Europe and Nationalism:

why Spain is different

By DAVID KIRKHAM | May 20, 2019


Nationalists and far-right political parties continue to make alarming gains across Europe. Italy is led by a coalition of radical right-wing and populist parties, Austria’s government is shared with the ultranationalist Freedom Party (FPO), and Hungary has shifted considerably to the far right. In the Netherlands, the right-wing populist Forum for Democracy (FvD) – which did not even exist before 2016 – made sweeping gains during the provincial elections in March. Spanish voters, however, have remained largely resistant to any political movement that has shared nativist or xenophobic ideologies. That is, until now.

The snap election at the end of April saw the populist party Vox (Latin for ‘voice’) elected to Spain’s national parliament. This is the first time a far-right party has been elected since the end of notorious dictator General Franco’s rule in 1975. This now leaves only Ireland, Portugal and Malta as the remaining European countries resisting the spread of right-wing nationalism and populism. Espousing ultranationalist and anti-feminist ideas, Vox first sent shockwaves through Spanish politics in 2018, when it gained a foothold in the Andalucian regional elections, winning 12 seats. Now, the party has won big on the national stage, coming away with 24 seats in Spain’s third general election in four years.

But it would be wrong to characterize Spain as simply the latest European nation to be engulfed by right-wing populism. Vox’s gains by no means amount to a nationalist uprising: they fell well short of their 40-seat prediction. Rather, what is striking is the clear resilience of one of Spain’s long established parties, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (the PSOE), which dominated last month’s election, winning 123 out of 350 seats and 29 percent of the vote. In fact, the PSOE comfortably swept to victory as the largest party, though was just shy of enough seats to form a majority coalition with Spain’s major left-wing populist party, Podemos. With an increase of six percent on their 2016 election vote share, the success of the PSOE socialists starkly contrasts the general decline of centre-left parties seen elsewhere in Europe.

Granted, there are some clear similarities between Spain’s recent elections and the general European trends. One of the main takeaways has been the monumental collapse of Spain’s other big traditional party, the People’s Party (PP). In 2011, the centre-right PP won 45 percent of the vote. In April, 2019, this figure plummeted to just 17 percent, with a staggering loss of nearly 70 seats, its worst election ever. Many of these were handed to Vox, mirroring the decline of centre-right parties across Europe, which have often suffered at the hands of their emergent and more radical competitors.

Another closely-related trend, seen in Spain and elsewhere, is the increased political polarization of the traditional centrist parties. The PSOE’s success can be credited with a greater shift toward the left-wing policies of its more radical socialist cousin, Podemos. In a similar vein, the PP shifted towards the right during their election campaign, partly due to the pressure applied by the rise of Vox.

On first glance, Vox does appear to have somewhat changed the political game like Matteo Salvini’s right-wing populist Lega have in Italy, but this is where the similarities end. Misogynistic and climate-denying rhetoric aside, Vox’s message is less dominated by the immigration debate seen so often elsewhere, and is more rooted in Spain’s internal affairs, especially the Catalan independence movement.

Vox’s politics is more concerned with what it means to be Spanish in an anti-separatist sense. Somewhat alarmingly, this means harking back to the ‘traditional Spanish values’ of the Francoist regime. Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal, who does few interviews with the press, has vowed – with truly original wording – to “make Spain great again.” But where other European far-right parties have used this played-out slogan as part of an anti-EU, ethno-nationalist narrative, Vox is targeting the ethno-nationalism within Spain itself. The collapse of Spain’s centre-right conservative party can be more accurately explained in the context of Spain’s internal affairs, rather than the general decline of traditional centre parties in Europe.

Spain’s young democracy appears more politically fragmented than ever. Vox is the third new party to have emerged in recent years, following the surge in support of Podemos and centre-right Ciudadanos. Of course, it is important to not overstate the growth in support for Vox – they only mustered just over 10 percent of the vote in April’s election. But with talk of Europe’s nationalist and far-right parties attempting to organize into a pan-European power bloc in the European Parliament elections later this month, parties like Vox depressingly appear here to stay.

David Kirkham is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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