Spain and Portugal share many things: the same peninsula, long parts of their history, and —until recently— the lack of success of far right parties. This, however, is no longer true. We try to understand the rise of the far right in Spain by asking Mariana Mendes questions about Vox and Chega, the memory of Franco and Salazar, opportunity structures and stigma.
Why populist radical right parties were not successful in Spain until very recently, and what has changed in the meantime? Will Portugal follow a similar trajectory or will it remain one of the rare “exceptional countries” in Europe where the far right is not successful?
Enjoy the read.
POP) In a world where populist parties are the new normal Spain seemed to be immune, a “negative case”. This was true until very recently, before Vox became the third most voted party in November 2019. However, there were already signals that things were changing: political dissatisfaction, corruption scandals, and the economic crisis all seemed to point to the inevitable success of populist radical right parties (combining authoritarianism, nativism, and populism). Why populist radical right parties were not successful in Spain until very recently, and what has changed?
MM) While it is true that the economic crisis, together with other factors that fuelled political dissatisfaction (such as corruption scandals), opened the floor to the emergence of challenger parties, these do not necessarily have to espouse an ideology of the radical right type. In Spain, Ciudadanos and Podemos were the challenger parties that most benefited from these conditions and, obviously, none of them falls into the radical right camp. If anything, it was the populist left (Podemos) that grew as a result of that context. It is worth noting that Vox emerged at the same time as these other two parties, but scored poorly in elections prior to 2018. Therefore, to understand the rise of Vox one has to ask also what changed between the time it emerged in early 2014 and the time it got elected.
The obvious answer to anyone remotely familiar with the Spanish context lies in the Catalan independence challenge and the nationalist backlash it provoked in the rest of Spain, following the unilateral declaration of independence of the Catalan regional government in October 2017. Spaniards are divided on how to respond to this and passions run high on the subject. Proof of this is the massive upsurge in the public use of the Spanish flag – now displayed in almost every second window in Spain –, when before patriotic gestures were frowned upon because of their association to Franco’s dictatorship. And who better than an ultranationalist party to respond to (and perhaps further fuel) the sentiment of those who take an ultra-hard line on the Catalan issue? Vox is the only party openly defending the suppression of the current model of territorial organization of the State, that is, the complete recentralization of the Spanish state as well as the criminalization of separatist parties and organizations. Vox itself was a prosecutor in the trial of Catalan independence leaders, which added to the party’s visibility (under Spanish law, any private person can, under certain conditions, become a ‘people’s prosecutor’ or a co-accuser —acusación popular— provided that the alleged crimes are of public interest — i.e. affect society and the legal order).
In addition, the party has politicized several other contentious issues in Spain, immigration being one of them. This is where Vox’s demagogic discourse comes closer to its radical right counterparts elsewhere in Europe. There is evidence that the party has taken dividends form negative attitudes towards immigration, a topic that had risen in salience in the summer of 2018, right before Vox’s electoral breakthrough, when Spain registered a sharp increase in the number of migrants arriving by sea (as Italy closed its ports).
All in all, it is safe to conclude that Vox benefited from a widening opportunity structure in the last two or three years, as a result of the activation of nationalist sentiment and, with it, an ‘us vs. them’ logic – ‘them’ being either separatists, irregular migrants or, for the matter, feminists and ‘progres’ (a pejorative term for ‘progressives’).
POP) In countries like Spain, with an established centre–periphery cleavage, the nativist and exclusionary appeals of parties like Vox seems to be a double-edged sword. Promoting exclusionary understandings of the nation should be a disadvantage in countries where peripheral, regional identities are strong and linked to the democratization process. How did this element change in Spain in the last years? Why the centralist appeal, normally linked to the memory of Franco’s authoritarian regime, seems to be again a viable political option?
MM) I was never convinced by the argument that the center-periphery cleavage provides a deterrence to exclusionary discourses or the appearance of a successful radical right party. This is because Spaniards have always been divided over the preferred model of territorial organization. Although the current model has received majoritarian support, there has always been a not-so-insignificant share of the population that saw the process of devolution with suspicion. It is clear that this kind of party will not make inroads into regions with a strong regional identity (as the Basque country or Cataluña) – or at least not to a significant extent –, but I do not see why the party would fail to be successful elsewhere. In fact, recent events show that, in such settings, there is an even greater potential for a party like Vox, should the center-periphery cleavage become a major issue of contention. The greater the push from the periphery, the greater the backlash from the center or vice-versa – a polarization process that was stark and clear in Spain lately.
POP) What is the main difference between Vox and older far right parties such as Democracia Nacional, España 2000, and Plataforma per Catalunya? How do you explain the substantial difference in electoral results between Vox and its competitors?
MM) Far right parties in Spain, before Vox, have always suffered from two major problems: lack of visibility and perceived extremism – i.e. perceived as too extreme to be taken as a credible political alternative. This was, in part, their own fault. When a party can be openly associated with extremist groups – and I mean groups who engage in violent acts and who are openly apologetic of the Franco dictatorship or even Nazism –, this party will likely fail to be perceived as a ‘normal party’, and thus will fail to reach a constituency potentially sympathetic to its agenda. Even if such parties tried to adopt a more moderate face, they could be discredited via ‘guilt by association’.
In addition, it is important to note that Vox has benefited from a number of circumstances that such parties lacked before. First and foremost, Vox emerged as a split from the mainstream center-right (the Partido Popular). It was neither a grassroots initiative nor a spin-off of some older extreme party/ group. This is extremely important in granting both media visibility and credibility to a party (the two elements that previous parties were missing), as Vox was founded by a few high-status figures. What this also means is that they knew how to operate a ‘political party machine’, with all that it entails, namely party funding. Secondly, the party emerged in 2014, when challenger parties started to become successful in Spain and the previously bipartisan system collapsed. It is possible that the media was, from then onwards, cued to grant greater coverage to challengers. Finally, Vox knew how to take advantage of the Catalan independence challenge, increasing its visibility at the time, when organizing protests for the ‘unity of Spain’ and becoming a public prosecutor in the trail of Catalan leaders.
POP) For a long time also Portugal was described as a negative case, although it is unclear whether this is still true after the election of André Ventura, Chega’s leader, in the Portuguese parliament. However, while at the last Spanish elections Vox got 15.1% of the votes, Chega considered a success to elect its first MP, obtaining 1.3% of the votes. Why two countries that followed very similar trajectories until a few years ago now differ so much when it comes to the electoral performance of populist radical right parties? Is it because Portuguese parties did not politicize anti-party, anti-immigrant, and Eurosceptic sentiments?
MM) Well, if one puts the case of Spain against the one of Portugal, it is relatively easy to see that the conditions that fuelled the radical right in Spain are simply absent in Portugal. First of all, there are no center-periphery tensions whatsoever. Secondly, immigration is not a salient issue. It is true that existing parties have been so far responsible in dealing with the issue, but it is also true that objective conditions are different in Portugal – Portugal does not have nearly as many migrants and asylum-seekers as Spain does, it does not have a ‘Ceuta and Melilla problem’, or migrant boats arriving to its shores in any significant proportions. Plus, Portugal ranks very high in the Migration Integration Policy Index. Eurospectic sentiment is also not widespread. In fact, Portugal continues to be one of the countries with the most favourable attitudes towards European integration. Besides, Eurospectic positions are already taken by the radical left. Moreover, and importantly, politics in Portugal still revolves largely around the socioeconomic axis of competition; sociocultural issues have been of relatively little importance, which helps in explaining both the absence of the radical right and the strength of the radical left.
That being said, there is still much untapped potential for an anti-establishment party that capitalizes on anti-elite feelings together with an anti-corruption discourse. This is exactly what Chega has been trying to do and it is the main reason why the party will most likely grow in the future. It was created in 2019 and it got into parliament that same year – that is not so insignificant. It showed previously strategic voters that it pays off to vote for alternatives and now uses its parliamentary seat to further spread its populist message – and this will work to its advantage.
POP) The transition from dictatorship to democracy left an imprint on contemporary political culture, and this might explain the absence of successful populist radical right parties both in Portugal and in Spain. However, while Portugal followed a revolutionary process, Spain opted for a negotiated transition (ruptura pactada). Is it possible that the social stigma generated in the two countries about the authoritarian past is stronger in Portugal than in Spain?
MM) It depends on how one assesses social stigma. If one looks at evaluations of the past regime, one might be surprised to find out that – despite the revolutionary nature of the transition and the great and consensual pride the Portuguese take in it –, there is still a very significant portion of the population that sees the past regime in a benevolent or ambivalent way. This is not very different from what surveys have shown in Spain. The reason why I still think it is valid to speak of stigma is because – despite those evaluations – no one in their right mind would openly defend a return to authoritarianism and, even if they tried, they would not find elite allies or a credible media outlet to espouse such positions. That is why I think political forces resembling past ones or openly nostalgic of the past are met with stigma – and this applies to both countries.
That said, it is plausible to conceive of the possibility that the revolutionary nature of the Portuguese transition – and the consensual way in which it has been remembered and commemorated – creates even less room for public discourses that are not blatantly critical of the past regime (although, to be fair, the past is rarely a topic in Portugal, unlike in Spain). What is probably true in Spain – and this surely has to do with the negotiated transition, but also with Spain’s more divisive past – is that there is more room for discourses that are not ‘black and white’. Here one should have in mind one crucial difference: Spain went through a bloody and traumatic civil war (i.e. two-sided violence), from which the dictatorship was born – that is why it made sense to speak of ‘reconciliation’ during the transition and that is why elites at the time decided it was better to ‘leave the past behind’ or ‘hacer borrón y cuenta nueva’ (wiping the slate clean). Only that this did not really work, and decades later Spain has been exhuming mass graves and discussing the reburial of the dictator. So, indeed, the bottom line is that Spain has been less unequivocal in condemning its past. This should, however, not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of sympathy towards the Franco regime. Rather, Franco was very keen on keeping civil war divisions alive, and ‘overcoming those divisions’ was actually one way the transition elites found to undercut Franco’s legitimacy formula.
Mariana S. Mendes is a research fellow at MIDEM (Mercator Forum for Migration and Democracy), at TU Dresden, Germany. She holds a PhD from the European University Institute, in Florence. Her research interests include migration, the radical right and collective memory. Spain and Portugal are her countries of expertise.