Why is there not a successful far right party in Spain?

6 Feb, 2017 - - @jorgegalindo

Translated from Spanish by Mike Presiado.

If there is a recurring question that receives the attention of international observers of Spanish politics, it is this one. The surprise normally continues with the following reasoning: after being one of the countries most affected by the Great Recession and the subsequent European debt crisis, with astronomical levels of unemployment, and a far from perfect safety system, how has the reactionary right* not found an electoral space in Spain? Tobias Buck provided the latest example with his interesting overview in the Financial Times, which I will return to since it features some interesting hypotheses, infrequent in the debate.  A few weeks ago, Diego Torres followed suit in Politico. To understand the full panorama, though, it is worthwhile to review some possible answers to this question.

The arguments to explain the presence of an extreme right in a given country are normally divided into two blocks: those referring to the electoral offer or institutional glvironment, and those that emphasize the social demand for far-right policies. In the first group, the Spanish example is usually attributed to the historical legacy of Francisco Franco, the apparent incapacity of extreme leaders to reach the general public, and integration of the hard right into larger platforms (principally the Partido Popular—or PP). All of these fit with the most recent idea of Podemos as an element of containment of the extreme right’s new offers during the crisis. On the demand side, the absence of a strong Spanish nationalist sentiment and lack of conflict around immigration merges with the other side of the Podemos argument, which connects with the possible lack of competition of public economic resources. In this last point, after compiling and reviewing the existing arguments, I would like to add my own twist to the debate.

It is the fault of (or thanks to) Franco. This is perhaps the most supported argument: after a coup d’etat, three years of civil war, 36 of a nationalist-catholic dictatorship, three years of a complex transition to democracy, and finally a second attempt at a coup, being on the extreme right is nothing short of taboo. The idea, being attractive, somewhat resists the international comparisons. Although it is true that our dictatorship was the second longest in Western Europe on the right (only surpassed by Portugal, which also is lacking an electoral right) Greece, Italy, Germany, and Hungary also had their own dictatorial regimes. The northern European countries are not free from possessing executives close to Nazism during World War II, without mentioning Vichy France, while it is true there was a considerable degree of external imposition. The issue is that fascism and other ideologies related to the nationalist right had a presence far and wide in 20th century Europe, so it is difficult exclude or highlight their influence in the current politics in certain countries.  Otherwise, it remains unclear the mechanism by which a dictatorship that was resolved with the death of the leader and not a revolution, following a transition that incorporated quite a few elements of the previous regime to the new democratic sphere, produces a lack of an extreme right in the electoral panorama. It, from a certain point of view, could be counter-intuitive. This take us to the following hypothesis.

There is an extreme right, but it is integrated. The PP was not always the party that it was today. When it was known as Alianza Popular, and even before the old members of the Francoist regime named themselves, their positions were more reactionary than conservative, and certainly not centrist. The famous turn to the center led by Aznar in the 1990s led them to fill a space that originally did not correspond to them, but on the way they did not lose their active members of the extreme right. Perhaps it was good for these elements to be maintained inside the established structure which made it possible to end up in power, influencing from there rather than creating their own platform with an uncertain future. Josep Anglada, ex-leader of the failed “Plataforma per Catalunya” (PxC) expressed this vision in the previously mentioned piece by Torres. Proof of this is the scarce electoral potential of the party Vox. However, the truth is the extreme right has not had much success in bringing forward a specific agenda from inside PP. So it is surprising that, if the reason for its low profile is it being comfortable inside rather than out, they have endured so long. Actually, Vox was born with pillars of outlying anti-nationalism, terrorism, and traditionalism, fights that are quite far from the litmus test of the new European right: immigration.

Immigration is not a contentious issue. If there is a specific feature that connects the different nationalist rights that proliferate in the West is the opposition to migratory movements. Therefore, another habitual argument to explain the absence of a new extreme right in Spain is the particular profile of our immigration: more integrated, it is supposed, with a larger presence of individuals that share cultural and linguistic traits, and less abundant. However, this hypothesis comes with two realities: on one hand, as Tobias Buck highlights in his piece, countries like Romania and Morocco contribute as much or more to Spanish immigration than Latin American countries. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that it is not necessarily a larger presence or direct contact with migrants that increases support for a nationalist right. In numerous occasions, actually, it has been observed that anti-immigration sentiments occur in ethnically homogenous areas. It is an enormous debate in the specialized literature, between those that defend the hypothesis of contact (having a neighbor, coworker, family member of different origin decreases prejudice) and those that support the idea of the threat. This question is not resolved, but its contentiousness impedes establishing a causal direct relation between the level of integration or presence of migrants and the far-right vote.

Missing nationalism. The Francoist legacy and the taboo that it carries, the lack of a risk of concrete “cultural contamination” for those national fundamentalists of immigration, and the competition of peripheral nationalisms all combine to drive away the ghost of cultural anxiety of those who are different. It is interesting to remember here the experiment of PxC, that obtained a certain success at a local level to connect a defined identity and target an external threat. However this fell apart quickly, largely due to leadership which could consolidate their gains.

An incapable supply. Configuring a political movement needs two things: those that supply it, and those that demand it, or those who help the demand realize that it is being looked for (political preferences are seldom clear, complete, or shared from the beginning). Ansell & Art (2010 – pdf) had no problem affirming that:

When radical right parties are dominated by individuals with blatantly racist views and poor cognitive skills, they are likely to implode even if socio-structural and institutional conditions are favorable.

Spain has had few extreme right leaders that do not come from a particularly extreme environment, while it may appear redundant. Only recently we have seen few faces in this ideological space, but for the moment there had not been much success. It is very probable that the lack of a supply that did not know how to push the correct buttons is partly to blame in the failure of a Spanish extreme right, however it seems clear that the demand was not thriving either.

The blockade from the left. “In Spain, an extreme right party does not exist because Podemos exists.” This sentence is from Pablo Iglesias, and it seems to presuppose one of two things: either Podemos’s electorate has the profile to agree with far right positions, or Podemos has achieved deactivating a response to the crisis based on right-nationalist principles (strengthening their potential electorate by abstention or in other more traditional parties) and instead absorbing the discontent from the left. While the first idea seems –to me and Buck– a little unrealistic that the voter base of Podemos, made up of the middle class urban youth with a left-leaning ideological profile, the second interpretation strikes me as more fruitful– though not by merit of Iglesias or Podemos, but rather due to the configuration of the redistributive conflicts in Spain.

There is no struggle for public resources. Pepe Fernández-Albertos expresses an interesting hypothesis in Buck’s piece, supported by Sergi Pardos-Prado: in Spain there is no reason to compete. Since the welfare system in issues like housing and direct monetary transfers is weak, and it is here where the competition (at least perceived) between immigrants and natives would be largest. Moreover, Fernández-Albertos continues, immigrants have had an “objectively worse” time during the crisis in Spain, well evidenced by the strong 180 degree turn in migratory flows since 2009: people are returning to their countries, more than coming to ours.

This is, as I say, the most attractive idea. However, there are few places in which immigrants have done better than the local population during the crisis, and this larger suffering has not stopped the emergence of an extreme right. The direct competition of resources hypothesis is the strongest, but I would reformulate it to broaden its explanatory power.

In fact– and here comes the twist– the exposure to the ups and downs of the crisis to the sociodemographic groups that usually support the extreme right in other countries has been comparatively low in Spain. Neither the industrial working class or middle aged service workers, nor the petite bourgeoisie have been the most affected by our own particular type of recession. The youth, with an educational level the same or higher than the national average, and the most vulnerable groups (immigrants, people with irregular labor situation) have taken the biggest hit, the second most in purely material terms. The younger generations, in particular, have seen how their expectations for the future have collapsed.  Neither of these two segments constitutes an easy source of support for the extreme right, either due to lack of political mobilization or ideological incompatibility; but both segments (above all the youth) are more natural supporters of the propositions of Podemos.

Here then, is the possible hidden truth in Iglesias’s statement. Where the crisis most struck the expectations of a sector not cooptable by the extreme right, the extreme left was in the best position to start successful electoral journey. It was not by their own merit the absorption of the generic anti-establishment vote, lacking ideology, as much as the emergence of a different market than other places north of the Pyrenees. It is not that there is no competition for public resources, but rather those who habitually compete do not need it because they are well protected by a welfare system equipped for them and not the outsider.

Putting this debate in the European context, the most conclusive differences of Spain, with respect to its neighbors can be summarized by the absence of a refined supply and active demand both in the cultural and economic axis. On this final front, it seems particularly important to highlight as a hypothesis that the segments most susceptible to sympathizing with the reactionary right have received comparatively little exposure to the economic crisis in Spain.

However, nothing lasts forever. Also, as Torres suggested in Politico, the supply can improve at any time (in fact, even though the results of Vox are minimal compared with the larger parties, they are placed clearly above the rest of the parties to the right of PP). At the same time, despite the existence of certain socio-demographic regularities, there is not only one possible demand for each ideology. It is not be discarded that certain segments decide before a sufficiently attractive supply, effectively, if they perceive an external cultural or economical threat which requires a nationalistic-type reaction. Ultimately, Spain is not a country immunized from an extreme right. In following articles, I will try to explain why with comparative arguments and other data.

*In this text, I employ the terms “reactionary right”, “extreme right”, and “nationalist right” in an interchangeable manner. The first defines a common strategy, the second and ideological position relative in the spectrum, and the third a defining trait that understands all of the traditional European conservative consolidated during the postwar. I consider them complementary, while I accept the debate around the possibility that they are not interchangeable. I avoid, on the other hand, the use of another epithet, such as ultras, populists (polemic and sometimes, vague) xenophobia, authoritarians (referring to traits that can be given in different degrees), or neofascists/neonazis (more specific and restricted to particular types of extreme right formations).