Iberian Exceptionalism And The Spanish Far Right

By Natacha Mourin - History and Spanish Student @ St Catharine's College, Cambridge

In the past few years, Vox, a far-right ultra-nationalist political party, has begun to rise - only half a decade after the country left behind a dictatorship. As explained by Millán Arroyo Menéndez in his article ‘Las causas del apoyo electoral a VOX en España’, since the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, no other right-wing party has had as much popular support nor influence as Vox. The only comparable party - Unión Nacional - at their highest point in 1979 garnered not even a tenth of the support Vox has received.


The rise of the far-right within western Europe has been noted for the past few years, in countries such as France and Italy. However, Spain and Portugal had until around 2018, stood apart from this in what was titled ‘Iberian exceptionalism’.


What does Vox stand for?


The party is known particularly for its return to ultra-traditionalist values. It is anti-feminist, anti-immigration with economically liberal policies and extremely nationalist traits.


Vox was born from a schism in Spain’s Partido Popular in 2013. The Partido Popular (PP) has been an established conservative party since the democratic system was reinstated after the death of Franco, and was initially called the Alianza Popular (AP). It gained most of right-wing and conservative votes up to date.Breaking off, Vox aimed to appeal to the more right-leaning PP voters. In fact, Vox stands for ‘Vox Populi’ meaning the voice of the people in Latin, aligning itself with populist values.


A late rise to infamy


Nonetheless, they did not reach notoriety or real power until 2018 and the Andalusian regional elections, followed by a rise in government in both of the 2019 Spanish elections. In the first snap elections held in April of that year, they accumulated more than 10% of the vote, but saw their main success in November, where they earned 15.21% of the vote, making it the third largest party in government.


In February 2021, Vox saw another rise in power in the Catalan regional elections. In 2017 Catalonia tried to hold a referendum to decide whether the area should remain within Spain. Since this, pro-independence parties have remained at the top of the Catalan parliament. However, for the first time ever, Vox entered parliament on February 14. The CIS polls (the Centre for Sociological Investigations in Spain) had at first predicted they might get anything up to 7 seats. The party emerged into parliament with 11 seats, making them the fourth largest group in traditionally left-wing Catalonia.


An underestimated force, it is clear that the far-right has now legitimized itself in the country.


The end of Iberian exceptionalism


Vox is considered a radical far-right party. This means that rather than advocating authoritarianism, it purports to work within the already established democratic framework.


Academics have begun to look into the end of this ‘Iberian exceptionalism’ and how this came about.


Bipartisanism


One of the main factors that allowed the beginning and further success of this party was the end of the country’s established bipartisanism. Since the end of the dictatorship, the government has swung back between PSOE (The Spanish Socialist workers party) and the PP (as well as its past iterations).


As stated by Arroyo Menéndez, growing dissatisfaction with the Spanish government has since 2011 allowed for other parties to enter parliament. As this strong bound surface of Spanish politics cracked, and other parties have emerged.


Why Vox?


Mariana S. Mendes and James Dennison.’s article “Explaining the emergence of the radical right in Spain and Portugal: salience, stigma and supply” defines three main theories surrounding this phenomenon.


First, they suggest that economic grievances coming from a changing labour market, declining real income (amongst many other factors), has allowed for their rise. The second theory sees the rise of the far-right as an opposition to the cultural changes in western Europe and declining traditional values. Whilst the last main theory centers around increasing immigration rates in Europe in the late 20th and early 21st century, causing growing nativism as a response.


However, moving away from this, Mendes and Dennison propose a theoretical framework that stands around the idea of stigma, salience and supply, referencing the title of their article. Through an empirical analysis they find that the less stigma suffered from mainstream media by a far-right party the more they will be able to enter the main political sphere.


Their analysis of the way Vox has been portrayed by a main-stream Spanish newspaper in comparison with prior right parties they believe explains why they have been able to establish themselves. Salience of country level issues which need a solution (in this they particularly highlight the Catalan crisis) further combined with gaps in political supply, is why they believe Vox gained power.


Arroyo Menéndez looks specifically at the results of the 2019 elections. They sum up that this rise was fundamentally based in the split of right-wing voters away from the PP, and their move toward radicalisation and conservatism.


As highlighted as a salient issue by Mendes and Denisson, Arroyo Menéndez also argues the 2017 unofficial Catalan referendum sparked a move for some right-wing voters to ally themselves to Vox. They argue that this fed into nationalistic tendencies in some of the population. As well as this they state the importance of other factors which in general allow far-right wing parties to grow, such as the expansion of non-traditionalist values and economic struggle.


In her article for The Washington Post in 2019 following the exponential growth of Vox in Spanish politics, Anne Applebaum proposed a comparative analysis of the party and the growth of the alt-right in the United States.


Specifically, she proposed social media as a factor. Applebaum states that “The use of social media marketing to exacerbate polarization; of websites created especially to feed polarized narratives; of private fan groups that pass around conspiracy theories; of language that deliberately undermines trust in "mainstream" politicians and journalists”[1], which plays into the idea of stigma and perception brought forward by Mendes and Dennison.


Adding to this, she mentions that social media was used heavily by the party leader Santiago Abascal. Social media and the internet was also used to find and identify issues as she explains that “Vox also picked up on a series of underrated issues and themes whose adherents had begun to find one another, and to organize themselves, online.” Highlighting these splintering right-wing voters were identified and united under Vox.


She also compares how what she calls “fans” of the party, donated and funneled foreign money into organizations that would support the political group. A strategy used in the US, but that she argues is novel for the circle of European politics.


What does the future hold for Vox?


Whether this rise will continue or wither away falls into speculation and is hard to pinpoint. Nonetheless some working papers have begun to speculate and analyse how the coronavirus crisis has affected this phenomenon.


Lisa Zanotti and Stuart J. Turnbull argue that Vox finds itself in a particularly interesting situation. Zanotti and Turnbull suggest that in the short term, they have been able to present themselves to those weary of lockdown as defenders of freedom. Projecting themselves into the probable oncoming economic crisis, they add that they also give themselves an escape route when the looming economics situation arises and the authors propose a possible rise in populist and anti-immigration sentiments, which would all go to bolster Vox’s support.


Further reading:

  1. Mendes, M. S., & Dennison, J. (2021). Explaining the emergence of the radical right in Spain and Portugal: salience, stigma and supply. West european politics, 44(4), 752-775.

  2. Zanotti, L. & Turnbull, Stuart (2021). Surviving but not thriving: VOX and Spain in times of Covid-19, Working paper

  3. Menéndez, M. A. (2020). Las causas del apoyo electoral a VOX en España. Política y sociedad, 57(3), 693-717.

  4. Applebaum, A. Want to build a far-right movement? Spain’s Vox party shows how, (Washington Post: Washington, 2019)