A new far-right movement in Spain threatens to shake the Spanish political class, but not everything is as it seems, with a resurgent left winning the elections.
Spain, long considered immune to the populist wave sweeping Europe, has seen a populist surge by the Vox Party even though the Socialist Workers Party (SPOE) won Sunday’s elections in Spain.
A tide of populist, xenophobic and anti-globalisation parties has swept through several European countries. In Italy, the Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement control more than 60 percent of the vote, while in France, Marine Le Pen is in a commanding position to take advantage of the upcoming EU parliamentary elections which could see a rush of nativist parties entering the EU parliament.
Speaking on the phone to TRT World, Carmen Gonzalez Enriquez, Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, was one of those people that had written about the Spanish exception in 2017 to European populism.
“What has changed since then is the Catalonia events of October and November 2017, the unilateral declaration of independence and Catalonian separatism,” says Enriquez.
The Vox Party emerged in 2013 as a splinter of the much larger conservative People’s Party, which was governing Spain up until it lost a no-confidence vote in June 2018.
The People’s Party won the 2016 elections and became quickly engulfed in a constitutional crisis over the Catalan issue. When regional elections were held in Catalonia in December 2017 the then ruling People’s Party lost more than 75 percent of its seats, dropping from eleven to four and damaging its credibility.
“Feeling that the unity of the country was in danger, the Catalan question changed the political ground in Spain,” says Enriquez.
The Vox Party in the 2016 general elections won less than 50,000 votes or 0.2 percent of the national vote. Fast forward to 2019, the party has more than 2.6 million voters and has captured more than 10 percent of the national vote.
Vox, however, has seemingly not appealed to new voters. Instead, a 15 point drop in the share of the votes from the People’s Party seemed to have benefited Vox. In the past, the main right-wing People’s Party would have attracted far-right voters.
“People’s Party was seen by right-wing voters as not strong enough or clear on the question of Catalonia,” says Enriquez.
Immigration and identity
While the Catalonia question seemed to have no doubt played a crucial part in the Vox Party's rise, the Andalusian regional elections in 2018 foreshadowed the party’s emergence.
“Another element, but less important, in the Vox Party’s rise has been the rise in irregular migration in the Andalusian coast,” says Enriquez.
A recent study found that more 40 percent of Spanish people would vote for a party whose main aim is to reduce migration and the Vox Party seems to have captured that sentiment. No place more so than in Andalusia, where in December 2018 it garnered more than 10 percent of the vote when it previously held only 0.5 percent.
Spain is now the main entry point for migrants in Europe with 64,421 undocumented arrivals coming to Spain in 2018, overtaking Italy and Greece. The main entry point is Andalusia, due to its proximity to Morocco and Algeria.
Extreme right-wing parties have, as a result, sought to weaponise the migration debate for electoral benefit. With Spain still recovering from the great financial crisis of 2008, high levels of unemployment and a sense of national identity in flux as regions seek to assert their own identity and political independence - the migration debate becomes another toxic avenue of contestation.
Cultural schisms and how “political elites have adapted to the language of homosexuality, feminism and transexual debates” have often left traditional sometimes older voters disenfranchised says, Enriquez.
Divisions between parties on the right and a fear on the left that more extreme parties could enter into government helped, in particular, the PSOE to become the largest party after losing three general elections.
Forming a coalition government, however, could take some time with local, regional and European Union parliamentary elections on the 26 May, with parties on all sides likely waiting to see if they can strengthen their hand in any governing negotiations.
The left-wing PSOE may seek to govern like its predecessor the People’s Party on a confidence and supply vote. However, other more strident left-wing parties may look for a seat in government.
The fragmented nature of the Spanish parliament, however, may also result in no party able to form a coalition. Spaniards will be keenly aware that the general election of 2016 was held only six months after a previous general election proved inconclusive.