As a wave of right-wing populism swept the continent over the past several years, Spain has held the distinction of being the largest European country without a far-right nationalist party in its legislature. That changed on Sunday, when the anti-immigrant, anti-feminist Vox Party won 10 percent of the vote and 24 out of 350 seats in elections to the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of Spain’s bicameral legislature.
Vox, a Steve Bannon–endorsed offshoot of the mainstream conservative People’s Party, offers pretty standard fare for a European far-right party of our era — including pledges to close borders, aggressively deport immigrants, and outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage — along with euroscepticism, Islamophobia, and that low-key nouveau anti-Semitism that involves blaming all of your country’s problems on George Soros.
Its platform also has a few planks unique to Spain, including proposals to abolish the country’s autonomous communities, to crack down on separatist movements in regions such as Catalonia — and of course, to promote bullfighting. Whereas other European nationalists see their countries being attacked mainly from without, Vox also views Spanish regionalism as an internal threat, much as fascist dictator Francisco Franco did. It also seeks to address it as Franco did, albeit perhaps less violently, by recentralizing authority in Madrid and stripping away regional autonomy.
So the glass-half-empty take on Sunday’s election is that a xenophobic, neo-Francoist party hell-bent on turning back half a century of social progress saw its support explode from zero to 15 percent in the course of six months and won a bombshell victory that will make it a significant player in Spanish politics, perhaps for good, even if it is far short of being able to lead or even participate in a government. In the same way that the Alternative for Germany Party winning seats in the Bundestag last year signaled a horrifying lapse in Germans’ historical memory, Vox’s performance on Sunday suggested that Spanish fascism was not dead, just taking a siesta.
In the main, however, the news from the polls in Spain was good for the left and center: The Socialist Party won a 123-seat plurality, against just 66 for the People’s Party. Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez won a popular mandate for a role he took on after ousting his predecessor Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote last year. Sánchez is still the only socialist leading a major European country.
On top of Sánchez’s popular policies, anti-inequality messaging, and remarkably effective politicking, the Socialist victory on Sunday was helped along by the fragmentation of the right. Yes, Vox becoming the first far-right party to win seats since 1982 was disheartening, but those votes were drawn away from the People’s Party, and those two parties combined garnered a smaller vote share and fewer seats this year than the People’s Party alone had won in the last general election in 2016. The center-right Ciudadanos Party also gained ground on Sunday, again thanks to the People’s Party bleeding voters in the aftermath of the corruption case that sank Rajoy’s government last year. As The Guardian put it in an editorial, “Sunday saw a redistribution of the right-wing vote in Spain, not an increase in it.”
The Socialists and other left-wing parties also leveraged the ascendancy of the far right as a campaign tactic, mobilizing voters who shuddered at the idea of a governing coalition with Vox in it. (Overall voter turnout on Sunday was remarkably high, at 76 percent.) Insofar as this election saw Spain’s nationalist right break new ground, it also revealed the strength of the resistance to far-right populism within the body politic. The Spanish right ought to have a lot going for it, what with the country’s bone-deep Catholicism, its lengthy history of fascism, a relatively young democracy, high unemployment, and the huge numbers of immigrants it has absorbed in the past decade — and yet the Spanish electorate consistently surprises as one of the most liberal in the world.
Yet the fight to keep Spain from backsliding into its Francoist heritage is far from over. For one thing, the fragmentation of the country’s two-party system has not only broken the People’s Party; it has also denied the Socialists a clear path to control of the legislature. The left-wing alliance Unidos Podemos, which will go into coalition with Sánchez, won 42 seats, which still leaves the two parties a few seats shy of a majority.
To fill the gap, Sánchez will have to bring in the regionalist parties that made a strong showing on Sunday, including at least some of the more radical separatist ones. These alliances could be politically perilous and hard to manage — not to mention that the pro-independence Catalan parties voted to reject his budget in February, which was the precipitating event for Sunday’s snap election.
The prime minister will wait to form a government until after May 26, when Spaniards will vote again in regional, municipal, and European elections. Depending on how things shake out next month, Sánchez may ultimately decide to call another snap election in pursuit of a more decisive victory — a stunt that can backfire disastrously, as U.K. prime minister Theresa May learned the hard way back in 2017.
In the meantime, the Spanish right may be in disarray today and Vox may even prove to be a flash in the pan, but the conditions that are driving the resurgence of right-wing nationalism are very much alive in Spain as they are throughout much of Europe. Far-right parties have made surprise gains in other recent elections on the continent, continuing their multiyear streak. The same disaffection with free trade, immigration, diversity, and liberal values that put Donald Trump in the White House continues to send more far-right MPs to European capitols.
And just as the Democrats could end up handing Trump another four years in office next year if they don’t find a compelling answer to his voters’ legitimate concerns, Europe’s left-to-center politicians need to come up with real solutions to the problems driving voters there into the arms of neo-fascists.
Sánchez’s victory in Spain may be instructive in that regard, as he has managed to walk the line between activating his left-wing base with anti-inequality government policies and placating the business community with a technocratic approach to filling key Cabinet positions. If he can navigate the thorns of the Catalan separatism crisis, keep the unemployment rate on its downward trend, and keep the far-right wolves at bay, he just might build a model for progressive European government in our populist era.