Ask a pundit or politician here why Spain is saved from the right-wing populism sweeping across Europe and the answers stream forth. That Spaniards show empathy for foreigners derived from their own mass emigration in the ’60s; that it’s relatively easy to integrate new Latin American arrivals who speak Spanish and are Christian; and that the recent memory of fascism under Francisco Franco has inured the country to extremism.
This conventional wisdom may not survive the coming year.
While no far-right party has managed to get a single lawmaker into the national parliament or any of the 17 regional assemblies in the past three decades, Spain looks to be as fertile ground for right-wing populism as any other country in Europe. It just seems to be awaiting a charismatic leader to upset the established order.
Anti-immigration and anti-establishment sentiment — key factors driving the right-wing revival elsewhere — are at least as strong in Spain as the rest of Europe, according to research by Sonia Alonso and Cristóbal Rovira, who studied opinion polls across the Continent and found no meaningful differences.
“Spaniards are neither less nor more intolerant than people in other European countries,” said Rovira, a professor at Chile’s Diego Portales University.
Anti-immigrant sentiment has dropped down the table of Spaniards’ top concerns since it peaked about 10 years ago. Back in 2006, Spaniards felt that foreigners, who represented around 12 percent of the population at the time, constituted the biggest problem facing the country. Then came the economic crisis and bribery scandals in the main political parties, and ordinary Spaniards became preoccupied with unemployment and corruption.
Anti-establishment feelings have certainly grown as a result. And it’s not that there is no demand for a far-right party in Spain — it’s more a problem of what’s on offer, argue Alonso and Rovira.
Cut the nostalgia
Take the example of Vox.
On June 20 this year, activists from the far-right party traveled to Gibraltar to unfurl a giant Spanish flag on the rock that gives the U.K. overseas territory off the southern coast of Spain its nickname. As an attempt to rally Spanish nationalists to the party, the operation failed. The party’s share of the vote, which reached 244,000 at the European Parliament elections in 2014, had tumbled to 58,000 votes in Spanish national elections in December 2015, and it fell further to 46,000 in the repeat elections six months later, just after the Gibraltar stunt.
Even so, Vox scored five times better than the next far-right party,
Spain’s fragmented far-right parties are largely driven by nostalgia for Franco and live up to the stereotype: a few thousand bickering extremists who gather to commemorate the dictator’s death carrying Francoist flags, doing the Nazi salute and singing the Falangists anthem “Cara al sol.”
Few have tried to rebrand themselves like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, which has tried to shake off fascist stereotypes and broaden its appeal, focusing less on Nazi sympathies and more on the rejection of migrants, especially Muslims, in its homeland.
However, there are now signs that the Spanish far-right is catching on.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox who spent five years as a regional lawmaker in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP), is critical of the trend among Spanish far-right parties to “focus only on the past.”
Founded in 2014, Vox at first tried to appeal to disenchanted conservatives and traditional, Catholic PP voters by proposing anti-abortion legislation and radical tax cuts, after Rajoy failed to deliver on his first-term promise to lower taxes. It took a tough line on the Catalan and Basques separatist movements and called for constitutional reforms that would scrap the autonomous powers that those regions already have.
After two unsuccessful years and two electoral failures, Abascal began looking to the National Front for inspiration. In November, he met with Louis Aliot, the French party’s number two, and began heating up his anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“There simply isn’t room for everyone,” he told POLITICO in an interview at the party’s Madrid headquarters.
Abascal isn’t the only one to have spotted a gap in the market. Hogar Social Madrid (Madrid Social Home, known by its initials HSM) draws inspiration from Golden Dawn in Greece. It has gotten attention by occupying public buildings, setting up a “Spaniards-only” soup kitchen and advocating a radical brand of anti-immigrant, anti-liberal patriotic welfare.
Many refuse to take the HSM seriously, as it is still just a 150-strong, unregistered association that has never competed in elections. But that hasn’t stopped its young, media-friendly leader Melisa Dominguez from making headlines and becoming the modern face of the far-right in Spain.
“We’re currently in the phase where we create the social fabric,” said Dominguez in the illegally occupied Madrid mansion the group has turned into its headquarters. Speaking with POLITICO after supervising food handouts for about 70 people, she said she sees a bigger role in Spanish politics for far-right movements like HSM.
If that is to happen, the right-wingers will not only have to overcome their own strategic shortcomings and stop the infighting. They must also cope with the biggest factor that limits their growth: the ruling Popular Party’s largely unchallenged hegemony among far-right Spaniards. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of people who describe themselves as far-right voted for Rajoy in the past two national elections.
The PP has links to Spain’s fascist past. The party’s founder, Manuel Fraga, was a minister under Franco and many other members of the early party leadership came from his regime. Today, however, the party is very similar to other mainstream center-right parties in Europe, making it similarly vulnerable to a challenge from right-wing populists.
“We need to acknowledge that the PP has played its hand well … and kept the whole space on the Right and extreme Right for itself,” said Josep Anglada, the fiercely anti-immigrant former leader of Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC). Under his leadership in 2011 the PxC won 67 seats in 40 local councils across the region of Catalonia, the biggest success of any such party in modern Spain. Anglada was ousted from the party in 2014.
For Rovira at Diego Portales University, the PP owes much of its success in maintaining the support of extremists while promoting moderate policies to the conflicting national identities in Spain, which have allowed the party to appeal to right-wingers’ firm belief in national unity and turn that into votes.
Unlike its main center-left rivals, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the PP has repeatedly been able to win national elections with little support in Catalonia and the Basque Country. That permits the conservatives to take stances that alienate many Catalans and Basques while giving them a decisive advantage among voters in central Spain. In 2006, for example, the PP mobilized citizens up and down the country to collect signatures rejecting a new estatut (or regional constitution) that had been approved by the Catalan parliament.
National unity is as important for far-right voters as tough policies on immigration, said Rovira, and the Socialists are widely seen as more likely to compromise with the separatists than the PP.
The ponytail factor
Another peculiarity of Spanish politics is that the secessionist push hasn’t thrown up successful examples of far-right regional parties like the Northern League in Italy or the Flemish party Vlaams Belang in Belgium. For reasons that have much to do with the fact that the Franco regime was so fiercely opposed to regional autonomy of any kind, the forces that champion Catalan and Basque identity range from the center Right to the radical Left.
Abascal of Vox points to another factor he says has helped the PP maintain its monopoly on the Right, despite the corruption cases and scandals in the party that have angered many of its supporters: The birth in 2014 and the subsequently meteoric rise of the far-left party Podemos. Led by the ponytailed university lecturer Pablo Iglesias, Podemos ranked first in some national polls before settling for a disappointing third in the last national elections.
“Many people in the street congratulated me, but said they voted for Rajoy because they were too afraid the ponytailed one could come to power,” said Abascal.
Podemos’ ability to channel much of the anti-establishment sentiment that arose from years of economic depression and record-high unemployment also explains the far-right’s struggle to make headway with voters. But Podemos voters tend to be young, educated urbanites who have little to do with the older and poorly educated rural and industrial workers who tend to swell the ranks of the far-right across Europe — suggesting there is still room for a charismatic, populist leader with a right-wing message.
“We can’t allow the far-left to monopolize the fight for social rights,” said Dominguez of HSM, who is one of the young people who aspires to that role.