The radical right comes to Spain

After this week's election in Spain, the far-right party Vox now has its first MPs. But it is too early to say if we are seeing a resurgence of Spanish nationalism. 

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The emergence of populist, radical right party Vox has unsettled Spain’s political mainstream. In an election held in Andalusia – the country’s most populous region – on 2 December, the party obtained 10.97 percent of the vote and 12 of 109 seats in the regional parliament. Having won 395,012 votes (up from just 18,422 in the previous election), Vox now has its first MPs at the national or regional level. This is a remarkable achievement for a party that Santiago Abascal, a former member of Spain’s conservative People’s Party (PP), created just five years ago – and that has the support of divisive former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and his far-right associates across Europe.

In the run-up to municipal, regional, and European elections in May 2019, and with a snap general election likely given the poor performance of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s party in the Andalusia vote, there is a real possibility that Vox will gain significant influence in city halls, regional parliaments, and even the European Parliament. The Spanish mainstream fears that opinion polls, which misread the electorate’s mood and underestimated the strength of Vox in the Andalusia election, will also fail to gauge support for the party next year.

Many Catalans’ embrace of populism, nationalism, and other forms of chauvinism has led to the emergence of a mirror-image movement on the Spanish right

The second most important story of the 2 December election is the historic losses incurred by the Socialists and the rise of Ciudadanos, a liberal party that aims to mimic French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! This shift will undoubtedly have nationwide repercussions. Having dominated the Andalusian Parliament for 36 years, the Socialists lost 14 of the 47 seats they had in the last parliament and are set to enter opposition. Meanwhile, Ciudadanos, whose number of seats rose from 9 to 21, is the kingmaker in forming the next regional government.

The Socialists’ losses stem partly from local factors, such as the electorate’s weariness with the status quo and a series of corruption scandals involving the mismanagement of employment funds. But many observers also blame Prime Minister Sánchez’s awkward parliamentary coalition with the left-wing Podemos, as well as Catalan pro-independence parties whose leaders have been imprisoned on charges of rebellion.

As the Andalusian vote was the first election outside Catalonia following the anti-constitutional bid for secession there last year, voters appear to have rewarded the two parties that spoke out strongly against Catalonian independence – Ciudadanos and Vox – and punished those they perceived as too mild-mannered on the issueBetting on this reading of national sentiment, Pablo Casado and Albert Rivera, leaders of the conservative People’s Party (PP) and Ciudadanos respectively, are urging President Sánchez to convene a snap election.

Vox’s main message is that the Spanish nation needs to be saved from Catalan and Basque separatism, immigration, secularism, political decentralisation, and European integration. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s warm words for Vox following the Andalusian election speaks to the type of allies Abascal seeks. While Vox is not an authoritarian far-right party in the style of Greece’s Golden Dawn, it adopts positions typical of European populist radicals on religion, immigration, personal freedom, and several other issues.

Does this point to a resurgence of the kind of Spanish nationalism widely thought to have died out? It is too early to say. Yet it seems clear that many Catalans’ embrace of populism, nationalism, and other forms of chauvinism has led to the emergence of a mirror-image movement on the Spanish right. Of course, similar parties have emerged in other European countries that have no Catalonia-style issues, so Catalan secessionism may be only one of several factors in Vox’s rise. Nonetheless, politics in Spain will be polarised and emotionally charged for years to come, to the detriment of centrist coalitions.

Due to their poor electoral performance after only six months in a parliamentary coalition together, the Socialists and Podemos are now unsure whether to conduct a snap election and thereby test the apparent weakness of their government is real. However, if parliament fails to pass Sánchez’s 2019 budget in the coming weeks, they may have little choice in the matter.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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