Can Europe Make It?

Saviours of the nation? – on the breakthrough of the radical populist right in Spain

Attacking the symptom (i.e., the populist radical right) is not going to do the trick – not in Spain, not in the rest of (western) Europe.

Hans-Georg Betz
7 May 2019
Javier Serrano, from the far right VOX party campaigning in regional elections in Andalusia, November 2018.
Javier Serrano, from the far right VOX party campaigning in regional elections in Andalusia, November 2018.
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Jesus Merida/PA. All rights reserved.

Last week's parliamentary election marked a turning point in post-Franco Spanish politics. For the first time since Spain's transition to democracy in the late 1970s, a party clearly situated on the far right of the political spectrum (i.e., Vox) managed to gain a substantial portion of the national vote And although Vox fell short of its own and some analysts' expectations, its impact proved highly significant – albeit not necessarily for the reasons analysts had anticipated.

Pre-election surveys strongly suggested that neither the center-right (Partido Popular and Ciudadanos) nor the center-left (PSOE and UPodemos) would garner enough seats to form a majority government. Under the circumstances, it was expected that Vox would have an important role as "king maker," as had occurred in the wake of the regional election in Andalusia in late 2018.

As it happened, things did not exactly turn out that way. For one, Vox's ascent in the polls provoked an extraordinary left-wing counter-mobilization, which primarily favoured the traditional left, i.e., PSOE. At the same time, VOX's mobilization came to a large extent at the expense of Spain's traditional center-right, i.e., the Partido Popular, which suffered a historical defeat, losing roughly two thirds of its seats in Spain's lower house, the Cortes.

Overly dismissive

A year ago, a major article published on Slate.com largely dismissed Vox's chances to become a major political force in Spanish politics. While acknowledging the potential appeal of the party's rather idiosyncratic programmatic mix, the author reasoned that "a look at Spain’s post-Franco history suggested there was a good reason why far-right populists hadn’t been successful, and probably wouldn’t be in the near future.” Not only had Spain's post-war history immunized the country against the far right; Spanish attitudes towards migrants appeared to be far less negative than was the case in the rest of western Europe. The same supposedly held true with respect to the question of Islam, one that was rapidly becoming a political issue. And while Spanish nationalism in the face of urgent aspirations for independence (particularly in Catalunya) was of great concern to many Spaniards, the Partido Popular seemed to have a solid grip on the issue.

As it turned out, even knowledgeable and astute analysts can be profoundly wrong. Apparently they underestimated the extent of anger, resentment and political disaffection that propelled a significant number of voters to support a "political formation" that transcended the limits of the outrageous, even by contemporary European radical right-wing populist standards.

In the "old days" Vox would have been relegated to the "lunatic fringes" of politics, a prime example of a conspiracy-driven politics that should not be taken seriously. In contemporary European politics, this type of party is courted by mainstream parties, primarily of the centre-right, but hesitatingly also of the centre-left (as occurred in the aftermath of the regional election in Andalucia late last year) – parties which will now do just about anything to either hold onto power or have some chance to capture it.

Vox's fulminant rise in the polls is largely owing to its ability to mobilize a diverse constituency, united in their shared disgust with the political establishment. Reminiscent of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, Vox appeals to a slew of disparate groups in Spanish society, ranging from Francoist nostalgics bemoaning the passing of yesteryear to fundamentalist catholics, opposed to the progress made by women and society's recognition of LGBT rights, and also to those who fear that immigrants will ultimately "replace" indigenous Spaniards – a seemingly legitimate worry given the country's precipitous demographic decline, which reached a "historic peak" in 2018.

Memory and nostalgia

Vox and its leader, Santiago Abascal, have managed to translate the anger, resentment, anxieties and grievances of these relatively circumscribed but distinct constituencies into a panoply of programmatic positions, which mark a decisive break with the dominant discours of the past several decades.

Like similar parties in western Europe, Vox appeals to a diffuse sense of nostalgia among distinct minority groups in Spanish society, irritated if not offended by the rapid pace of sociocultural upheaval and disruption – reflected particularly in the questioning of traditional gender roles and of such linchpins of traditional Spanish cultural identity as bullfighting.

From a larger European perspective, Vox's "irruption" onto the limelight of Spanish politics is hardly surprising – particularly after the AfD's entry into the German Bundestag. In both countries, historical memory was supposed to have immunized voters against the sirens of radical right-wing populism. Yet in neither country, has the supposedly impenetrable psychological cordon sanitaire managed to thwart the onslaught of anger and resentment-driven radical right-wing populist mobilization at the polls – confounding specialists' opinion. So what has gone wrong?

The Catalan question

The most obvious answer is the importance of the "Catalan question." Vox is the ultimate, most determined guardian of national unity – this is the image Vox has been trying to project. As Vox's leader, Santiago Abascal, in a recent interview with the doyen of France's nouvelle droite, Alain de Benoist, put it, Vox "is a party that defends national sovereignty," a "sovereignty that's indispensible for the preservation of our identity and our democracy." [i]

It is hardly a coincidence that Vox's electoral breakthrough happened last year in the Andalusian regional election. Polls have shown that Andalusians have been particularly opposed to any kind of concessions on the Catalan independence issue. For most non-Catalan Spaniards, Catalunya is an integral part of the Spanish nation. In their view, what motivates Catalan separatists is above all economics, i.e., the notion that Catalunya would be so much better off without the rest of Spain, reflected in the slogan of the promoters of Catalan independence, España nos roba (Spain is robbing us blind). This slogan is informed by nationalistic Catalan sentiments to the effect that, firstly, Catalans are "hardworking people" and second, that "someone is stealing their wallet or arresting their economic progress." That "someone," of course, is the rest of the country and particularly economically relatively "left-behind" regions, such as Andalusia.

For those familiar with the history of the Lega Nord (now simply Lega) in northern Italy and the Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) in Belgium, these sentiments are nothing new. With one crucial difference: in northern Italy and in Flanders, both affluent regions compared to the rest of the country, it was regionalist economically-inspired resentment that fueled populist mobilization. In Spain, it is regionalist resentment in Spain's richest region that has provoked a radical right-wing populist backlash in the Spanish "heartland" strong enough to pierce the country's "immune shield", sustained until recently by the collective memory of the Franco regime.

Strong men who break the rules

Promoting itself as the guardians of Spanish unity has allowed Vox to implant itself on the country's political scene, despite the fact that the vast majority of Spaniards consider Vox a party of the extreme right; and regardless of a slew of statements by its leaders that are outrageous even by the relatively low standards of contemporary radical right-wing populist parties.

Thus one of Vox’s elected officials recently came up with the brilliant idea of introducing a "day of hetero pride." The man in charge of its economic program believes that the rich are being "discriminated" by the fiscal authorities and now proposes to privatize the health and education sectors and to dismantle the public pension system. One of its candidates for national elections was forced to resign after maintaining that the Holocaust is a "topic that continues to be suspect" (un tema permanentemente bajo suspecha). Finally, Vox's leader, not to be outdone by his lieutenants, has not only gone on record charging that climate change is nothing but an invention of "pressure groups and ideologies that go against the national interest;" but has also accused George Soros of "redoubling his efforts to advance the Islamization of Europe and promote chaos on the continent".

None of these statements have dissuaded voters disenchanted with Spain's version of politics as usual from casting their vote for Vox. In the Andalusian election at the end of last year, support for Vox came to an overwhelming degree from disenchanted former Partido Popular voters – an expression of protest rather than agreement with the programmatic propositions advanced by Vox.

In the months that followed its success in Andalusia, however, Vox's positions have become even more extreme than they already were before. And this not only on the question of Catalunya and regionalist demands in general (here Vox proposes abolishing regional autonomy altogether). On immigration, Vox calls for the construction of a wall around Ceuta and Melilla, Spain's enclave cities on Moroccan territory. On Islam, Vox calls for an end of state financial support for Spain's Muslim associations, suspected of promoting fundamentalism. Gender is referred to as an anti-male ideology, and for climate change see above. In short, its position on the Catalan question has allowed Vox to advance a political program that includes virtually all major "issues" cultivated by the radical right in the "West" today.

Democratic distemper

The "paranoid style" once evoked by the eminent American historian Richard Hofstadter to characterize the less savory aspects of American political history has reemerged with a vengeance – if largely as a pastiche -– on the populist radical right in contemporary western Europe.

The upsurge of Vox in recent months provides ample evidence of the appeal of a political narrative that feeds on conspiracy theories and negative emotions. Like similar parties throughout Europe – the appeal of Vox is symptomatic of a profound democratic distemper among a significant number of the electorate, which is not easily "fixed." Attacking the symptom (i.e., the populist radical right) is not going to do the trick – not in Spain, not in the rest of (western) Europe.

[i] La vague populist gagne l'Espagne, éléments, April/May 2019, p. 82.

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