Spain is Not Different
Published: 5 Dec 2018
Here we are. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Or maybe not so much. Spain now has its extreme right too: visible, without hangups, and proud to be so. The Spanish exception, in this Europe submerged by the black wave, has ended. Spain is not different. The only one different, at the moment, is Portugal. We’ll see for how long. So what is this still unidentified object called Vox? What happens now? What should be done? And what should not be done? A comparison to what has happened in other European countries in recent years may give us some clues to understand the phenomenon; to reconsider; and to respond.
1. Vox’s success is due to the rise of right-wing national populisms worldwide. There’s no doubt about that. Vox is the Spanish version of a phenomenon that has already settled in Europe, the United States, Latin America and Asia (let’s not forget Modi’s India and Duterte’s Philippines). That wind has been slow to reach these parts, but it has come. At the same time, Vox has peculiar features related to Spain’s history and political context. Thus, in its discourse and its political proposals, we find as many elements shared by most parties of the current extreme right in other places (ultra-nationalism; the defense of traditional values; security policies; attacks on immigration, Islam, feminism, the LGBT community, civil rights, globalization, the EU, etc.) as well as peculiar elements, all under a dense anti-elitist rhetoric that seeks to protect “those at home.”
Among the peculiarities, the claim of Gibraltar stands out — differences aside, can you imagine Salvini laying claim to Nice, or Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to Kaliningrad? — a confessionalism that is closer to the far-right of Eastern Europe — think of the Poles and the Law and Justice Party — and the question of national unity and the fight against separatism, with Catalonia as the central theme, which is very reminiscent of Primo de Rivera’s Falangism. Hence the key issue of recentralization (end of the autonomous regions, closure of the Senate, etc.) that weaves together, in Vox’s discourse, with the fight against corruption, patronage and “waste.” From a social point of view, Vox’s discourse is clearly neoliberal, distancing itself at least in part from other far-right parties that include, although mostly rhetorically, a discourse that is protectionist (Trump) or statist (Salvini). Abascal is much more like Bolsonaro and Strache than Orbán.
2. The reasons for Vox’s success in the Andalusian elections have already been explained: the fatigue of almost forty years of Socialist (PSOE) governments, the weariness of Susanism (of Susana Díaz), the demobilization of the left, the hangover of the Catalan Autumn of 2017, the fatigue of the People’s Party (PP), the fragmentation of the right, the social consequences of the Great Recession and the increase in migrant arrivals in recent months, to mention the most important reasons. The bottom line is the crisis of the political system of the Transition, the misnamed “Regime of 1978.” We thought that the transformation had been completed with the transition from a bipartisan to a four-party system. We were wrong; the political party system has not yet stabilized. We now know that it will be at least a five-party system, and no one rules out the possibility of more surprises. It’s enough to look at the constant convulsions that have occurred in the Catalan political system over the last decade. We are moving towards a Belgian or Dutch scenario. The old guard is not disappearing and the new cannot defeat it, but it completely changes it. We’ll see how, and how much. A phase of great instability is coming.
3. One of the big open questions is what the liberal and conservative right will do. Will the PP and Ciudadanos choose the Austrian path, where the Kurz conservatives rule with the Strache FPÖ? Or will they opt for the French path, where republicans and Macronism have at least partially held their ground against the Front National (now renamed Rassemblement National)? The premises seem quite clear: The discourse of the PP and Ciudadanos has shifted to the right, and the parties have opened the door to the possibility of governing with Vox in Andalusia. This path will not cause many headaches for Casado, who aims for a reunification of the right, looking at the example of his mentor, José María Aznar (FAES has blessed the pact of the three right-wing parties). But it places Ciudadanos in a dilemma: How can one be the reference for Macronism in Spain if one decides to become allies with the friends of Marine Le Pen? If this happens, how will Rivera explain it to Guy Verhofstadt, who on Monday tweeted his concerns about Vox’s success? Verhofstadt is president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), where Ciudadanos is a member. Here is the crux of the matter: Whatever happens, I fear that it will be a win-win situation for Vox: If it enters the government it will control resources and have significant influence over policies, as well as being able to constantly hammer away with its propaganda. See the example of the League of Salvini, which entered the executive branch as a minority partner and in nine months, according to all polls, has overtaken the Five Star Movement (M5S), taking their party from 17% to 36%. If Vox is left out, it will be able to capitalize on its discourse against the “system” from the opposition, strengthening its implantation, similar to the cases of the Front National and AfD.
4. Vox is not a fleeting concern; it is here to stay. Let’s get that straight. In Andalusia, where historically the left has enjoyed a large majority, Vox obtained 11% of the votes. We can already imagine the votes it can win in Valencia, Murcia or Madrid. The results of the province of Almeria — almost 17% — demonstrate this. Moreover, everything will happen quickly in Spain: While it has taken about three years for AfD to enter all regional parliaments in Germany and make the leap to the Bundestag, in Spain it will take less than a year considering the electoral calendar. Before next summer, Vox will have representation at all levels: municipal, regional and European. Add to that representation at the national level, depending on when national elections are held. Vox already has the right to a regional senator, just like Adelante Andalucía (Podemos in Andalusia). And don’t rule out that in May we will have Vox in some municipal governments — in El Ejido, Balanegra, La Mojonera it was the most-voted party, and I doubt that will change in six months — and possibly in the government of some autonomous regions (in coalition), and even in a ministry (if the pact of the three right-wing parties moves forward).
5. The media have a huge responsibility. How they address issues such as Catalonia, immigration, Europe, gender-based violence, and LGBTI rights, among others, will to a large degree determine the progress of Vox. It is not a question of relieving television, radio and journalists of their responsibilities: it is simple verification. Or do we believe that almost 400,000 Andalusians who chose the party of Santiago Abascal have not been influenced by the way Catalan independence has been treated and written about in much of the media? The same can be said about migrants. And this obviously does not take away the political parties’ responsibilities: Casado, who describes Pedro Sánchez as a “coup supporter”; the Catalan independentists who label Spain as an authoritarian and Francoist country; the PP and Ciudadanos, who regularly call for the application of Article 155; Rivera, who walks along the Ceuta fence talking about the “problem of illegal immigration”; and so on and so on. In Italy, Salvini was able to benefit from a country obsessed for more than two decades with the problem of immigrants, exaggerated by the media. His security discourse has been able to catch on with ease in a population accustomed to seeing reports every day of robberies or rapes committed by foreigners in the news and on the front pages of newspapers. The same thing is happening here, especially with the territorial issue.
6. A closely related topic is what space we should now give to Vox. Should we talk about it? Should we avoid talking about it as much as possible? Should it be invited to discussion panels? If it is invited, we will give it free exposure; it will enter the homes of all Spaniards. If it is not invited, it will be claim that the system “excludes” it. The Italian experience is an example of this point of view: Salvini went from 4% of votes in 2013 to 17% in 2018, also for having been on TV every day as a panel participant or guest. He has used television to gain prominence, to spread his ideas, so that others talk about him, even if the talk is negative. And the programs called him continuously because he was increasing the audience of all programs, not just Mediaset’s. Would the same happen with Abascal? The Vox leader does not seem to be very charismatic or a great speaker, but the same was said of Salvini five years ago, or of Bolsonaro just six months ago. It was easy to laugh at them. They looked like caricatures. And now we have them. These days it is not difficult to create a celebrity.
7. Obviously, the traditional media is not everything. The other crucial element is, and will be, social networks. Vox hardly had visibility in the election campaign, except for what other parties said about Abascal’s party or, indirectly, how the PP and Ciudadanos have adopted parts of its program. As in the case of Trump, Salvini, M5S and Bolsonaro, social networks played an important role. In fact, we already talk about the importance of the campaign on WhatsApp entitled “You are from Vox and you don’t know it,” which we need to investigate further. Is it legal? To what extent? Who financed it? Steve Bannon has a hand in it, that is certain. Trump’s former advisor and founder of The Movement has had dealings with Abascal since last April.
Let us return once again to the Italian case. Salvini knows how to use social networks extremely well, advised by a team led by Luca Morisi. It’s enough to look at his profiles where he mixes propaganda of his government action, ad hominem attacks against the opposition (often with memes), victimization (when criticized or attacked), and posts or tweets about his daily life (eating a plate of pasta, drinking a beer, visiting a flea market, etc.). Add to that daily live Facebook videos where Salvini avoids the newspapers — labeled as “enemies” — to reach “the people.” M5S has used this strategy from the beginning: It refused to appear on any television or radio programs — an imposition by Grillo and Casaleggio — and communicated only through its channels on social networks, imposing the discourse that the media are the establishment and they lie. Similar strategies will be used by Vox.
8. So what’s to be done? What is clear is what should not be done: to accept, even if only partially and tactically, the discourse of the extreme right. It would be a tremendous mistake and political suicide on the part of the left. It would only clear the way for the right. If the left starts talking about limiting the entry of migrants and closing borders, do we think that the urban and rural working class will not vote for Vox? The same applies to other issues, such as feminism and LGTBI rights. The original is always better than the copy, let’s not forget.
Moreover, that idea is based on a possible fantasy. We do not yet know who voted for Vox. From the first analysis, it was mainly voters disappointed with the PP, from localities with more purchasing power, from urban areas and areas with high immigration. In El Ejido, where Vox approached 30%, the PP scored 48% in 2015. In the barrio of Los Remedios in Seville, where Vox reached 24.7%, the PP obtained 61% three years ago. There is quite a misconception about workers voting for the extreme right, also in the case of the National Front in France or the League in Italy. The fact remains that a part of the working class has moved to the extreme right, or can do so. But didn’t we have workers in the last two decades who voted for the PP?
9. What the left must do is develop a project of hope that can combine the existing struggles and demands, giving them unity. The issues are not independent; everything is intertwined and interconnected. Feminism is not understood without the struggle to defend migrants; the demand for a fairer society and the fight against insecurity cannot be separated from the expansion of minority rights. And one must have a clear discourse — clear, not simplistic — in order to reach everyone. The left will not be able to stop the extreme right by talking about security and sovereignty as is in vogue nowadays in national populisms everywhere. Security is a vision of a shared future in a rapidly changing world, not inward-looking nativism and exclusion. We cannot return to a so-called happy Arcady that never existed; globalization is a fact and will not disappear if we wave a magic wand. Let us waste no time to understand globalization. We must deal with it and know how to regulate it. There is no turning back, although that is suggested now and then. And finally, the left cannot adopt anti-Europeanism by crudely unloading all the responsibilities on the European Union and the eurozone as Le Pen, Salvini and Orbán do. That would be doing their dirty work, because — watch out — Salvini and Company do not want to leave the eurozone or destroy the EU; they want to conquer and govern it, just as they are doing at the national level. Their objective is an illiberal democracy, as Orbán has declared on more than one occasion. This is what’s at stake here and now.
Steven Forti is associate professor in Contemporary History at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History at the NOVA University Lisbon.