Spanish Nationalists Hate Separatists, Not Immigrants

Spain has long resisted the rise of the far-right, because Basque and Catalan separatism animated nationalist passions—but the rise of Vox in Andalusia shows that the country is not immune from xenophobic politics.

A migrant rides a bike past greenhouses on January 14, 2019. In southern Spain, the far-right party Vox has attracted farmers with its pledge to deport illegal workers.
A migrant rides a bike past greenhouses on January 14, 2019. In southern Spain, the far-right party Vox has attracted farmers with its pledge to deport illegal workers. (JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images)

Most analysts have long considered Spain immune to the allures of far-right populism that are sweeping across the rest of Europe, thanks in part to the long shadow cast by 40 years under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. That is, until last month, when the far-right political party Vox won 12 seats in regional elections in Andalusia—Spain’s most populous province and a long-term stronghold for the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party for the past 36 years.

Ironically, Vox’s success came just days before the 40th anniversary of the ratification of the country’s constitution, a date that has come to symbolize the end of fascist rule and the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now, headlines suggest that Spain may soon be following in the footsteps of countries such as Italy, Germany, and Austria, where the popularity of far-right, anti-immigrant parties have been growing by leaps and bounds.

But does Vox’s recent win signal the end to Spanish exceptionalism? Answering these questions requires a more nuanced and in-depth understanding of the real reasons why Spain has thus far proven so resistant to the pull of the far-right.

Spaniards’ apparent lack of interest in far-right platforms is all the more remarkable given the country’s recent history: Over the past two decades, Spain has experienced both mass migration and a major economic crisis. Between 1999 and 2009, the foreign-born population of Spain increased more than ninefold, from just 750,000, or 1.5 percent of the total, to about 6.5 million, or 14 percent.

This demographic shift happened to coincide with one of the most damaging economic crises in Spanish history, which saw unemployment reach 27 percent at its peak in 2013 for the general population (and 55 percent for youth). This combination—high rates of migration and high unemployment—generally serves as rocket fuel for the rise of far-right parties, yet in Spain, no far-right party has ever managed to win more than 1 percent of vote in a national election.

In Foreign Affairs in 2017, Omar G. Encarnación of Bard College argued that Spain’s exceptionalism is due to three primary factors: an abiding cultural distaste for fascism and suspicion of nationalist movements prompted by 40 years of fascist rule; the fact that Spain’s economic well-being is largely tied to the European Union, and it has benefited greatly from EU development funding; and Spain’s multicultural society, which tends to be more diverse than those of countries with more traditionally homogenous populations in northern Europe, making it more open to newcomers.

Others have suggested that Spain’s apparent acceptance of immigrants and resistance to xenophobia might be explained by Spaniards’ own history of emigration: During the 1950s and 1960s, Spaniards migrated in large numbers to Latin America and other parts of Europe in search of better economic opportunities.

This pattern recently repeated itself among Spanish youth, many of whom moved abroad looking for better economic opportunities. According to this argument, Spaniards’ own history of migration makes them more empathetic to the plight of incoming migrants.

While some of these theories are useful, they fail to adequately explain Spain’s historical resistance to far-right movements and at worst tend to be overly simplistic. After all, a number of European countries have experienced fascism in the past century—but that history hasn’t stopped the emergence of new, significant far-right parties. The growing popularity of the League party in Italy and the Alternative for Germany party in Germany are a case in point.

There are also many examples from other countries that challenge the diversity and multiculturalism argument: The United States is among the most diverse countries in the world, yet U.S. President Donald Trump successfully managed to mobilize voters by peddling anti-immigrant, isolationist rhetoric that is the signature of many far-right platforms. Moreover, the “we were migrants too” theory fails to explain the rise of the League and the Five Star Movement in Italy, which shares Spain’s emigration history. Many Italians migrated to other parts of Europe during World War II and the recent recession in roughly equal numbers to Spaniards, and for similar reasons—yet that hasn’t inoculated Italy from the pull of far-right parties.

The source of Spain’s resistance to far-right parties has its roots elsewhere—in the struggle against separatism. Throughout the world, far-right populist parties tend to build support using two primary rhetorical strategies: an authoritarian attitude that values the centralization of power to promote law and order, and a strong sense of nationalism—which is often invoked to unify people against a common enemy. Increasingly across Europe, and also in the United States, the chosen populist enemy has been immigrants.

In Spain, however, a real and more salient threat to national identity is already well established: The potential loss of Catalonia (and before that, Basque Country) that could lead to the breakup of Spain, trumping the more abstract threat that immigrants could potentially pose. Vox can try to stir up fears around immigration, but the Catalan issue continues to occupy a far more prominent place in the national political debate, and nationalist politicians are more likely to blame separatists in Catalonia than immigrants for threatening the Spanish nation. (This also might explain why Vox’s version of nationalism has failed to perform well in Catalonia or Basque Country, where voters tend to privilege their regional identities and identify only secondarily as Spanish, if at all.)

This nationalism focused on national unity has already been successfully channeled by Spain’s traditional center-right party, the People’s Party (PP), and also by the new center-right party, Ciudadanos (Citizens).

According to Lluís Orriols, a professor of politics at Carlos III University in Madrid who has been studying the rise of the far-right in Europe, if there were a bigger immigration crisis and the debate over Catalonia were less heated, “I am quite positive that the conditions would be more successful to connect nationalism to immigration. For Vox to become truly successful today, they will need to reset the political agenda toward a greater fear of migration,” he said.

But this is trickier in Spain than in the rest of Europe, because the voters who are the most vulnerable in the current economic climate are much harder for a far-right party to attract. When the economic recession hit Spain in 2008, the people most affected were youth, educated women, and immigrants—who generally have less say in political agenda setting and are statistically less likely to support the far-right. Indeed, this helps explain why Spain recently saw the emergence of a populist party on the left—Podemos, meaning “We Can”instead.

There’s also the structure of Spain’s electoral system, which tends to impede the emergence of new parties. In many parts of Europe where far-right parties have recently become more prominent (Italy, Germany, and Austria, for example) the electoral system tends to be proportional; parties are awarded a number of seats in parliament proportional to the percentage of votes they received.

But Spain’s electoral system is hybrid; national elections tend to be more majoritarian in provinces, which tend to have fewer representative seats in parliament, and more proportional in the big cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, which have more representatives and tend to be more cosmopolitan and less likely to support a far-right populist party. This means that while a smaller, newer party might gain traction in regional parliamentary elections—where constituencies have more representatives to choose from—that doesn’t often translate to representation in national elections, where provinces have fewer representatives at the parliamentary level.

“In general, it’s much easier to see marginal parties climb to power in proportional systems than in majoritarian systems,” explained Luis Cornago, an associate at the political risk firm Teneo. “But in Spain it’s a little different.”

All these factors have made it quite difficult for a far-right party to emerge in Spain at the national level. Part of Vox’s recent success in Andalusia is undoubtedly due to Spain’s shifting political landscape. Today, the country is in the midst of a political avalanche: The 2015 general elections saw the emergence of two new parties—Ciudadanos and Podemos—for the first time since Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

This unprecedented rupture of the traditional two-party system has transformed the political landscape. The two mainstream parties—the PP and Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party—are hemorrhaging voters, struggling to restructure themselves and their platforms and to form meaningful coalitions, in a country that has never worked this way before. The transition from a well-established two-party system to a coalition government has been messy, leaving the political arena open and more vulnerable to newcomers.

Thus far, no party in Spain has owned immigration—and Vox is trying to fill that void. Recent polls also indicate that Spaniards are increasingly frustrated with how the PP and Ciudadanos have handled the Catalan issue—leaving an opening for Vox, which has taken an uncompromising, hard-line anti-separatist stance, cutting into PP support.

Vox’s recent success in Andalusia doesn’t necessarily mean an end to Spanish exceptionalism, though its recent win was significant. A recent poll indicates that, were a national election to be held today, Vox would take 13 percent of the vote at the national level—putting its popularity on par with the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. This is particularly significant given that no far-right party in Spain has ever garnered more than 1 percent of the national vote. Already, Vox has managed to demonstrate its ability to shift the political agenda by winning concessions from the PP in Andalusia in exchange for the party’s support, which has in turn pushed the PP’s platform further to the right.

But whether current polling—or the recent win in Andalusia—successfully translates to more long-term popularity will hinge on a number of factors. First, Vox will need to ensure sustained media attention. Given the media’s fascination with far-right populism, this shouldn’t be problem—particularly if Vox wins seats in the upcoming European Parliament elections and in Spain’s national parliament.

It will also need to show that it can set the agenda by creating a platform around issues that aren’t being served by the existing parties. This might explain why Vox has recently started a crusade against Spain’s “radical feminists”—and has proposed to end legal abortions and repeal the 2004 Gender Violence Law, put into place to improve the protection of victims of domestic violence and prosecution of offenders—moves that are unlikely to win them more votes from women and the young. The party has also promised to close “radical mosques” and deport or arrest imams they see as espousing radicalism.

“It’s still too early to say whether the popularity of Vox will increase enough to become a major party in Spanish politics,” Cornago said. “The Spanish political system does not easily accept new parties. For a long time, the PP was the only right party in Spain … so it will be difficult for Vox to find their spot, demographically.”

Orriols, on the other hand, thinks that against all odds, Vox might just have a shot. “Vox seems to have changed the political agenda, which I don’t think anyone expected,” he argued. “A party like Vox that turns immigration into their central platform can activate xenophobic attitudes here in Spain, just like in other countries in Europe. It’s just our political parties have not been focusing discourse on immigration. But that could rapidly change.”

Malia Politzer is a freelance journalist based in Spain. She is a former Pulitzer Center grantee and Institute of Current World Affairs fellow and is currently completing a Ph.D at the University of Granada. Twitter: @maliapolitzer