SPAIN: The exception to the wave of right-wing populism in Europe

Europe has not only undergone a severe economic downturn during the last years as a result of the Global Financial Crisis from 2008, but it has also seen a radical transformation of its socio-political situation, with the rise of both right- and left-wing populist political parties (Lagurashvili 2016). These movements have wisely seized on the public frustration caused by the high unemployment rates and the cuts in public expenses due to the neoliberal austerity policies ruled by the EU (Lagurashvili 2016), and they have effectively appealed to those citizens alienated by the ideological convergence of mainstream political parties (both in the centre-left and centre-right)  and the perceived failure to deal with this situation (McDonnell 2015; Mouffe 2016). In fact, according to the study ‘Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash’ published by Harvard University, the support for the European left-wing and right-wing populist parties has increased from 2.4% to 12.7% and from 6.7% to 13.4% respectively from 1960 to 2010 (Esparza 2016). Another study from the University of Munich (which studied more than 800 general elections in 20 countries over the past 140 years) concluded that there is a strong cause-effect relationship between heavy financial crises and the upsurge of populism, especially right-wing populism, which increased its vote share by an average of 30% (Charlton & Harris 2016). Even though this anti-establishment response has spread throughout all the European countries, it has affected them in different ways. The European elections from 2014 drew a clear line in the European map between the north and south: Whereas central and Northern Europeans saw the rise of Front National in France, UKIP in the United Kingdom, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, among others; Southern Europeans were surprised by the incursion of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and 5 Stars Movement in Italy (Saavedra 2015; Stavrakakis & Katsambekis 2014, p. 123). The study ‘The Spanish Exception: Unemployment, inequality and immigration, but no right-wing populist parties’ points out to three factors for the upsurge of right-wing populism: economic (high unemployment and the detriment of the welfare state), politic (discredit of the political class and corruption) and immigration (Elcano Royal Institute 2017). Spain, alongside other Southern European countries, has been affected by these three factors (Crespo 2017), however, the extreme right has not gained any significance here, rather they have witnessed the success of left-wing populist parties. This article will try to shed light on the meaning of ‘populism’ first, which is an ambiguous and often contested concept, and it will discuss the suitability of its use by politicians and commentators. It will then analyse the causes of the absence of a strong right-wing populist party in Spain despite the circumstances.

Professor of Political Theory Chantal Mouffe voices that the label ‘populist’ is increasingly employed by the media in a negative way, and it is arbitrarily imposed upon heterodox politicians by their opponents in order to discredit them (2016). However, in the strict sense of the word, ‘populism’ appeals to the majority of the population against an exclusive elite. Therefore, it cannot be more democratic. ‘Populism’ is a political discourse based on an antagonistic relationship between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ (Saavedra 2015), thus a populist will try to appeal on the desires and anxieties of the ordinary folk instead of bolstering the interests of the oligarchy (Hancox 2015; Mouffe 2016). That ‘people’ is a “universal subject”, which theoretically comprises an homogeneous group with shared interests (Zabala 2017). This strategy is followed in order to mobilize a large number of people as a stepping stone to political power (Saavedra 2015). Another prominent characteristic is that they revolve around a charismatic leader who is often perceived as a genuine outsider to politics, such as Trump or Pablo Iglesias (2017). Although both right-wing and left-wing populist discourses are constructed around the opposition to the elites and a specific minority (2017), they have a completely different conception of the latter. Whereas right-wing populism rejects the neoliberal politics of the ‘establishment’ (particularly the European Union) and reclaim their national sovereignty, they also blame ethnic minorities for the nation’s ills (Mexicans in the case of Trump and Muslims in the case of Le Pen or Pauline Hanson) (McLoughlin 2016). On the contrary, left-wing populist discourse is characterized by an opposition to the untrammelled globalisation and capitalism, as well as a defence of pacifism and social welfare and the inclusion of ethnic, cultural or sexual minorities. One of the first theorists to delve into this topic was Ernesto Laclau, who thought of populism as a tool for rallying diverse marginalised groups around in a broad coalition and mobilising them against the oligarchic forces, which he considered the political and economic enemies (McLoughlin 2016). Both Syriza and Podemos have drunk from his theses.

Even though the socio-economic context in Spain is breeding ground for the rise of the extreme right, no such party has managed to achieve a single seat in the national nor autonomic parliaments in the last thirty years (Torres 2016). The most successful far-right party in Spain is VOX, a party founded in 2014 whose share of votes reached 244,000 at the last European elections, but has since then descended to 46,000 votes in the national elections from June 2016 (2016). Still, it obtained five times more votes than the next radical-right party (2016). This atypical scenario is the result of multiple interrelated factors:

As far as the electoral offer is concerned, there are no appealing parties on the right end of the spectrum. The main far-right party is VOX, but it is a residual party. This is in part because of the Partido Popular (People’s Party), the mainstream centre-right party of Spain, which has acted as a catch-all of the right-wing votes (Lagurashvili 2016). In fact, it is estimated that more than 80% of the people who identify as far right-wing voters have supported PP in the last two Spanish general elections (Torres 2016). This has coincided with the emergence of Podemos, as a consequence of which the centre-right and right-wing voters opted for the useful vote, rallying around PP. Unlike the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the main centre-left opposition party, the PP has managed to win elections with stark Spanish nationalist stances very likely to alienate the Basque and Catalonian nationalist electorate (Torres 2016). This defence of the unity of Spain has enabled them to attract the far-right voters (Lagurashvili 2016). The PP has not always been a rather moderate party. In fact, it held highly conservative stances until the 90s when, under the leadership of Aznar, it approached more moderate postulates (known as ‘journey to the centre’) in order to attract a wider electorate, which was achieved to a great extent (Sánchez 2017). Nonetheless, it managed not to alienate its most radical voters (Alonso & Kaltwasser 2014, p. 35). Another reason for the failure of VOX has been their ill-advised strategy: In an attempt to attract the disenchanted conservative right-wing voters of PP (due to the party’s failure to implement some of its election pledges such as tax reductions and the anti-abortion law) they adopted radical policies (such as staunch Catholicism, liberalism, centralism, nationalism and further cutting public expenses), overlooking widely claimed economic policies (Hernández 2016). However, these ideas sounded either old fashioned to the popular sectors or had been adopted by mainstream right-wing parties (Hernández 2016). Conversely, the successful right-wing populist parties in Europe such as Front National or Party for Freedom have modernised and rebranded themselves so as to adapt to the new times (Torres 2016). Additionally, Spanish far-right parties do not have a charismatic figure such as Le Pen, Trump or Wilders (Inglehart & Norris 2016, p. 7). The last mistake of the extreme-right parties is that they have remained separated.

Regarding the historic factors,  the recent long-standing fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco and the subsequent attempted coup by Carrero Blanco has produced a strong rejection to and disapproval of far-right ideas, along with the symbols (such as the Spanish flag or anthem), which are associated with the Francoist regime. As a result, national identity is very weak among Spaniards (Lagurashvili 2016). This sentiment is further hindered by the long-running tensions between the central and peripheral nationalisms (Palacio 2014). Catalonia and the Basque Country are two regions with strong nationalist sentiments and secessionist movements (2016). However, Spain is not the only European country that has suffered a totalitarian regime and has strong independentist movements. Most European countries have also undergone fascist dictatorships during the 20th century such as Germany, Italy or Hungary; but unlike in Spain, the far right has experimented a significant rise in these countries over the last years (2014). What is more, the dictatorship did not ended due to a popular revolution, but after the death of the dictator, and the new democratic rule of law incorporated many elements of Francoism during its transition to democracy which have come down to these days. For instance, Alianza Popular (the former People’s Party) was founded by former ministers of the Francoist regime. Therefore, the propinquity of the dictatorship is not the sole reason to explain the lack of a strong far right.

In addition to that, the ethnic composition of Spain is relatively homogeneous, with the first immigrants hailing from Latin American countries. The cultural proximity of this population makes it easier for them to integrate. In fact, they are catholic and speak Spanish. As a consequence, the Catholic church has played a very important role in their acceptance (Crespo 2017; Rengel 2017). Furthermore, unlike many other European countries, nationalism is not linked to a rejection of foreigners, and immigration is not perceived as a major problem facing the country (only 4% of the population considers it a prominent issue) (Rengel 2017; Torres 2016). Besides, Spaniards keep in mind their migratory past, when thousands of people saw themselves forced to emigrate to central and Northern Europe during the 60s (Rengel 2017). However, there are recent arguments which counter the previous hypothesis: Late immigration has come from diverse backgrounds, especially from Morocco and Romania, countries which do not share neither the language nor the religion. In fact, there are 1.4 million immigrants from these two countries (Lagurashvili 2016). On the other hand, there is evidence which suggests that a higher migrant population does not necessarily amount to a rise of the populist right. Quite the opposite, anti-immigration sentiments have usually arisen in ethnically homogeneous societies (Palacio 2014). Additionally, there has been a change in the Spaniard’s attitude towards foreigners. The think tank Elcano Royal Institute reports that there has been a recent increase in the hostility towards foreign immigration (2017). In fact, 74% of the respondents believe that the number of immigrants is too high, 44% admits that they would support a party with anti-immigration policies, and 77% declares that Spanish workers should have priority over foreigners (Elcano Royal Institute 2017). This last figure suggests that the recent rejection towards immigration is related to the high unemployment rate. Anti-immigration sentiments usually arise in those countries where there is a perception that foreigners are living off the welfare system. However, social housing and direct support payments are not easily accessible in Spain (Lagurashvili 2016; Palacio 2014). “Part of this is always about competition for resources. When there are no resources to compete for, the potential for conflict decreases,” states Oxford University researcher Sergi Pardos-Prado (Lagurashvili 2016). Finally, the foreign population has been severely affected by the economic recession, and has forced many families to return to their home countries in the last years (2014). As a result, Spain has become an emigrant rather than an immigrant country.

Furthermore, the extreme right is particularly successful among middle-aged, white, unemployed, males with low educational level and who belong to the lower-middle class (Scott & Heath 2017). Nevertheless, the recession has stricken the most vulnerable social groups to a larger extent, namely the younger generations (who usually have a higher educational level) and the immigrants and workers in an irregular situation (Palacio 2014). These groups are not prone to sympathize with the ideas of the far right.

Apart from that, despite the cutbacks in public expenses ruled by Brussels as a result of the bailout programs, the Spanish people do not blame the EU, unlike their European counterparts. In fact, only 10% of Spanish people wants to leave the EU, in comparison with the 22% in France, 25% in Sweden and 45% in UK (although 52% of its citizens decided to leave the EU in 2016). Furthermore, 35% of Spaniards are in favour of a greater integration within the EU (Rengel 2017). This level of support proves, on the one hand, Spain’s status as a net recipient of EU funding; and on the other, their perception of EU as a modern and progressive institution (Lagurashvili 2016).

Finally, the abrupt upsurge of a left-wing populist party, Podemos, has channelled the disenfranchisement and distrust of the masses towards the traditional political class (Rengel 2017), and it has attracted many traditional voters of the centre left PSOE, as well as getting hold of a fruitful niche of the electorate (left and far left) thanks to their coalition with IU (the established radical left Spanish party and heir of the traditional communist party). Podemos’ populist discourse, although highly critical with the political and economic elites (to which they refer to as ‘casta’ (Kioupkiolis 2016, p. 103)), are an inclusive party and embrace ethnic minorities. Unlike VOX, they have interpreted the situation and social demands smartly, and have come up with an attractive discourse. Besides, it is led by a charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, a former university Political Sciences professor, who is seen as an outsider to politics. This has enabled them to obtain an 8% of the vote share in the 2014 European elections and 5,049,734 (21% of the votes) in the last national elections (El País 2016), along with taking on the mayoralty of the two biggest Spanish cities, Madrid and Barcelona (Kioupkiolis 2016, p. 107).

The sudden rise of populism in Europe has brought to light the general disaffection with and reluctance towards the political class and its neoliberal policies (Zabala 2017). However, debt-ridden and impoverished Southern European countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece have been the exception, and strong left-wing populist parties have burst into the scene. According to Pawel Swieboda, right-wing populism tends to thrive in those countries challenged by globalization and immigration (namely, Northern European countries) (Saavedra 2015), whereas left-wing populism is rising in Southern Europe, because of its deep long-standing recessions whose consequences are still being suffered by their people. Spain is an unheard-of case, due to the combination of economic, historic, political and socio-cultural factors such as the Francoist fascist regime, the linguistic and religious similar background of the immigration, the weak national identity, the peripheral nationalist movements, the catch-all power of PP, the erroneous strategies of the far-right parties and the abrupt irruption of Podemos. Therefore, the Spanish situation must not be understood as the result of incidental individual factors (which can also occur in other countries), but as the combination of interdependent factors. Despite many media commentators’ warning against the consequences of a possible surge of the right-wing populism in Spain, most experts remain confident that Spain will resist this trend (Lagurashvili 2016). In fact, all the aforementioned factors are deeply rooted in its history and society. Besides, Spain has the fastest growing economy of the EU currently and the International Monetary Fund has increased its predictions of the growth of the Spanish economy to 2.6% for 2017 (Mars 2017), which suggests that the social and economic catalysts for right-wing populism will recede (2016). Finally, despite popular misconceptions caused by tendentious media representations, ‘populism’ is a political discourse that aims to construct a radical opposition between two homogeneous and antagonistic social groups: ‘the people’ and ‘the elite/minority’ (Mudde 2013). Even though the latter can take on different forms depending on the type of populism, they are to be blamed for the ills of the country. Therefore, this label must be used accordingly and not to impeach a political opponent. Neither should it be considered nondemocratic, as it is an inherently majoritarian movement, in that it appeals to the majority. If so, “populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism” (Hancox 2015).

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