Columbia University

Against All Odds: The Spanish Exception to Right-Wing Populism by Sabrine Djemil @ Columbia University

Across Europe and the United States, political commentators are wringing their hands over the meteoric rise of right-wing populist parties. But the wave of right-wing populist sentiment seems to have skipped over one of its likeliest candidates: Spain. How has this country, confronted with the same — or worse — economic hardships and migration pressures as its European neighbors, managed to avoid the emergence of any credible right-wing populist party?

To understand why Spain is apparently immune to right-wing populism, it’s important to understand what right-wing populism is in the first place. Unfortunately, identifying populism can be challenging because there is no single definition of the term. Some theorists, like Margaret Canovan, prefer to think of populism as a “thin” ideology, a sort of ambiguous understanding of politics that nevertheless prioritizes a core group of related claims about the importance of popular sovereignty and the widespread corruption of elites. Other scholars disagree; they believe populism is less of an ideology and more of a rhetorical style with certain key phrases and symbols.

Luckily, there is some conceptual common ground to anchor these debates. Most definitions of populism share the idea that populists tend to collapse all of the complexity of the liberal democratic political space into a simple binary between corrupt elites and the morally pure people. Populists vehemently criticize the political establishment and denounce traditional parties for failing (or indeed, refusing) to represent ordinary citizens. Jan-Werner Müller adds that populists claim to be the sole representatives of an imagined singular “people” by excluding anyone who doesn’t fit their vision, like opposition groups and critics. For right-wing populists, exclusion also takes the form of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism.

There is by now a familiar collection of theories to explain the emergence of far-right populist figures within the last several years. What is curious is that Spain is no stranger to these predictive factors. The European economic crisis hit Spain earlier and harder than many of its neighbors with the collapse of the construction industry in 2007. The following year, unemployment skyrocketed to an alarming 26%. Even today, Spain struggles with unemployment rates well above the European Union average. Not to mention, Spain was by no means spared the harsh austerity measures that provoked so much outrage elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, unpopular government efforts to control the public debt are in large part responsible for the indignados protest movement of 2011, when millions of people flooded the streets demanding relief. But where elsewhere, outraged citizens joined ranks with right-wing populist parties, in Spain this political energy did not translate into right-wing populism.

The same is true of Spain’s experience with migrants. According to Jan-Werner Müller, exploiting nativist tensions about a growing immigrant population, especially during times of economic hardship, is one of the most reliable strategies in the right-wing populist toolbox. Again, Spain seems to be the ideal setting for this tactic, seeing as the number of immigrants rose from 4% of the population in 2000 to roughly 14% just nine years later. Combine this rapid influx of foreigners with severe economic downturn and a political landscape rocked by several documented cases of corruption at high levels of government, and Spain starts to look like the prototypical perfect storm of factors that has catapulted right-wing populists into positions of prominence in Europe and the US.

So how can Spain be immune to right-wing populism? There are several answers. First of all, it seems that Spanish values and priorities are at odds with the values and priorities frequently championed by right-wing populists. After decades of isolation under the authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco, the Spanish are typically more supportive of European integration, and they tend to view globalization more favorably than other European populations. Poll data suggests that the Spanish are also relatively more tolerant of immigrants, although it’s worth noting that opinions have started to shift closer to the European average. Time will tell whether anti-immigrant sentiment will take root as successfully in Spain as it has in France or Hungary, especially considering that the demographic of migrants to Spain is changing.  Compared to the historical flow of immigrants from Latin America, more recent arrivals from North and Sub-Saharan Africa have less in common with the Spanish; linguistic and religious differences might provoke more animosity in the future. For now, though, the relative lack of hostility could be one of several bulwarks against the tide of right-wing populism sweeping the continent.

Some analysts feel that Spain’s more recent memories of fascist dictatorship also play a role in preventing right-wing populists from gaining a serious foothold. Franco’s regime relied heavily on nationalist symbols and rhetoric for legitimacy, which is part of the reason why populist appeals to nationalism are not likely to resonate. Relatedly, Spaniards have a relatively weak sense of national identity, in part because of the backlash against nationalist symbols following the transition to democracy in the early 80s, but also because of strong regional attachments. In a society with horizontal cleavages like these, it is difficult for a right-wing populist to insist on the fundamental unity of the “true” or “righteous” Spanish people.

Spain’s electoral system certainly doesn’t help matters for aspiring right-wing populists.  Although Spain awards seats in parliament proportionally, the formula it uses to convert votes into seats is known to favor large nationwide parties.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the circumstances that might have made Spain receptive to right-wing populism haven’t had any notable effect. Unpopular austerity measures and high-profile corruption scandals in particular have generated enough political momentum to support the rise of two new parties on the national scene: Ciudadanos, a former regional party that has attracted substantial numbers of voters away from the conservative People’s Party, and Podemos, a left-wing party that traces its origins to the 2011 Indignados protests. In 2015, these two parties were so successful that neither of the traditional parties was able to win a majority, thus bringing an end to decades of a relatively stable two-party system. Some observers have even commented that Podemos is Spain’s answer to right-wing populism; the party acts as a sort of outlet, releasing anti-establishment frustration and denouncing elites without rejecting pluralism and other liberal democratic ideals.

Time will tell whether the volatility of the party system and the growing anti-immigrant sentiment may ultimately carve out a space for right-wing populism in Spain, but for the time being at least, the horizon appears relatively clear.

1 Comment

  1. Shiva Kangeyan

    May 6, 2019 at 7:49 pm

    Admittedly this post was written prior to the most recent round of elections in Spain, but it seems that the factors listed above such as stringent austerity measures/high unemployment, rapidly increased immigration, and several high profile incidences of political corruption, have led to the rise of a right wing populist party (Vox) that has the same hallmarks of other far right European populist parties (with the added flavor of some Franco nostalgia). While Podemos does currently have the majority, what was it that was there keeping Vox and its ilk out of government that disappeared in the space of a few months? How did Spain go from bucking the right wing populist trend to slowly joining it?

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