17 May 2019

Spain’s far-right has arrived – but how far can it go?

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The results of the recent elections in Spain have caused a stir in the already-complicated Spanish political landscape for several reasons.

First, the Socialist Party is back. After leading his party to its worst result since 1979, Pedro Sánchez managed to win back the support of two million voters that had opted for the left-wing populists of Podemos in the 2016 election. These results will allow Sánchez to continue leading the Spanish government, although he will be forced to reach agreements with other political forces to his left and right.

In contrast, the electorate has severely punished the People’s Party (PP) for its corruption scandals, leaving former president Mariano Rajoy’s party in a very delicate situation. The replacement of Rajoy at the helm of PP for a younger and more enthusiastic leader did not produce the expected results, and the party that once reached 11 million votes is now in the doldrums.

But most disturbing of all is the rise of right-wing populism, which enters the Spanish parliament for the first time since 1982. And it does so with 2.7 million votes (10 per cent of the electorate) and 24 seats; a spectacular result considering that, only three years ago, Vox, the name under which the far right participated in the elections, was an insignificant party with fewer than 50,000 votes.

Vox’s election campaign has revolved around one central issue: the conflict in Catalonia. Its aggressive discourse against secessionists has attracted votes from those who believe that the People’s party was too soft in its defence of Spain’s territorial integrity. And this is not just speculation. According to a pre-election poll, 90 per cent of Vox’s supporters chose to vote for them because of its inflexible stance in favour of the unity of Spain.

Yet this has not  been the only issue Vox brought up during the campaign. Vox’s anti-immigration message has been very present in the Spanish political debate over the last months. One of their star proposals in this respect is the construction of a wall à la Trump in the south border of Spain to prevent African migrants from crossing the border, a profoundly rabble-rousing measure (there is already a double fence in Melilla, a hotspot for illegal crossing located in the north of Africa) that would not stop migration flows into Spain.

Unfortunately, the most interesting part of Vox’s political program, their economic proposals, has gone unnoticed during the campaign in favor of its identitarian discourse. In terms of economic policy, Vox is far from some of its right-wing, populist colleagues such as Le Pen’s National Rally or Salvini’s Lega Nord.

Its program reflects several free market-friendly measures, including a substantial tax cut, the introduction of school vouchers, a radical liberalisation of the labour market and the substitution of the broke public pension system for one that allows workers to save for their own retirement.

Now that Vox is in Congress, it is expected to moderate its discourse, something that some of its leaders are already doing in their dealings with the media. However, we should not expect a radical change. After all, being in parliament will dramatically increase their media exposure, which they will surely use to send out their nationalistic and anti-immigration messages.

In addition, Vox will be part of the opposition, a very comfortable place for populist parties since it allows them to throw out nonsensical proposals knowing that they will never have to carry them out.

It seems that Spain’s populist right has come to the political landscape to stay. Yet the Spanish party system has changed dramatically over the last years, so we cannot rule out the possibility that Vox’s success may be a mere flash in the pan. The upcoming European, regional, and local elections will help clarify the role the far right will play over the next four years.

In any case, Vox will find it extremely difficult to expand its voting base unless they radically temper their views. However, should they moderate their political message, they will run the risk of losing votes against PP and the liberal-democrats of Ciudadanos. After all, voters always prefer the original over the copy.

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Luis Pablo de la Horra is a Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at the University of Valladolid (Spain). He has been published by several media outlets, including The American Conservative, E!Sharp and the Intellectual Takeout.