July 26, 2023
IntelBrief: Do Spanish Elections Reveal Anything About the Momentum of Europe’s Far-Right?
After a snap general election in Spain on Sunday failed to produce a decisive winner – none of the parties won enough seats to form a parliamentary majority – there is no clear path to forming a national government and the country is now facing political deadlock and uncertainty. The conservative People’s Party (PP) won the most parliamentary seats at 136, up from 89 in the last election in 2019; yet the PP did not win enough seats for an outright majority and its possible coalition partner – the far-right populist party, Vox – failed to win enough seats to make up the needed difference. The governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party, which celebrated the results despite falling behind the PP, won 122 seats, gaining two from the previous election. After the PP and Vox significantly outperformed the Socialists in regional and municipal elections in May, Sunday’s results seemed like a win for the embattled Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez given the low expectations for his party’s performance. Sánchez unexpectedly called the snap general election in May in a political gamble to seemingly forestall divisions within his coalition. The left – which framed the general election as an existential choice between democracy and autocracy – seems to believe the gamble has paid off and that the relatively narrow results leave a viable path forward for the Socialist party to form a government. Yet, as both major parties will likely find it difficult to form a governing coalition, another election seems probable.
The more surprising result in Sunday’s election was the underperformance of the far-right Vox party, who not only failed to achieve enough votes to form a governing coalition with the PP, but also lost parliamentary seats from the last election – falling from 52 seats in 2019 to 33 on Sunday. Numerous opinion polls leading up to the snap election had projected that Vox would potentially become a ‘kingmaker’, suggesting the PP would comfortably outperform the Socialist party but would likely need to form a coalition with Vox to obtain a majority. These predictions ultimately did not come to fruition, with some analysts suggesting the results displayed a repudiation of the far-right party’s hardline stances on immigration, gender, and LGBTQ issues and ‘extreme’ politics more broadly. Yet, the regional and municipal elections in May have led to the PP and Vox entering governing coalitions together in at least 140 cities and towns, as well as two additional regions to the regional government of Castile and Leon which they already co-govern. Vox’s presence in local governments may have broader impacts on mainstreaming their messaging and could allow the party to potentially gain concessions from its more centrist colleagues.
Formed in 2013, Vox, similar to its far-right populist counterparts across Europe, is defined by its ultranationalist, anti-immigrant, Euro-skeptic platform and highly conservative stances on LGBTQ and feminist issues, such as abortion and gender-based violence. An uptick in migrant arrivals to Spain from North Africa in 2018 contributed to the party’s popularity. The party’s entrance into the national parliament in 2019 was a shift in a country that until that point had been a notable outlier in the rise of far-right populist parties in Europe. Spanish society has generally leaned slightly toward the center-left and been viewed as more ‘progressive’ than some other European countries where the far-right has gained momentum. Nationally, Vox, along with the PP, has been able to capitalize on the political backlash to separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque region – its rise has been inextricably linked with the deeply held sentiments in much of Spain around the issue. In 2018, Vox entered mainstream politics when it significantly outperformed expectations in regional parliamentary elections in Andalusia, a success many analysts have linked to the party’s forceful championing of Spain’s fight against separatist lawmakers in Catalonia. The alliance of separatists and Prime Minister Sánchez has been ample fodder for his critics, as some voters have resented his reliance on and concessions towards separatist parties. His pardoning of nine Catalan leaders involved in the region’s failed secessionist bid in 2017, as well as reforming the sedition laws under which they were charged angered many on the right and has been utilized by the far-right. Vox has also exploited fears that ‘green’ measures – such as a government decision to limit water transfer to combat desertification and drought – will damage the country’s agricultural industry, an important facet of the Spanish economy. Water use became a central campaign issue in the regional and municipal May elections, with Vox framing ecological measures as a liberal, globalist conspiracy to increase control over citizens and change society by limiting agriculture.
The underwhelming performance of Vox in the general snap election has led to wider evaluations of the momentum of the far-right in Europe more broadly, particularly as the Spanish election was framed around the potential ascendency of the far-right to a governing coalition. Although the results of Sunday’s elections seem to indicate that the more extreme aspects of Vox’s platform, particularly its views on gay marriage, abortion, and gender-related violence, may not resonate with many Spanish voters, issues that have played well for Vox’s support in the past – such as immigration, separatism, and climate policies – could potentially serve to bolster support in the future. A significant increase in immigration to Europe via the Mediterranean route could provide fodder to the far-right in Spain and will likely continue to do so for the far-right in Europe more broadly. Further, as Sánchez, who has publicly ruled out a new election, would need the backing of separatist parties to have any realistic, albeit slim, chance of forming a government, the necessary concessions he would have to make to gain their support would likely play into his opponents’ hands. Such a move may not sit well with voters and could galvanize support for the party as in the past. Moreover, dismissal of the European far-right’s ability to capitalize on voters' grievances and prognostications of its waning momentum have often proven premature. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has defied adages that it maxed out its support in regional strongholds, provides an apt example. Although Vox’s performance on Sunday has displayed the far-right’s potential limitations in the liberal bastion of Spain, the strengthening of the far-right in places like Germany, Italy, Finland, and Sweden still indicates that far-right messaging resonates with a growing swath of the European electorate.