Interview #45 — The Vox of which populi?

In this interview with Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte we talk about Vox, the end of Spanish exceptionalism, and the turbulent changes in the Spanish political landscape. While several aspects of Vox seem to fall neatly in the populist far right category as we see it across Europe, other aspects are rather peculiar. In particular, while immigration does not seem to explain much of the vote for Vox, the Catalan issue and Spanish nationalism deeply define the motivations of Vox’s voters.

The picture above was taken in Lisbon, Portugal, and shows a poster of Chega, a populist far right party similar in many aspects to Vox. Chega obtained one seat in the Portuguese parliament in 2019, thus shaking Portuguese exceptionalism. The party’s leader, André Ventura, in the poster is conveying the following message: “Of the storms we’ll make hope. For Portugal, for Portuguese people”. The poster has been modified and now reads: “For Portugal, for everyone”.


1) We recently discussed the end of exceptionalism in Spain and Portugal both with Alexandre Afonso and Mariana Mendes. The populist far right starts having success in the Iberian peninsula, although more in Spain than in Portugal. You recently published an excellent paper on the Spanish populist far right party Vox: can you tell us what kind of party is it? Is Vox a classic radical right party like Alternative for Germany, Rassemblement National, or Lega? Does it use a populist rhetoric?

There is no doubt that VOX falls neatly within the category of a populist radical right-wing party. The party is not only radical in its advocacy of anti-liberal, conservative policy positions, many of which (including the prohibition of separatist parties), actually carry a strong authoritarian streak. Experts of comparative politics are now coming towards a consensus position on this categorization. In fact, the excellent new data from Pippa Norris (Global Party Survey) shows that VOX tends to be more radical than the average radical right-wing party, and the same is true of its reliance on populist tools.

The canonical understanding of populist radical right-wing parties, a la Mudde (2007), is the union of three minimal components: nativism, authoritarianism and populism. VOX boasts all three.

cover_mudde_2007

VOX is clearly nativist in its nostalgic glorification of the “true Spaniards” and the demonization of foreign ‘others’. Importantly, VOX’s nativist rhetoric isn’t only focused on the exclusion of the ethnic other (evidenced by their xenophobic remarks against extra-European immigration) but spills an equal amount of ink, if not more, in romanticizing a homogenous and “true” Spain.

Authoritarianism is staple of the party’s policy platform. The party advocates a return towards traditional (Catholic) morality and seeks to defend Spain against the “Feminist jihad” and the “Progressive Dictatorship” that is fueled by the “globalist elites” and the media who seek to bring about, what they view, as radical social change that is not, according to them, supported by the Spanish people. Beyond these social issues, the party also leans heavily into the conventional law and order rhetoric which is observed both in the policies they advocate (including the increasing use of life sentences for certain criminals) but we can see also in the party’s persistent fetishization of the country’s armed forces.

Populism, the final attributing feature of the populist radical right, provides the party with rhetorical tools to communicate their policy proposals in an effort to catalyze support amongst the voting population. At its core, populism is a rhetorical tool that presents a simplistic world view in which there is a Manichean struggle between the will of the people and a corrupt elite. Whilst populism is not at the forefront of populist radical right-wing parties, it is still an essential tool and one that we also observe in the case of VOX. They rely almost religiously on portraying themselves as the defender of some imaged “will of the people” that seeks to defend Spain against an omnipotent globalization-loving elite. This is evinced in some of their early campaign slogans where they promised, à la Trump, to “Make Spain Great Again” or when they called on voters to not vote for the “establishment parties”. In their recent attempt to pass a vote of no confidence motion against the government, a large part of their messaging focused on campaigning against a globalized mafia that threatens “our Western civilization”.

STD interview pic

Spain against the “globalist mafia” destroying Western civilization, with the “inevitable” picture of George Soros in the background.

If we look at this extract from the party’s leader’s speech at one of their large gatherings in an old bullring, Vista Alegre, we can see the populist rhetorical tools in establishing a clear, and simplified, dichotomy:

Either them or us, either the same or something new, either the progressive consensus or VOX; either the autonomic division or the national unity; either the tyranny of the left or freedom!”

2) Compared to other, similar parties, does Vox attract similar voters? Can you give us an idea of what kind of Spanish voters are attracted by Vox?

In terms of its voter base, VOX definitely breaks the mold of what we would expect to see from those who opt for a populist radical right-wing party at the ballot box. Looking first at the similarities VOX’s voters mirror those of the more established radical right-wing parties on the question of gender. The proportion of men both within the party’s rank-and-file as well as among those who voted for them in both elections in 2019 is substantially larger than the number of women. There is nothing new there, but the gap is pretty sizable.

This is likely a result of the traditional conservatism promoted by the party’s leadership. Whilst the radical right in the North of Europe are increasingly leaning towards more liberal stances on issues of gender equality, the same is not true in the case of VOX. When the party first began to make waves on the Spanish media, a large part of their discourse was specifically aimed at what they viewed as discrimination against men brought about by Spain’s gender violence ordinances that aimed at tackling the country’s continuing problem with domestic abuse. Comments referring to feminists as “Feminazis” are not uncommon, one of the party’s leaders and MEP (Jorge Buxadé) once referred to feminists as “ugly”, and feminism is often portrayed by the party as the “Progressive Dictator”.

The differences? What we know about the conventional voter of the populist radical right is that they tend to be part of the population often penned as the ‘losers of globalisation’. These are individuals who tend to fall on the lower end of the income ladder, have lower levels of education, which consequently inhibits their opportunities in a globalized labour market, and often feel that they are struggling to make ends meet. The typical VOX voter is very different. We find that, on average, VOX’s voters tend to be far more bourgeoise. We see this at both the geographical and individual level. The areas of Madrid, for example, with the highest property prices and higher levels of household income tend to host a greater vote share for VOX. This relationship is replicated when we look at the individual survey data: the higher an individual’s placement on the socioeconomic ladder, the greater probability that they’ll support VOX compared to one of the other right-wing alternatives in Spain who also rely on the “rich vote” (Ciudadanos or PP) as well all other alternatives.  

feminismo

“Feminism never killed anyone. Machism kills every day.” Portugal, 2020. More than the message in itself, it is remarkable that in 2020 people feel the need to justify anti-fascism and feminism, two “movements” attacked frontally by populist far right parties across the world.

3) Is immigration a topic that allows Vox to perform well in elections, as in the case of most radical right parties across Europe, or to understand its electoral success we have to look in another direction, such as the Catalan crisis?

Immigration matters a lot for VOX. The same is also true of its voters. As I show in our (with Lisa Zanotti, Jose Rama & Andrés Santana) forthcoming book, VOX’s voters are the most opposed to immigration, regardless of the immigrant’s source country, compared to the voters of all other political parties. But is immigration the key to the party’s success? I’m not so sure – immigration has enjoyed important and high levels of saliency in the past in Spain, particularly during the first few years after the turn of the millennium, but there was no radical right-wing party (of the populist or non-populist variety) that was able to overcome the high barriers to entry in the party system in Spain which had, accounting for small regionalist parties,  remained to be dominated by the PSOE and the PP until the arrival of Podemos and Ciudadanos at the height of the Eurozone crisis. If, for example, you compare the attitudes towards immigration amongst the PP voters both before and after VOX’s rise, we also observe a notable nativist streak. But these nativist anti-immigrant preferences mirror the conservative cultural values also shared by the party’s supports including themes related to LGBT rights, European integration and the environment.

It seems clear that the Catalan crisis played a key role in VOX’s maiden success in the regional elections in the 2018 Andalucía and their later success at the national level in both national elections in 2019.  The territorial conflict is nothing new in Spain and tensions between regionalist parties and the central government are a common feature when it comes to the formation of governments at both the national and subnational level.

4) In Spain, contrary to basically every other European country, the far right was never successful in elections, and in a recent paper you claim that with the success of Vox the Spanish exceptionalism came to an end. How do you explain the fact that this “exceptionalism” lasted so long, and why do you think it ended now and not in another moment?

There are two key factors that, at least in my eyes, facilitate VOX’s success that were absent before, and which help us to understand why some of the earlier attempts of far fright parties in Spain, of which there have been a few(!), have failed to penetrate the system.

The first is the result of the structural opportunities represented by the Catalan crisis. When we look at some of the longitudinal polling data, we see a clear and dramatic uptake in both individuals’ identification with the Spanish state and decreased support for territorial government (devolution) in the aftermath of the failed unilateral declaration of independence in Catalonia. VOX appeared in Spanish politics around the same time as Podemos and Ciudadanos but it wasn’t the party that owned the issue of being tough on separatists. That was one of the issues that led to Ciudadanos’ initial success in Catalonia.

VOX gained initial success in 2018 by monopolizing the Catalan issue and signaling the inability of successive governments to resolve the conflict which, whilst reaching boiling point in 2017, had been fermenting over a number of years. When we look at the data, we see that VOX’s supporters themselves signal the issue as one of the motivators behind their move towards the populist radical right-wing challenger.

The second is the product of the political transformation brought about by the revolution in the party system that was triggered by the arrival (and electoral success) of Podemos and Ciudadanos. Comparing the barriers to party entry in Spain before and after the arrival of these ‘new’ parties shows us that, structurally, there has been no change. Electoral laws remain the same and there has been no widespread restructuring of electoral districts or the magnitude of the same. What has changed, however, is the perception of entry barriers.

In short, the initial shake-up of the party system under Podemos and Ciudadanos – which effectively rode on the wave of economic and political discontent – primed both the media as well as the wider public to update their prior beliefs regarding the viability of political challengers. VOX essentially arrived on the scene in a context where the system was finally acclimatized to the success of challenger parties. Some voters previously dismissed voting radical right wing alternatives because of the low utility of their vote, but now the situation is different.

5) Many observers linked the failure of the far right in Spain to the stigma associated with the ideas of Franco and its authoritarian regime. Did this stigma fade away because time passed and it is no longer perceived as a salient issue, or other elements intervened?

It’s true that there has been, historically, an avoidance of pro-nationalist beliefs or nationalist symbols because of their strong association with the authoritarian past. However, the PP’s former Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, started to remedy that when he erected a massive flag (294m2) in the country’s capital. Today, if you walk through any of Madrid’s streets, you’d be hard pressed to find a street where at least one household didn’t wave a Spanish flag out of their window or from their balcony. The rise of this pro-nationalist symbolism, however, is not the product of a steady march towards a society in which these symbols were tolerated but is rather the adversarial response of those most opposed to the disintegration of the Spanish state. There is a clear before and after: before the crisis in Catalonia came to a crescendo in October 2017 you would likely see very few Spanish flags. The increasing fetishization of the flag has only come about in response to the threat that (Spanish) nationalist perceived against the state.

spain flag transition

In the three years between the death of Franco in 1975 and the constitution of 1978, the national flag remained very similar to the Francoist one adopted in 1945. It remained, in particular, the ribbon with the motto “one, great and free” Spain, to highlight the importance of territorial unity.

I’m also not convinced that those who vote for VOX are as concerned about the apparent associations between nationalism and the Franco regime as we assume they might be. It’s pretty commonplace, for example, for the party’s supporters to wave the pre-constitutional Francoist flag at VOX rallies and events. We saw this a lot during the anti-government protests during the Covid-19 lockdown that took place in one of the Madrid districts with the highest level of support for VOX. Our data also suggests that, while the party belongs on the radical rights (as opposed to the anti-democratic extreme right) there are notable large portions of the party’s supporters who hold ambivalent and negative views regarding democracy as a form of state governance. So when VOX’s messages calls for efforts to “Make Spain Great Again”, the nostalgic period they are seeking to invoke may not necessarily be Spain’s time as a democracy.

6) What about the other two populist parties, Ciudadanos and Podemos? Immediately after their creation they experienced a sudden electoral success, which however seems to be already waning. Do you think they will they disappear, or will they remain as stable actors within the Spanish political system?

Ciudadanos is finished. A lot of people have written about the demise of what was a party that emerged on a platform of democratic renewal and advocated for a ‘third way’, centrist and liberal agenda. My own view is that their fall into the political margins is a result of poor party strategy rather than a fall in citizen support for the policies the advocate. A party that penned itself as a centrist that could reach across the aisle between the hegemonic left and right-wing parties adopted a clear preference for the right-wing bloc and promised to only pact with the PP when it came to government formation. Voters knew that Ciudadanos effectively became a tool for propping up the PP-led governments, so they realized that they might as well vote for the PP. Claiming to be a centrist, it appears, only works if you’re actually a centrist. Of course, some of the supporters from Ciudadanos did jump ship in favor of VOX. The amount of movement from Ciudadanos to VOX is, however, dwarfed by the amount of vote revenue that the populist radical right sourced from the PP.

Unidas Podemos is different. They’ve now entered government at the national level. The division of policy portfolios amongst the PSOE and Unidas Podemos members of the cabinet means that the party has a real chance to signal both influence and competence to its voters for the first time. Part of Unidas Podemos’ messaging was that they are needed to help keep a check on the progressive credentials of the PSOE – they now have to effectively show that they are able to do that. Time will tell how well they do. Most of the evidence suggests that junior coalition partners can suffer electoral losses if they are unable to effectively communicate their role in government.

One important point about VOX, however, is that it definitely hasn’t placed too much of an emphasis in its leader, Santiago Abascal. That’s not to say that he is not an important figure, but there are a number of viable candidates that could take up the leadership should Abascal no longer be the party’s leader. In our book we refer to these individuals as Abascal’s four horsemen and include four prominent figures who have, as a result of their public-facing interventions and important roles as party spokespeople, also become household names. So, should Abascal’s political career come to an end, we should not necessarily expect VOX’s electoral gains to come to end as a result.

The data point that signals some worrying times for Spain is the level of support for VOX among the young. VOX is not a party of the older generation. This is another feature that makes is distinct from its peers across Europe. The success of the party among young cohorts of voters who are just joining the electorate should serve as a signal to the PP. To give you something of a picture: in the first of the 2019 elections more than half of VOX’s voters were under 44 (53%), but in the case of the PP, the same age bracket provided less than a quarter of the voters.


STD

Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at the Department of Politics & International Relations at the University of Southampton. He holds a PhD in Political Science from King’s College London. His work has been published in such academic journal outlets such as the European Journal of Political Research and the Journal of European Public Policy. His mains research interests are focused on political party competition and electoral behaviour

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