Bringing the radical right in: Lessons learned from Spain

José Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior policy fellow and head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, showed that Vox’s success in Spain illuminates some of populism’s successful escalation strategies, as well as the mistakes of mainstream parties.

Both Matteo Salvini and Marine le Pen rushed on Sunday night to congratulate Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s radical right party, Vox, for his astounding result in the general election. No doubt the radical right has a right to celebrate Abascal’s result. In the election held in 2016, Vox obtained 46,638 votes (0.2 percent) and no seats. On Sunday, it got 3,640,063 (15.09 percent) and 52 seats, becoming the third-largest political force in Spain right after the Socialist Party  (PSOE) and the conservative People’s Party (PP) and above the left-wing Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, and the centrist Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera. With this result, Vox went over the 10.97 percent obtained in both the Andalusian elections held in December 2018 and in the general elections held in April this year, when it received 10.26 percent and 24 seats.

Abascal’s party’s extraordinary results put an end to the so-called “Spanish exception”, a phrase observers of Spanish politics use in reference to Spain’s lack of a sizeable radical right party of the type other European democracies have witnessed emerge or rise in the last decade. Explanations of why Spain has been the exception have included the fact that its citizens not so long ago experienced an authoritarian and nationalist regime, and that, as a country, its attitudes to immigration have been overwhelmingly positive, compared with other European states. As a consequence, populism has been largely confined to fringe parties such as Podemos and, in Catalonia, the Republican Left and the right-wing Junts per Catalunya – which are pro-secession parties that have adopted campaign themes and methods similar to the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers.

While the motives of the radical right parties of Europe are similar to one another, the campaign and mobilisation strategies of the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Alternative for Germany, Rassemblement National in France, and the League in Italy have differed considerably. So far, Vox leaders have been dismissive of Le Pen, and have resented Salvini’s past support for Catalan independence – which explains their MEPs’ decision to join the Alliance of European Reformists and Conservatives in the European Parliament rather than Le Pen’s and Salvini’s Identity and Democracy group. Still, like every other radical right party today, Vox is profoundly nationalist, conservative, anti-immigration, and anti-European.

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