support approach in Sanlucar as well. After eight years as a junior government member, the Ciudadanos members of Sanlucar's city council withdrew from the Socialist administration. Instead, the party has partnered with the Socialists on a case by case basis to pass laws.

Ciudadanos is doing the same at the regional level, where Marin is now a member of the assembly of Andalusia. In June, for example, the party backed the socialist regional government in its inaugural confidence vote in exchange for a pledge that the administration would introduce laws to fight corruption. More recently, Ciudadanos gave its support to the annual budget after certain economic measures it wanted were included.

Recommended Reading :

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* A Guiri's guide to the Spanish election

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