Vox’s success in Spain illuminates some of populism’s successful escalation strategies, as well as the mistakes of mainstream parties.
Both Matteo Salvini and Marine le Pen rushed on Sunday night to congratulate Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s radical right party, Vox, for his astounding result in the general election. No doubt the radical right has a right to celebrate Abascal’s result. In the election held in 2016, Vox obtained 46,638 votes (0.2 percent) and no seats. On Sunday, it got 3,640,063 (15.09 percent) and 52 seats, becoming the third-largest political force in Spain right after the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the conservative People’s Party (PP) and above the left-wing Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, and the centrist Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera. With this result, Vox went over the 10.97 percent obtained in both the Andalusian elections held in December 2018 and in the general elections held in April this year, when it received 10.26 percent and 24 seats.
Abascal’s party’s extraordinary results put an end to the so-called “Spanish exception”, a phrase observers of Spanish politics use in reference to Spain’s lack of a sizeable radical right party of the type other European democracies have witnessed emerge or rise in the last decade. Explanations of why Spain has been the exception have included the fact that its citizens not so long ago experienced an authoritarian and nationalist regime, and that, as a country, its attitudes to immigration have been overwhelmingly positive, compared with other European states. As a consequence, populism has been largely confined to fringe parties such as Podemos and, in Catalonia, the Republican Left and the right-wing Junts per Catalunya – which are pro-secession parties that have adopted campaign themes and methods similar to the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers.
While the motives of the radical right parties of Europe are similar to one another, the campaign and mobilisation strategies of the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Alternative for Germany, Rassemblement National in France, and the League in Italy have differed considerably. So far, Vox leaders have been dismissive of Le Pen, and have resented Salvini’s past support for Catalan independence – which explains their MEPs’ decision to join the Alliance of European Reformists and Conservatives in the European Parliament rather than Le Pen’s and Salvini’s Identity and Democracy group. Still, like every other radical right party today, Vox is profoundly nationalist, conservative, anti-immigration, and anti-European.
Even if Vox shares the deeply sovereigntist traits of similar forces across Europe, what truly explains its rise is Catalonia.
But, even if Vox shares the deeply sovereigntist traits of similar forces across Europe, what truly explains its rise is Catalonia. In a way, Vox is the most fundamental success of the Catalan secessionist parties. Having failed to rally the majority of Catalans behind them, being deeply divided among themselves, and lacking any international support, these parties can count awakening an otherwise dormant, or non-existent, sense of nationalism as their main achievement.
Since the Catalan crisis started in 2017, Ciudadanos – a liberal party born in Catalonia that stands against the excesses of Catalan nationalism – had been successfully attracting unsatisfied voters from both the PSOE and the PP who felt mainstream parties were not doing enough to defend the integrity and dignity of the Spanish nation. Ciudadanos was a pioneer in vindicating the public use of Spanish symbols, especially the flag, and publicly showing pride about feelings of Spanishness – something that many people shied away from in post-Franco Spain.
More generally, the Spanish case offers some interesting observations about the mistakes of mainstream parties. There is no doubt that the PP of Pablo Casado has played an important role in the rise of Vox. When, last year, Vox started becoming popular, the PP, rather than isolate it, adopted some of its policy proposals and rhetoric – specifically on immigration and the nation, promising to permanently suspend the autonomy in Catalonia if Vox ever came to power, thereby feeding into the radicalisation of their voters. Then, after the regional and municipal elections held in May this year, the PP made use of Vox’s votes to win or stay in power, contributing to its legitimation. In this, the PP sent the message that voting for Vox did not mean wasting a vote. It also signalled the PP would not move to the centre and become mild on Catalonia, as its former leader, Mariano Rajoy, had done.
But Pedro Sánchez, leader of the PSOE and acting president, has also contributed to the rise of Vox in different ways: firstly, by moving the PSOE to the left to meet Podemos, he has polarised politics; secondly, by his mild approach to Catalan separatism; thirdly, by his clumsy exhumation of Francisco Franco, which was staged more as a party event for electoral consumption than one for bringing the country together; and lastly, by miscalculating on when to call a snap election – which, due to unrest in Catalonia, has benefited into Vox rather than the PSOE. In April, many voters went to the polls to stop Vox. In November, a large number of voters stayed at home, or supported Vox as a protest vote. So, while Vox has benefited from Catalan secessionism in this election, it has also been given an upward push by the tactical mistakes of Conservative and socialist leaders.
Dr. José Ignacio Torreblanca is Professor of Politics at UNED University and Head of the Madrid Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.