University of Chicago

Analyzing the Spanish Election: How Spain’s Far-Right Party Goes Beyond the Typical Confines of Populism by Aliza Oppenheim

The winner of Spain’s recent general election claims that his party “sent a message to the world that it’s possible to win against regression and authoritarianism.” Spain’s election was held on April 28th, after Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called for new elections earlier this year. Sánchez himself is relatively new to power, having been sworn in only this past summer, after ousting his opponent, Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party over a corruption scandal using a vote of no confidence. Sánchez called for new elections in February due to the instability of his party’s power, his gamble appears to have paid off: the results seem to have gone in his favor. The election appears to have enabled Sánchez to remain in power, as his Socialist Party won 123 of the 350 seats in Parliament. While this is not enough to be considered a majority, Sánchez is confident he can muster enough coalition partners to form a government.

However, there is another outcome of this election that merits further scrutiny. For the first time, the far-right party known as Vox gained a high enough percentage of the vote to win seats in the Parliament, coming in at around 10%, far more than the 0.2% of votes it claimed in the last general election. While this was lower than initially expected for the party, it still allows for Vox to claim 24 seats in the Parliament, which makes Vox the fifth-largest political force in Spain and allows it to be involved in legislative decisions.

While much of Vox’s recent media attention has been over the reclaiming of a rainbow-colored ghost emoji by the LGBT community, Vox has been slowly gaining power and publicity over the past several years. The head of the party, which first arose in 2014, is Santiago Abascal, formerly of Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party. It has gained power in certain areas of the country, particularly in Andalusia, where it gained more than double the number of seats expected in the regional elections. The Vox party exhibits similar tendencies and promotes policies and rhetoric similar to other far-right parties in Europe, particularly in regards to its stance on immigration, abortion, and taxes. However, Spain’s unique political environment, whose conservatives, unlike other countries, does not look favorably on its pre-democratic past, allows for there to be more at play in this far-right party than in seemingly comparable parties throughout Europe.

Jan-Werner Müller defines populism as a form of politics, where one group of people is considered to be “the people” and all the rest are ignored in an “us vs. them” mentality based on some form of a “moral” framework [1]. Vox both epitomizes and subverts this definition, due to Spain’s unique political situation. The party’s rhetoric on immigration certainly fits the typical popular narrative. However, another, uniquely Spanish facet of Vox is its stance on Catalan secession: Vox and other far-right parties are vehemently against Catalan secession, and intensely pro-Spanish unity and nationalistic.

On one hand, this fits Müller’s definition perfectly: Vox sees the “Spanish” as the people and wants to deny the difference and existence of other groups. However, this also subverts Müller’s definition: by wanting Spanish unity to include Catalonia and its people, the party’s strategy is not to narrow the definition of “the people,” but to widen it. While Vox’s form of nationalism is making one identity central, which is a feature of Müller ’s populism, it is not quite the exclusionary populism he discusses. It does ignore certain aspects of identity, saying the Spanish people are the “people, ”ignoring Catalonia’s unique history and identity (complicated by some of the more economic rather than cultural reasons for secession), but strives to make them part of the polity, rather than exclude them. This makes Vox’s unique form of populism more different and possibly than other forms, because it can appeal to both people who want a narrow and a broad definition of “the people.” This makes it more malleable and therefore makes it easier for Vox to appeal to a broader range of people, as well as to groups who may not normally be swayed by populist arguments.

The right’s failure to win back the government, particularly the poor showing of the Popular Party, which had its worst results since its inception in part due to the existence of parties such as Vox and the fragmentation of the right, demonstrate that whatever populism exists in Spain has not reach a point of no return. However, Vox’s growing numbers at the expense of the more centrist parties demonstrate growing polarization and complicated identity politics at work in Spain demonstrate a slippery slope for the rise of leaders such as Orbán in Hungary and Kaczyński in Poland, and Spain must watch out to keep populism in check.

[1] Müller, J.W., 2017. What is populism?. Penguin UK, pp. 19

Photo Credit: AFP

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