In the introduction to the book Twenty-First Century Populism, Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as “an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice”.
The last decade has seen the emergence and consolidation of European political movements that fit well with this definition. Until now Spain had seemed immune to the kind of right-wing populism that has taken hold elsewhere on the continent – that may be about to change.
Earlier this month 10,000 people gathered at a rally in Madrid organised by Vox, a relatively new party aiming to show the establishment it is a force to be reckoned with.
The first populist wave in Europe appeared in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis as a response to the deterioration of the economic situation, especially in Southern European countries. Podemos (Spain), Syriza (Greece) and the Five Star Movement (Italy) managed to gain the support of a large fraction of the population by putting forward an interventionist, anti-austerity agenda.
The second wave was in part a reaction to the 2015 refugee crisis when millions of people entered Europe escaping from war and poverty. In Germany the anti-immigration AfD took advantage of the refugee-friendly policies adopted by Angela Merkel’s government by drawing upon an identitarian discourse to attract the vote of the electorate. This second form of populism, characterised by strong anti-immigration sentiments, has successfully been consolidated in countries like Hungary, Poland, France, Sweden, Germany and Italy, which is now governed by a coalition of right-wing and left-wing populists.
In Spain, Vox emerged in late 2013 as a splinter group of the People’s Party, which, they argued, had abandoned its founding principles to focus on steering the country out of the economic crisis. Initially, Vox didn’t have much success as it failed to obtain parliamentary representation in the 2014 European elections as well as the 2015 and 2016 general elections, gaining a paltry 0.2% of the popular vote.
Those electoral defeats led the party to jump on the bandwagon of European populism, participating in the meeting of populist parties that took place in Germany in early 2017. Since then, Vox has met with the leading lights of the European far-right on several occasions and expressed its explicit support for leaders like Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orban. Vox’s policy program is similar to other populist parties are obvious, although there are also some differences.
Like European far-right parties, Vox has embraced an ultra-nationalistic discourse, which seeks to return to a centralised territorial structure. That means calling for the banning of secessionist parties while promoting a hard anti-immigration agenda based on a mixture of hostile language and spread of conspiracy theories about migrants. The party also wants to deport all illegal immigrants regardless of how long they have been living in Spain.
Like many other nationalist/populist parties, Vox follows a classic socially conservative agenda, opposing abortion, surrogacy, LGBT adoption, and same-sex marriage. Although similarly to Marine Le Pen, they support civil unions in the hope of attracting votes from the LGBT community. In terms of economic policy, Vox aligns itself with those right-wing populists that support a less interventionist agenda, such as Alternative for Germany, as opposed to protectionist parties like Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the Front National).
The situation in Catalonia has helped propel the party to prominence. The conflict between secessionists and unionists has led to the radicalisation of the political discourse on both sides, which has helped parties offering sweeping, often simplistic solutions. Vox has taken advantage of this situation by appealing to the chauvinistic feelings of Spaniards who feel their national identity, whatever that may be, is under attack.
Despite its rapid growth, Vox does not necessarily represent a long-term threat as it will find it extremely difficult to carve out a niche in the already crowded Spanish political spectrum.
That does not mean, however, that Spain is safe from the dangers of populism. The increasing influence of Podemos in the decision-making of the new socialist government poses a threat to economic growth, which has already begun to slow down. The populist sword of Damocles is hanging not only over Spain, but also over Europe. Let us not allow it to fall on our heads.