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February 16, 2015
February 16, 2015

Spain: A second chance for the radical populist right

Author: Sonia Alonso Translator: Anna Papoutsi
Source: El Diario  Category: Antifascism
This article is also available in: eles
Spain: A second chance for the radical populist right

Ten years ago the radical populist right did not capitalise on the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. Now discontent with the Popular Party (PP) could provide a new opportunity.

Throughout Europe, the interest and concern for the radical right populist parties have been growing. By “radical populist right” we mean parties whose ideological profile is radical but not extremist. The difference is that, while extremist parties aim to do away with democracy and establish an authoritarian regime, the populists accept democracy but reject various elements of the liberal democratic governance. For example, the radical populist right is against immigration and the rights of minorities.

The question of how to deal with these parties has gained momentum in recent years. However, the case of Spain has received little attention. This relates to the fact that the radical right populist parties have almost no political influence.

The most important radical right populist parties in Spain are National Democracy (Democracia Nacional), Spain-2000 (España-2000), and Platform for Catalonia (Plataforma per Catalunya). The two former are parties at the national level, while the latter is organised exclusively within Catalonia. The ideological profile of National Democracy is characterised by a combination of anti-elitism and Spanish nationalism. Their motto is “Do not be silly, react! The Spaniards first”. Spain-2000 puts emphasis on law and order, tax cuts, and anti-immigration policies. It also uses the slogan “The Spaniards first”, calling this approach “social patriotism”. Finally, Platform for Catalonia declares to be beyond the socioeconomic spectrum between left and right. Like the other two parties, it appeals to those who are against immigrants and do not feel represented by the political class. Their motto is the “natives first”.

Interestingly, looking at polling data from Spain since 1980, none of these parties ever received more than 1% of the vote in an election. Why were they electorally unsuccessful? In our study, recently published in the journal South European Society and Politics, we set out to answer this question.

For a time it seemed that there was an attractive potential for these kinds of parties. It was in the 2000s, when, attracted by the booming economy, migrants arrived in Spain in large numbers. In the early 1990s, migrants accounted for only 2% of the Spanish population, while in 2013 this figure had risen to 12%. In the 2000s, negative attitudes toward migrants grew gradually, as documented by the surveys of the Centre for Sociological Research (CIS). The concern of Spaniards about immigration peaked in October 2006 when 59% viewed it as the main problem in Spain. However, the prominence of immigration as a problem began to fade with the onset of the economic crisis. In 2011 the number of Spaniards who believed that immigration was the main problem of the country had fallen below 10%, and in May 2013 was reduced to a mere 1.5%, while the number of Spaniards who said unemployment was the main problem in the country reached 82%.

In summary, it is clear that between 2000 and 2010 the radical right populist parties had a golden opportunity to exploit the presence of anti-immigrant sentiments among the population. The question is why were they unable to capitalise on this state-of-mind of the citizens during elections? In our opinion, there are two main factors that explain it.

On the one hand, the Spanish electoral system benefits large parties with a geographically concentrated support, at the expense of small parties that have a geographically dispersed support base. It is no coincidence that the most successful radical right populist party in Spain is the Platform for Catalonia, a party that is geographically concentrated in a community. On the other hand, the radical populist right had great difficulty finding an electoral niche in the 2000s. This is partly due to the fact that these parties were not sufficiently differentiated from the Popular Party. Nationalism (with xenophobic tones) and authoritarianism are deeply rooted in the ideological principles of the identity of PP, as demonstrated by the electoral hegemony among extreme right voters; in the general election of 2011, between 80 and 83% of the right and the far-right voters voted for the PP. The only element that clearly differentiates these parties from PP is the radical populism of the former, as opposed to the defence of the status quo of the latter. The populist discourse is characterised by the statement that “elites” do not respect the people’s sovereignty, and it is time to seize power and give it back to “the people”.

Until recently, populism in Spain was in a state of dormancy in some political attitudes. During the 2000s, the sensitivity of the Spaniards towards these attitudes increased but the factor that led to a change in this regard was the economic crisis. As shown in Figure 1, the level of trust in democratic institutions in Spain has plummeted since 2008 and satisfaction with democracy has declined in the same way. It is no exaggeration to say that right now there is a populist Zeitgeist in the country.


Figure 1: The confidence in democratic institutions and satisfaction with democracy between 2002 and 2014 in Spain (average values) Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from the Eurobarometer between 2002 and 2014 (trust is measured as the percentage of respondents who say they trust the institution in question; satisfaction with democracy is measured as the percentage of respondents who say they are very or fairly satisfied).

The economic crisis has had a dramatic effect on Spanish society and its party system. The PP has lost its monopoly on the right as the PSOE has lost its hegemony on the left. Consequently, new spaces have been opened up at the ends of the political spectrum, which are now being occupied by new political forces. On the left, a new political party with a populist discourse has grown exponentially in a very short period. In the European Parliamentary elections last year, it won 8% of the vote and five seats. The chance of repeating this initial success in national elections and showing that this support is stable is in their favour. After all, the great recession in Spain has caused increased concern about socio-economic issues rather than migration issues, and moreover there is little confidence in democratic institutions.

But at the same time it is a difficult moment for the right. The radical populist right lost a golden opportunity when anti-immigrant attitudes were at their peak. Now there is a new opportunity, not by the xenophobic rhetoric but by populist and anti-caste messages. On the other side, the Popular Party has largely lost control over conservative voters and extreme right due to corruption scandals. Will any radical populist right party be able to convert this new context in their favour? With a year as electorally charged as 2015, we may not have to wait too long to know the answer.

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