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Spain finally has a radical-right party in parliament. Why did it take so long?

Vox’s platform isn’t much like that of Europe’s right-wing populist wave.

- May 9, 2019

The recent Spanish national elections will be remembered for at least two things. First, at a time when social democratic parties are collapsing elsewhere, the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or PSOE, won the largest share of a highly fragmented vote. Second, a radical-right party, Vox, entered parliament for the first time since 1978, when Spain restored democracy after 40 years of dictatorship.

Political scientists Fernando Casal Bértoa and Juan Rodríguez Teruel examined that first point here at The Monkey Cage earlier this week. Let’s look here at the second point.

Some media observers are treating Vox’s entry into parliament as the end of Spain’s immunity to the wave of far-right populism around the world. But despite the overwhelming media attention devoted to Vox, its electoral performance has been significantly below expectations. Vox’s 10.3 percent share of the vote is much less than its counterparts elsewhere in Europe have received, giving it little to no chance to influence policy in the near future. That’s true even though Spain, like its neighbors, has over the past decade struggled with major economic turmoil, mass immigration, recent Islamist terrorist attacks and significant political instability.

The important question, then, is this: Why hasn’t Spain succumbed much more to radical-right politics?

Why did Vox get so little support compared with similar parties in other European countries?

Yes, Spain now has a radical-right party in parliament, ending what could be called the “Spanish exception.” However, Vox voters’ ideological and sociological profiles are quite different from those of radical-right voters elsewhere. This means that some of the theories typically used by social scientists to understand radical-right success might not apply as well in Spain.

Most radical-right constituencies in Europe are motivated by anger at immigration. While Vox opposes immigration, opposition to Catalan secessionism is its main ideological trigger, recent research finds. In fact, concerns over immigration remain surprisingly low in Spain. But traditionalists are outraged by Catalonia’s attempt to secede, which has radicalized Spanish unionism.

Catalonia is deeply divided for — and against — independence

Perhaps more crucially, Vox voters are better off economically than the average European radical-right voter. Typically, radical-right voters are mostly disaffected blue-collar workers with low skill levels, along with smaller groups of small-business owners and service-sector workers.

While it is still early to be certain about which groups are switching their votes to Vox, research finds that Vox fared particularly badly in traditional working-class areas. That suggests that it hasn’t — yet — set off a deeper political realignment, as its European counterparts have. At the moment, the Spanish radical right rather looks like a small splinter of the mainstream right instead of a political alternative with bigger electoral potential.

Further, Vox focuses on traditionally right-wing economic policies, such as decreasing taxes and social spending, as few of the other European populist parties do. Usually, right-wing populists favor high spending only for natives or blur their economic stances to attract both economically vulnerable and well-off voters who see immigration as a threat.

In some ways, Vox’s culturally conservative and highly nationalist agenda is closer to that of the old Spanish radical right than to that of contemporary populist parties. It opposes secession, abortion and feminism, arguing for traditional gender roles and a limited economic role for government. This can appeal to a small traditionalist right-wing bloc but won’t attract voters from both left and right, as other radical-right parties do.

Can Spain’s elections deliver a functioning government?

Why is Spain’s vote for a radical-right party coming so late?

While other European populist parties have loomed large for a decade or more, Vox has only now broken into parliament. Why? Because the mainstream right is in crisis. The center-right Popular Party’s credibility has lately been badly undermined by corruption scandals and internal leadership squabbles. That’s opened a battle for the leadership of the right.

Until now, PP has kept the loyalties of voters on the right, rather than losing them to niche parties, because right-wing voters in Spain are not too divided internally. They tend to be right-wing on almost every dimension: territorial, economic and social. That gave new parties very little room. Only when new parties find issues clearly dividing established parties — as is happening now with Brexit in the United Kingdom — can they credibly threaten the status quo.

Why hasn’t immigration been a hot-button issue in Spain?

Spain’s unusual employment landscape held off radical-right parties for a long time. The Spanish labor market is sharply divided between workers with permanent and highly protected jobs (insiders) and those who are either unemployed or in fixed-term contracts (outsiders). And it offers little in the way of welfare benefits for outsiders. As it happens, Spain has the largest concentration of immigrants in unprotected occupations in Europe. With no economic redistribution toward immigrants, there’s little anti-immigrant sentiment. That’s reinforced by the fact that migrants are unusually clustered in occupations that most Spanish citizens don’t want, limiting competition for good jobs.

Just as important, Spain saw more emigration than immigration during its economic crisis. In the 2000s, a time of economic prosperity, Spain was the second-largest recipient of immigrants in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, after the United States. This is when immigration entered the public debate. But during the economic crisis in the 2010s, more people left Spain for work than came in. As a result, economic concerns completely took over the agenda, and immigration threats were disconnected from economic downturns in Spain.

Yes, Vox’s entrance into Spain’s parliament is notable. But this party isn’t a typical European radical-right populist party yet and can’t rely on a big anti-immigrant market.

Rather, Vox and other parties on the Spanish right will probably continue to battle for a share of the vote. Who takes the lead will depend on whether PP can restore its credibility and what happens with Catalonian attempts to secede. The Spanish radical right isn’t likely to portend soon a major political realignment of the kind we’ve seen elsewhere on the continent.

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Sergi Pardos-Prado (@sergipardos) is associate professor in politics at Merton College, University of Oxford.