The end of Spanish exceptionalism

Last Sunday’s elections saw far-right party Vox doubling its seats to become the third largest political force in the Spanish parliament, in line with other European far-right parties. Catalonia, immigration and Franco are some of the reasons why.

Spain seems to be experiencing a déjà vu, as socialist party PSOE has won the elections but again has fallen short of a majority. The Parliamentary arithmetic to form a coalition has not, however, changed: PP, Ciudadanos and Vox still do not have the votes for a right-wing government, while PSOE leader, Pedro Sánchez, will have to look again at potential partners from the Podemos and nationalist parties.

In other words, the country is in a state of coalition paralysis. But there is one big difference: Vox has become the third largest party in Parliament, surpassing Podemos and Ciudadanos.

Vox’s surge in the Spanish elections

Polls were already hinting that Vox could be the biggest beneficiary of the 10 November elections in Spain, after socialist party PSOE failed to reach a consensus to form a coalition government. Vox has gone from having 24 seats (10% of the vote) to 52 seats (15% of the vote), almost gaining 1 million votes when compared to the April elections in the process.

Source: El País, designed by author.

Vox has benefited from the decline of former centrist-turned-right-wing party Ciudadanos. It plummeted from third to sixth place, which has caused its leader Albert Rivera to resign.

Some early analysis from specific regions such as the Comunidad Valenciana suggest both right-wing PP and Vox have increased their vote share in a similar proportion to which Ciudadanos has lost theirs, implying that voters have gone further to the right. In the run up to April’s election, analysis from CIS, Spain’s main public research institute, showed that Vox was able to attract votes from these right-wing parties as well as disenfranchised voters.

Two regions have seen Vox emerging as the strongest political force: Murcia and Ceuta. Both have immigration as the common denominator, which according to recent data is more of a concern for Vox voters than it is for voters from any other party.

In April, Vox won over other political parties in the Murcian municipality of Torre Pacheco, where immigrants make up 1/3 of the total population. As opposed to studies suggesting that exposure to immigration decreases far-right sentiment, a study from El País – after Vox won 12 seats in the Andalusian regional election in December 2018 – showed that Vox surged in regions with higher levels of immigration. It should be noted that Murcia is one of the preferred destinations for illegal migrants, particularly from Morocco and Argelia.

Meanwhile, Muslims account for 43% of Ceuta’s population (Spain’s autonomous community in Morocco), making one of the key regions in Spain with significant Muslim population, apart from Madrid, Barcelona, Melilla and Murcia.

It is not a coincidence that Vox has a localised presence here either. In its manifesto, Vox clearly takes a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook by demanding a wall in Ceuta and Melilla to stop immigration from African countries. The party has not been shy to appeal to anti-Islam sentiment, by claiming they will ban teaching of Islam at schools and by celebrating the liberation of Andalusia from ‘Muslim invaders’, evoking the times of the ‘Reconquista’.

Source: Expansión, designed by author.

Understanding the rise of support for Vox

There are two events that might have had an impact on the Vox vote from April onwards: Catalonia and Franco’s exhumation.

After those who vote for pro-independence political parties, Vox voters are the most worried about the situation in Catalonia. Political parties from every ideology have refused to budge on their stance on Catalonia, especially after a period of intense rioting and violence in the region. For Vox, this has meant doubling down on a nationalist discourse and calls to centralise powers, including getting rid of all 17 autonomous communities. At a time where turbulence keeps increasing in the region, it makes sense that this discourse might result in appealing to some voters on the issue.

Likewise, Franco’s exhumation was matter of great controversy in Spain, with one camp arguing that it was a necessary action to honour the victims of the dictatorship and the other claiming that it was opening wounds from the past to serve a political agenda. Vox was the loudest voice in the latter camp. A poll carried out after the exhumation noted how it could be a factor in Vox increasing its vote share.

Yet we should not lose sight of other factors that are driving support to the party. According to another recent poll, the top 5 concerns for Vox’s voters are unemployment, political parties, immigration, the economic situation and corruption. In a state of economic and political instability, with unemployment levels still high and the question about Spanish identity on everyone’s minds, parties on the extremes have a vacuum to fill.

The far-right in Spain: what now?

Vox’s results reaffirm that the far-right has become a more permanent fixture in Spanish politics, with its share of the vote faring similarly to other far-right parties in Europe. The affinity with other far-right European parties is more than evident, as shown by Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini’s effusive congratulations to leader Santiago Abascal on social media.

In light of Vox having played a part in regional governments across the country in recent months, it appears that right-wing parties have avoided imposing a cordon sanitaire. Yet the public might not necessarily agree: the latest CIS survey from November shows that out of the 8 national parties, Vox is the party that has attracts the fiercest opposition, with almost 72% of respondents saying that they would never vote for them.

These election results will make it even harder for Sánchez to form a coalition government, while the numbers are simply not there yet for a right-wing coalition. However, the current coalition paralysis will only make it easier for Vox to carve out a space in the political system.

Ms Cristina Ariza is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Research Analyst at Institute for Global Change. See her profile here.

© Cristina Ariza. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).