Opinion & Features

A very Spanish kind of populism

Vox populi vox Dei (Getty)

The combative new Vox party has become a national force. Will the established parties be able to contain it?

The outcome of Spain’s recent general election has plunged national politics into uncertainty. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) is the winner. But it is well short of a majority and it needs allies to rule in a country with little experience of coalition politics.

In the heyday of Felipe González, arguably the chief architect of Spain’s democratic consolidation, an accommodation would have been sought with the nearest moderate rival. But this is not the way of the current head of PSOE, the brash Pedro Sánchez. The relative newcomer on the liberal centre, Ciudadanos (Citizens), was spurned. It looks as if PSOE will prefer to dabble in culture wars and exploit civil war memories for narrow advantage, stances that contributed to keeping it out of office for much of the time following the retirement of González.

Sánchez is a nimble-footed survivor who led his party to defeat in the past and was even suspended from it. He has reached out to feminists, far-leftists, gay activists and environmentalists whereas it was the trade unions which produced González. He has also shown a capacity to get along with the nationalists who toppled his minority government in February.

If he is required to make a formal pact with some of the nationalists in order to govern, he knows it will upset many of the Spaniards who voted for him on April 28. His biggest electoral gains occurred in restive Catalonia, where a separatist movement entrenched in the universities, much of the media, other professions and rural parts, tried to secede from Spain in 2017.

Five of the Catalan radicals currently on trial for rebellion and misuse of state funds were elected to the Madrid parliament. Demands for an amnesty or for Sánchez to approve a referendum on Catalonia’s future are now audible. On past form he will try to smother discontent with the kind of social programmes he is likely to roll out for his own middle-class supporters in the rest of Spain. But money is short and the economy has yet to bounce back from the eurozone crisis which caused prolonged damage from 2008 onwards.

Sánchez also faces a new combative party on the right whose watchword is “resistance” to any fresh attempts to dilute the unity of Spain. Vox is not only opposed to the ambitious decentralisation adopted 40 years ago, it also complains that progressive lobbies enjoy too much influence over laws which it sees as diluting the conservative and Catholic character of Spain.

Vox received 2.7 million votes, compared with the more than seven million that went to PSOE. It has acquired a vigorous presence on social media and has reached out to social groups, and particular regions, previously not associated with the conservative far right.

Sánchez perhaps quietly hopes that the Popular Party (PP), the long-term voice of conservative Spain, recovers from its savage defeat which saw more than a million of its voters flock to Vox. The staid PP never contemplated waging a culture war against the left and resembles the British Conservatives in their prime: a bland centrist force content to share power with progressive interest groups.

The PP prefers religious issues to remain outside the political arena, which has been one of the unstated rules of recent Spanish democracy. The Catholic authorities have usually been willing to oblige and when the Bishop of Córdoba seemed to welcome the initial breakthrough of Vox in the Andalucian regional elections last year, he found himself out on a limb.

Vox is staking positions on topical issues such as illegal immigration, the liberal abortion law (introduced by the PP), gay marriage and a contested law on domestic violence, each of which has boosted its profile. It is unlikely that the Church can remain indifferent to its rise, and equally unlikely that a sharp rebuke would impede it in a secular political environment.

Vox’s fate is probably bound up with the disruptive territorial question in Spanish politics and whether the Madrid elite can reach an accommodation with nationalists. Vox affirms a belief in the power of the political centre that places it apart from populist movements which have erupted in peripheral Italy and France against unresponsive centralism. Euroscepticism has not yet become a weapon in its armoury and hostility to uncontrolled immigration was played down in the election.

Vox is very much a Spanish phenomenon that has sprung up due to a vacuum in national politics. The established parties have grown flabby and have become prisoners of narrow power groups entrenched in the regional governments or else to vocal single-issue lobbies. New parties have sprung up to challenge them – not just Vox but also Podemos on the far left and Ciudadanos in the centre.

Probably nowhere else in Europe at the moment is such a range of choice on offer. Regional, local and European elections in quick succession will add spice to the drama. But despite sharp disagreements on the national direction, there is as yet little danger of a reversal to authoritarianism. For now, any overt conflict is likely to be confined to areas where peripheral nationalism counts, as the political establishment grapples with how to contain Vox.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. His biography of the Portuguese autocrat Salazar will be published by Hurst and Co in 2020