Jimena Valdez explores what the recent Spanish election, in which the far-right Vox party did less well than expected, can tell us about the rise of the far right in Europe and the challenges for the left.
On 23 July, the Spanish people voted to elect a new government. After regional elections in May ended in a landslide victory for the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the far-right Vox, most polls had predicted a future government made up of the two. Despite the current government’s impressive economic track record (economic growth steadily above the Eurozone average and unemployment at a 15-year low) and the expansion in civil liberties and rights (especially among LGTBQ+ and trans people), it was thought they would lose, and a populist-radical right party was expected to become part of the government for the first time since the end of Francoism.
Instead, PP captured a majority of the votes but not enough to form government, either alone or with Vox. Against polls’ predictions, the incumbent Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) landed a comfortable second place and is now likely to govern with the support of new left-wing party Sumar, as well as several regionalist parties.
Until 2018, Spain had been considered an anomaly among European countries for its lack of a far-right party – despite the existence of anti-immigrant sentiment in the population. In 2018, Vox got its first electoral breakthrough and studies pointed at those same anti-immigration feelings, together with preferences against regional autonomy, as the reasons behind its success. Now, while the far-right across Europe is on a winning streak, Vox has lost some steam, making Spain an exception once again.
The Spanish election, then, allows us to think about a pressing question in European democratic politics: do demand or supply factors account for the rise of the far right? In other words, is the success of these parties tied to grievances in the population or to political entrepreneurship?
The rise of the far-right across Europe has been attributed to either demand or supply side factors. Explanations that focus on the demand side point at economic and cultural shocks (such as globalisation and immigration) that create grievances in the population. This population, in turn, looks at the far-right for responses. However, objective measures of economic trouble or cultural changes, such as unemployment or immigration flows, correlate poorly with votes for these parties.
Analyses of supply-side factors instead look at changes in the political opportunity structure, such as the instability of traditional voting divides or the movement of established political parties to the centre. And yet, despite the emergence of new cultural divides and convergence of mainstream parties on the centre across Europe, the far-right has succeeded in some countries and not in others.
My own research on far-right parties shows that political entrepreneurship plays a crucial role in their electoral success, as they are increasingly able to proactively turn a variety of issues into ‘far-right issues’. They do so by providing novel and very visible responses to existing conflicts and constructing political discourses in their favor.
Take the case of Spain. Common wisdom says that Vox benefitted from the referendum for the independence of Catalonia in 2017 and successive refugee crises after 2015. However, people’s preferences for a more centralised Spanish state and less autonomy for the regions remained stable and close to 30% throughout 2016-2020. Similarly, less than 10% of voters prioritised immigration as one of the country’s most important problems for most of that period, and survey data shows that the share of people with a negative view on immigration has been steadily decreasing since 2008.
Instead, what was new during this time were Vox’s actions. It embedded itself in the legal proceedings against the leaders of the independence referendum (something no other political party did) and asked for the harshest punishments for conspirators. Vox’s leaders also visited the border of Spain’s African enclaves (again, something that no other politician had done) and agitated fear towards the arrival of refugees. Spanish people were not facing new problems but were offered new solutions by an insurgent party. This strategy paid off: what increased in this period was the association between people that want more centralisation and people that consider immigration a problem, and the vote for Vox.
This is in line with other research that shows that far-right parties stand to profit from a varying number of issues – taxes in Norway and Denmark, agrarian policy in Switzerland and Finland or rising house rents in Germany – and hints less at objective ‘far right’ problems and more to the responses that political elites can offer to them.
Indeed, after the mediocre results of the May elections, the incumbent Socialist government stopped relying on the strength of the economy or its record on social issues to speak for themselves, and instead went aggressively after the progressive vote. The popular Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz hurried the launch of Sumar, a new party on the left more geared towards the majority than its predecessor Podemos. The Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez went to any broadcast that would have him, from conservative TV shows to Gen Z podcasts, to try and capture this part of the electorate.
From May to July the problems and worries of Spanish people have most likely remained the same; the quantity and quality of responses offered, however, increased. This might help explain why Spanish voters did not channel their votes solely towards PP and Vox, but instead were open to giving the incumbent PSOE and Sumar another chance.
By Dr Jimena Valdez, Lecturer in Politics, King’s College London.