Now, boosted by the separatist crisis which his centrist Ciudadanos party has long fought against, Albert Rivera has big ambitions — dethroning Spain's current prime minister and becoming the first Catalan premier since the country transitioned to democracy in the 1970s.
“I want to govern Spain also as a Catalan… to have a very clear vision of what has to be done in Catalonia with regards to nationalism,” he tells AFP.
Separatism not over
In 2006, when Ciudadanos was founded in Catalonia to fight against growing nationalism and regional corruption, national politics was but a far-flung dream.
Now though, it is the fourth largest party in the Spanish parliament and the most voted in Catalonia where its anti-independence stance resonates with hundreds of thousands.
But it still has limited power in the region, as its 36 seats out of 135 in the regional assembly can't counter the 70 lawmakers of the three separatist parties.
Rivera warns against under-estimating the separatist movement, part of which has renounced any unilateral break from Spain after an unsuccessful attempt on October 27th.
“The Catalan separatist movement is going to take a half step back to regain strength,” he tells AFP.
“Spain as a country and Europe as a continent and an union must prepare for a political and intellectual battle against nationalism,” he says.
At a national level, opinion polls say Ciudadanos is on the rise on the back of the Catalan crisis.
Polling firm Metroscopia even puts it ahead of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP).
Rivera, a former company lawyer and ex swimming champion, insists his party's rise is not a mere flash-in-the-pan, even if opinion polls have in the past overestimated his grouping, known for its trademark orange colour.
The PP, he says, is weathered.
Critics of Ciudadanos accuse the party of being a more modern version of the conservatives, having accepted to back the PP in 2016 in order for Rajoy to be able to rule with a minority government.
Rivera retorts that was in exchange for social reforms, fighting corruption and implementing more transparency.
The PP “isn't doing anything,” he says, accusing the party of “not cleaning up corruption” which has long dirtied its image.
“Mariano Rajoy, by nature, after some 40 years in politics, doesn't appear to be a reformer, a dynamic man,” he says.
Fan of Macron
Rivera's tone changes, however, when he talks about French president Emmanuel Macron.
He “is a model to anyone that believes in a new way of doing politics and anyone who is liberal and progressive,” he says.
Just like Canada's Trudeau, he adds.
Rivera believes a party can be liberal on economic issues and progressive on social matters.
Where Catalonia is concerned, Rivera — along with his party's leader in Catalonia, Ines Arrimadas — backed tough measures in the fight against the separatist crisis.
After a declaration of independence on October 27, Rajoy put the semi-autonomous region under direct rule from Madrid, and sacked its government.
Rivera says the region, where 47.5 percent of voters cast their ballot for separatist parties in December regional polls, needs “a 10-year plan, a strategic plan.”
Rivera and Ines Arrimadas, the leader of the Catalan branch of the party celebrate their party's success at the polls in the December regional election in Catalonia. Photo: AFP
Ciudadanos is often accused of adopting a hard line against separatist voters — the same accusations leveled against Rajoy — unlike the more conciliatory stance adopted by the Catalan Socialists, also against independence.
Rivera retorts the independence movement must be respected – while stressing that respect must likewise be accorded to “those who aren't pro-independence, who respect the law and want to be Spanish.”