Spain is among the western European countries hardest hit by the corona virus. By mid-May, the country had more than 270,000 COVID-19 infections, and more than 27,000 dead from the disease. Madrid metropolitan area accounted for a third of all deaths, Catalonia for a further fifth. Against that, Andalusia, Spain’s most populous autonomous community, accounted for a mere five percent of all deaths. However, estimates are that the toll could be much higher than official figures suggest.
Conventional wisdom was that given Spain’s long history of right-wing dictatorship under Generalissimo Franco, the country was largely immune to radical right-wing populist temptations. And for a long time – with a few short-lived exceptions, most notably the populist adventure of the former president of Atletico Madrid, the late Jesús Gil y Gil, who in 1991 was elected mayor of Marbella and founded his very own political party, named G.I.L. (Gruppo Independiente Liberal) - this largely held true. Only recently the country saw the emergence of a radical right wing populist party with the spectacular rise of Vox. This rise started in the regional election in Andalusia where the party won 12 seats, which propelled it into the national limelight. A few months later, Vox garnered 10 percent of the vote in the first of 2019’s two general elections; in the year’s second election – following the collapse of negotiations on the left - in November 2019, Vox became the third largest party, more than doubling its seats in parliament.
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What differentiates populist parties in general, and radical right-wing populist parties in particular, is that they appeal primarily to a range of emotions – anger, indignation, nostalgia and especially resentment. Radical right-wing populist parties derive their appeal to a large extent from their ability to mobilize resentment against “the left.” There is a universal radical right-wing populist narrative that charges, as the prominent Dutch leader of the Forum for Democracy, Thierry Baudet, has insisted, that the left – intellectual, cultural, political – since as far back as the 1960s has consistently pursued a strategy aimed at destroying “bourgeois society, bourgeois traditions, the bourgeois way of life of ordinary people” and thus finally establish the egalitarian “utopia” which informed all self-proclaimed progressive movements since the French Revolution.
What differentiates populist parties in general, and radical right-wing populist parties in particular, is that they appeal primarily to a range of emotions
The case of Vox is exemplary, given the composition of the current Spanish government – a coalition between Spain’s traditional socialists (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos. Unidas Podemos is a left-wing populist party, whose association with Spanish communism and Latin American populism – and particularly chavismo – makes it the epitome of everything the right, and here particularly Vox, detests.
Vox’s rhetoric is entirely focused on evoking diffuse feelings of resentment among parts of Spain’s population with respect to immigration and particularly the growing presence of Muslims; gender in its different manifestations; the question of Catalan independence from Spain, and climate change. All of these issues being championed by Unidas Podemos, and the fact that the deputy prime minister, María del Carmen Calvo Poyato, is a woman with a long record of fighting for gender equality and against sexism and gender violence. makes Vox’s disdain for the current Spanish government comprehensible.
It is quite logical that Vox has appealed to those nostalgic for the days of Franco when “work, family, and the fatherland” – as the official motto of Vichy France went – still dictated life in Spain, ‘when men were still men, and women knew their place in the family and in society’. These were the days when Catalans and Basques knew they better speak castellano if they did not want to get into trouble. These were the days when Spain was one country under God, led by western Europe’s most reactionary Catholic Church, which supported Franco’s clerical authoritarian regime, with el Generalissimo as His faithful servant.
Today, this is no longer the case. As elsewhere in western Europe, religion has lost much of its grip on society; women are no longer content playing a subordinate role in society; and the relatively affluent Catalans and Basques are no longer prepared to foot the bill for the corruption and mismanagement that has prevailed during most of the past decades when the conservative Partido Popular led by Mariano Rajoy, was in power.
Vox has promoted itself as the advocate of Spain’s relatively poorer regions, such as Andalusia, which depend on the transfers that come from Spain’s most productive and affluent regions, such as Catalonia. Just as important, Vox promoted itself as the party that was most adamant to stop the flow of migrants from the other side of the Mediterranean. Among other measures, the party advocated building a wall around Spain’s North African enclaves, Melilla and Ceuta, which had become a magnet for African migrants seeking to reach Europe. At the same time, the party’s leader, Santiago Abascal declared that he would restore the constitutional order in Catalonia and ban all “separatist parties”.
Abascal’s avowed goal, heavily influenced by Trump’s former advisor, Steve Bannon: Hacer a España Grande Otra Vez (make Spain great again), which prominently figured on Abascal’s facebook account. Charging that the “oligarquías políticas” (the political elite) no longer believed in “our country;” that, in fact, the separatist politicians (i.e. the Catalan independence parties) and the left in general “hate the idea of Spain,” Abascal vowed as early as 2016, that is way before Vox exploded onto the national stage, that he would do everything to restore “our national pride and our national self-esteem”. This was not only directed against what Abascal considered Spain’s internal enemies and detractors, but also against the European Union, which he charged, in its current form, of posing a fundamental threat to Spain’s sovereignty.
With the COVID-19 crisis, with hundreds of deaths throughout the country, the traditional politics of resentment has lost much of its traction
Until recently, inciting anti-Catalan and, by extension, anti-left animosities was Vox’s ideational stock-in-trade. With the COVID-19 crisis, with hundreds of deaths throughout the country, the traditional politics of resentment has lost much of its traction – particularly when Catalonia mourns significantly more deaths than Andalusia. Under these circumstances, the notion that the (relatively) poor south (i.e. Andalusia) is being shortchanged as a result of Catalan egoism is largely reduced ad absurdum. With the closing of Europe’s internal borders, migration has become a moot question. And with Muslims forced to forego all of the rituals traditionally associated with Ramadan, Islamophobia is hardly a winning issue either. At the same time, however, the COVID-19 crisis has provided a number of opportunities for the populist radical right to exploit.
One of the central issues these days is how governments cope with the crisis. Here Spain does not appear to have done particularly well. In early April, a poll commissioned by ABC , Spain’s leading conservative daily, revealed that more than two thirds of the Spanish population had the impression that the government was not up to the challenge. Even more thought that the country’s main opposition party, the Partido Popular, was even worse. By mid-April, public confidence in the way the government handled the crisis had somewhat improved; but it was a far cry from the approval ratings some leaders, such as Angela Merkel in Germany or Sebastian Kurz in Austria, boast elsewhere in western Europe https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2020-05/ipsos_cevipof-rapport-international-coronavirus-avril.pdf .
In a special Covid-19 investigation, the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) found fewer than half of respondents expressing confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis; and less than 20 percent thought that the main opposition party would do a better job. At the same time, however, almost 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the opposition parties and their leaders should cooperate with the government as much as possible and leave their differences to a later date. A poll from the end of the month reconfirmed the public’s strong longing for national political unity as well as the largely negative view of the government’s handling of the crisis: more than two thirds of respondents thought that the government would come out weakened from the crisis
There is a second major issue associated with COVID-19 that promised to boost Vox’s political fortunes – the question of how to dampen its disastrous economic impact. The question exposed deep divisions in the eurozone, leading to acrimonious mutual recriminations among member states. In the debate, Spain joined Italy in strongly supporting the issuing of “coronabonds” as a vehicle for debt mutualization. The idea was rejected by Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland, fiscally “responsible” member states vehemently opposed to pooling liabilities with their “profligate” southern neighbors. This left the latter humiliated and embittered and considerably soured public support for the EU, particularly in Italy, but also in Spain.
In late April, in a representative poll, roughly half of respondents said they felt “less European” than before the crisis; 90 percent agreed that the EU was doing little or nothing to help afflicted countries; and about 90 percent thought that the EU was now weaker than before the pandemic.
Curiously enough, neither widespread popular disaffection with the government nor equally widespread disenchantment with the European Union have helped Vox to advance in the polls. The fact that, at the onset of the crisis, the party was quick to advance a 10-point plan supposed to meet the threat posed by the virus did not help either. Among the proposed measures, consistent with the party’s “skeptical” position on climate change was that Brussels uses the money destined for “climate emergency” to meet the looming health and economic emergency instead. The party also publicly apologized for having held a mass meeting in early March, which potentially exposed the participants to the virus. In fact, a few days after the meeting, the party’s Secretary General, Javier Ortega Smith, was tested positive, forcing the party’s whole parliamentary group to self-quarantine.
Neither widespread popular disaffection with the government nor equally widespread disenchantment with the European Union have helped Vox to advance in the polls
On the contrary, in a recent poll, support for Vox actually declined noticeably, abruptly reversing precious trends. Aware of these trends, the party’s leadership has pulled out all the stops to mobilize popular resentment and gain political traction. During the coronabond controversy, the party ratcheted up its EU-critical rhetoric. Charging that the EU continued to be subservient to a “globalist ideology” (mundialismo), the party called for a fundamental reform of the EU and its institutions. In response to the government’s obvious failure to deal with the crisis - which took a particularly heavy toll in Spain’s homes for senior citizens - Vox charged that this was nothing short of a policy of “euthanasia” and notified that it would sue the government for criminal malfeasance.
At the same time, leading Vox representatives tried to stir up anti-Chinese resentment. As early as March, a Vox official from Madrid had sent off several highly offensive tweets which directly blamed the Chinese for the pandemic and Chinese tourists for disseminating them in Spain. At around the same time, Ortega Smith, from his self-quarantine, sent off a tweet in which he assured his followers that his “Spanish antibodies” would fight and defeat the “wretched Chinese viruses”.
A month later, at the height of the coronabonds controversy, the party once again tried to play the anti-Chinese card. A leading party representative alleged that the Europeans were kowtowing to China, “which had exported the pandemic and which dominated her (i.e. Europe) economically”. A second one quoted American right-wing news sources (i.e., the Washington Times and Fox News) claiming that the virus had originated in a secret lab in Wuhan where it had been designed to level the global economic playing field and allow China to compete with the United States. The author was Vox’s spokesman, a lawyer who in the past had distinguished himself claiming that funds designed to go to the victims of gender violence, in reality, were used by feminist organization “to map the clitoris”. Again, the author’s recourse to a conspiracy theory was quite a rational strategy, given the fact that, according to a poll from late April, almost half of the Spanish population believed that the coronavirus had been created intentionally.
None of these strategies proved particularly effective in enhancing Vox’s political fortunes. In fact, the party’s attempts to discredit the government’s efforts to deal with the crisis quite likely backfired. In the representative poll cited above, two thirds of respondents agreed that the diffusion of “bulos” (fabrications, hoaxes) on social media should be prohibited.
The assertion that the virus was intentionally created certainly belongs in the category of fake news – as does the notion that the government was intent on letting elderly citizens die from the pandemic. Any serious political party that claims that there might be such a policy deserves the public opprobrium it will receive.
To be sure, at the end of this crisis, Spain’s coalition government is hardly going to emerge unblemished. Particularly, Unidas Podemos will have to do a lot of explaining, as will Vox. Neither of them is in a particularly strong position. Those who have promoted populism as a panacea for the very genuine ills affecting liberal democracy might want to study the Spanish case. Their enthusiasm might take a significant dent.