Ines Arrimadas Catalonias

Young Catalan liberal rises in challenge to Rajoy’s grip on Spanish power

Forget the traditional Socialist opposition and perhaps even the Catalan separatists: the main threat to Spain’s conservative prime minister may now come from a Barcelona politician dedicated to national unity – Ines Arrimadas.

The 36-year-old leader of the liberal Ciudadanos party in Catalonia has jumped to the frontline of Spanish politics by coming out on top in elections to the region’s assembly. Supporters even compare her performance with Emmanuel Macron’s meteoric rise to the presidency across the border in France.

Laying down the gauntlet to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the separatists alike, Arrimadas boosted her party’s share of the vote to more than 25 percent in Thursday’s snap election, up from just 7.6 percent two years ago.

That made Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) the biggest group in the assembly, ahead of parties backing either more Catalan autonomy or outright independence which had won every regional election since the restoration of Spanish democracy in the 1970s.

Arrimadas will struggle to form a regional coalition as collectively separatist parties achieved a narrow majority. Still, she celebrated victory with hundreds of supporters in the streets of Barcelona on Thursday night, flanked by her party’s national leader, 38-year-old Albert Rivera. On Friday she made an appeal for unity following October’s independence referendum which led to the Catalan leader fleeing the country, other separatists leaders landing in jail and Madrid imposing direct rule.