At the end of Catalonia’s last election campaign, in 2015, a group of journalists who had been following Inés Arrimadas over the previous weeks presented her with two joke gifts: a magic wand and a Barbie doll.
The former was a reference to Arrimadas’s oft-repeated insistence that Catalonia’s nationalists were using the idea of independence as a “magic wand” that would solve all the region’s social and economic problems. The Barbie, meanwhile, was given to her because a comedy programme on the Catalan public television network had portrayed Arrimadas as exactly that: a photogenic but vacuous doll. The gift was the journalists’ way of saying that she had proved that to be a laughable notion.
Arrimadas, the leader in Catalonia of the unionist Ciudadanos party, accepted both presents in good humour, but two years later, she can afford to laugh a little harder.
At 36, not only has she become the leading unionist figure in the northeastern region, but polls have suggested that her party is a contender to win Thursday’s Catalan election.
“I’m convinced we can win, that there can be an alternative,” she told a group of foreign journalists recently. “If you go out there looking for a draw you lose, but if you go out looking to win, you might just win.”
Arrimadas has come a long way since being dragged to a Ciudadanos event in 2010 by a friend to see the young leader of the party, Albert Rivera, speak. At the time, Ciudadanos was a new force that was only present in Catalonia, where it was founded in a bid to counter the nationalists who had controlled the region's government almost uninterruptedly for three decades. "I was expecting a boring political thing but it wasn't like that," Arrimadas later said of the event. "It seemed to make so much sense."
She quickly worked her way up the party hierarchy despite not being Catalan – originally from the southern city of Jerez de la Frontera, she moved to Barcelona in 2006.
Ciudadanos went nationwide in 2014, presenting itself as a centrist, regenerative force, seeking the votes of those who were angry at systemic corruption and tired of two-party politics. An articulate and forceful unionist presence in the regional parliament, in 2015 Arrimadas became the party’s national spokesperson and its leader in Catalonia, just as the tensions surrounding the region’s sovereignty started to boil over.
“They have always had a very tough anti-independence pedigree, right from the start,” says Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “Ciudadanos first made a name for themselves as an anti-nationalist party, so when things are polarised they are likely to benefit.”
The polarisation has increased since October, when the Catalan government of Carles Puigdemont staged a contentious, outlawed independence referendum. A unilateral declaration of independence ensued, before the central government triggered article 155 of the constitution, allowing it to introduce direct rule. Arrimadas and her party were enthusiastic advocates of that step, making them hate figures for many in the independence camp.
In October, the town of Llavaneres, near Barcelona, formally declared Arrimadas and several other public figures personae non gratae due to their support for direct rule. She has made a point of campaigning there in recent days.
"The atmosphere is ugly [in Catalonia], it's uncomfortable," says Arrimadas, who is married to Xavier Cimas, a moderate nationalist. "It's an ugly atmosphere within certain families and friendships, between colleagues in the workplace. The fractured social co-existence in Catalonia is evident."
At times the confrontations have gone beyond the pale. In September, one woman posted a violent message on Twitter, saying she hoped Arrimadas would be gang-raped (soon after being identified, the woman lost her job).
But while Arrimadas and her party are seen as the voice of reason for many pro-union Catalans, others blame Ciudadanos itself for unnecessarily raising the temperature between Madrid and Barcelona. The party’s strident opposition to Catalan and Basque nationalism and hostility to the leftism of Podemos make it divisive in many quarters and have led to accusations of being right-wingers in centrists’ clothing.
When conservative former prime minister José María Aznar expressed admiration for the party recently, it seemed like a double-edged compliment.
But few doubt that Ciudadanos and Arrimadas have benefited from the Catalan crisis, their polls rising lately not just in Catalonia but across Spain. Some polls have suggested that on Thursday the party will win the most votes, if not the most seats (an anomaly caused by the fact that more votes are required to win each seat in big urban areas, where Ciudadanos is strongest).
Perceived as toxic
But even if she does win overall on Thursday, Arrimadas could struggle to gain the parliamentary support she would need to become the next Catalan president. Her support for article 155 makes her toxic to the three nationalist parties, while the Catalunya en Comú Podemos coalition and the Socialists see her as too far to their right.
"Arrimadas won't be president this time," noted commentator Isidoro Tapia in El Confidencial newspaper. "Her turn will come in four years."
Nonetheless, a strong showing would reinforce the status of Ciudadanos as a threat to prime minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) nationwide and Arrimadas as a force to be reckoned with.
“These elections are historic, they are extremely important for Catalonia, for the whole of Spain and for the whole of Europe,” she has said. She might have added that they will also be crucial for the leading figure of Catalan unionism.