The American Interest: Vox populi
At a glance, everything looked as it should. The chrome of the space-aged television studio was glistening. Three clean-cut men in trim, dark suits and one in rolled-up shirt sleeves took positions behind translucent podiums. They launched into their debate talking points.
Pedro Casado, the leader of the conservative People’s Party (PP), assailed the incumbent Socialist (PSOE) premier Pedro Sánchez for negotiating with Catalan independence parties. Sanchez chastised Casado for retrograde views on abortion and women. Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed leader of the leftist Podemos, brandished a copy of the constitution to emphasize rights on pensions, employment, equality and housing. Albert Rivera, leader of the center-right Ciudadanos party, promised to lower taxes and mocked the “practically communist” proposals by Sánchez.
“None of the candidates were convincing,” says Ana Sofía Cardenal, apolitical scientist at the Open University of Catalonia.
Something felt a little off, as if things were going unsaid. True, there was no talk of foreign policy, the euro, the future of the European Union, NATO, or the volatile situation developing just across the Mediterranean. But it was more than that.
Santiago Abascal, the bearded leader of the far Right Vox party, had been relegated to watching on television after Spain’s election commission blocked Vox from participating. Out of sight, he did not stay out of mind, tweeting a picture of four identical parrots lined up on a tropical tree branch. “Spot the differences,” he sniped.
With no members currently parliament (Vox received 0.1 percent of the vote in the 2016 general election), Voxdid not pass the legal threshold to appear on the debate stage. One of the TV channels had decided to invite them anyway, on the back of a strong showing (11 percent) in Andalusia’s December regional election. But the channel relented following complaints by other small parties to the electoral commission. The drama allowed Vox to spin the disinvitation as a ban ordered by some shadowy establishment cabal. And it did little to quell interest in the party, solidifying them as the “invisible alternative,” Cardenal says. Starting April 21, Vox was the subject of 3.6 times more web searches than their nearest competitors (PP and Podemos), according to Google Trends.
“It was a missed opportunity. The four on the stage are all skilled politicians in their own ways,” says Victor LaPuente, a political scientist at the University of Gothenberg and El Pais columnist. “Abascal would have looked mediocre. He has never been tested.”
Abascal is a sturdy, fire hydrant of a man. A refugee from the PP, he totes a gun, and hails from the autonomous Basque region. His father and grandfather were politicians, with the latter a mayor during the Francoist regime. Abascal denounces “progres,” his term of derision for progressives, and rails against “supremacist feminism and gender totalitarianism”. He is fond of soaring, if vague rhetoric. “We are not ashamed of our history,” he thundered at a rally earlier this week. “Wehavecome this far to guarantee Spaniards’ freedom and national pride.”
Vox has driven Spanish political debate since their out-of-nowhere debut last December. They now prop up a PP-Ciudadanos government in what is Spain’s largest region by population. Socialists had controlled Andalusia, where unemployment tops 25 percent, for the bulk of four decades. Nationally, Vox wants to do away with Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and centralize power in Madrid. They promise to bring Gibraltar—which has been ruled by the UK since 1713—back into the realm. While officially agnostic on the EU, they give off the sense that they simply have not thought about it much. Vox opposes abortion. They love capitalism, bullfighting, hunters and the Virgin Mary. They are not against immigration per se, so long as the immigrants come from Latin America.
Like elsewhere in Europe, Vox’s rise is due in no small part to a chaotic, splintering political scene. This is Spain’s third general election in four years. Amid politics long dominated by the PP and Socialists, the leftist Podemos burst onto the scene in 2014, followed by Ciudadanos in 2015. Sánchez has been Prime Minister since June 2018, one month after he mobilized corruption scandals to oust PP’s Mariano Rajoy from office. (Rajoy was so demoralized by the deft maneuver that he left parliament before the no confidence vote ended, reportedly retreating to a Madrid restaurant to quaff whiskey.) Sánchez then led a minority government, backed by Podemos and a mish-mash of regional parties, including some advocating Catalan independence. He raised the minimum wage and moved to exhume the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco from a fancy mausoleum (they will get a more austere home in June). In the wake of increased demands from Catalan independistas, and the failure to pass a budget in February, Sánchez called elections.
In the months since, Vox have pulled both the PP and Ciudadanos right, manufacturing a nationalist frenzy where there wasn’t one before. The PP’s Casado enthusiastically jumped into the fray branding Sánchez a “criminal” and “our country’s greatest traitor” for his willingness to speak with pro-independence Catalans. Meanwhile, on the Left, the Socialists and Podemos style themselves as bulwarks against a three party rightwing government resembling the one in Andalusia. The Left has branded that potential grouping el trio de Colón, a reference to a photograph that saw Casado, Rivera and Abascal together at an underwhelming February demonstration against Catalan independence in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón.
“We didn’t think Trump was going to win, or that people would say yes to Brexit,” Sánchez wrote on Twitter April 25. “To those who still have doubts but are clear that the trio de Colón cannot govern Spain, I ask you to focus your vote for [the Socialists]. We’re the only ones who can stop them.”
Fringe movements have steered European ships of state for quite a while, in conjunction with a political center that has shifted dramatically rightward over the past 40 years. A 2017 study by the scholars Markus Wagner and Thomas Meyercharted 68 mainstream European political parties from 17 countries on a “liberal-authoritarian axis”. They measured changes in positioning on issues like immigration, law and order, and nationalism between 1980 and 2014, and concluded “the average center-left party today is about as authoritarian as the average radical-right party was in the early 1980s.”
Such authoritarian drift has occurred almost entirely without overtly authoritarian parties in government. The study also rebuts conventional wisdom that says radical parties moderate themselves in pursuit of power. Wagner and Meyer show that the “radical-right” is actually becoming more radical and authoritarian. “The radical right has thus become more distinctive, while the party system as a whole has shifted to the right,” they write. In short, appropriating positions once considered extreme not only normalizes them, but also fails in its purported goal of subsuming or moderating radicals. If true, something like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s 2017 appropriation of anti-immigration rhetoric from Geert Wilders was not the stuff of tactical genius, but a short-term gambit tantamount to strategic surrender.
Spain makes for a particularly interesting case study, as archetypal ideological divisions are clearly delineated by party, with the anti-capitalist Left, center Left, center Right, conservative Right and hard Right all poised to harvest at least a 10 percent share of the vote. Fluidity on the right is quantifiable. In the 2011 general election, PP received 44.6 percent of the vote. They now poll at less than half that, and all told PP, Ciudadanos and Vox (the proverbial trio de Plaza de Colón) account for the shame vote share in polls that PP had by themselves in 2011. In December, about 75 percent of Vox voters in the Andalusian election were former PP and Ciudadanos voters. In March, the Spanish polling agency Metroscopia released a study tracking voter movement between parties. It found some 400,000 voters poised to switch from Ciudadanos to Vox.
This suggests that the establishment PP, dragged down by the corruption and uninspired technocracy of the Rajoy years, are no longer a viable choice for a good portion of right-leaning voters. “They are fishing around for something else,” says Matthew Bennett, a journalist and analyst who runs The Spain Report, a bilingual reporting website. Ciudadanos was built on dissatisfied PP voters, who, still dissatisfied, now opt for Vox rather than return to PP. The faster PP and Ciudadanos adopt Vox positions, the faster their voters are migrating to Vox.
While Spain is plagued by high unemployment (13.9 percent nationwide) and the establishment is viewed as corrupt, the hard right’s traditional bête noire, immigration, is not a prevalent issue in Spanish society. In a survey last year, a full 83 percent of Spaniards said they were comfortable with welcoming immigrants—the highest in the European Union. Meanwhile Eurostat found that 71 percent of the Spanish say that immigrant “integration is successful” and 78 percent agree that immigrants “help fill jobs for which it’s hard to find workers”. Only 1.6 percent of Spaniards view immigration as the top problem facing the country, according to a poll last month by the Madrid-based Center for Sociological Investigations (CIS).
This makes Vox’s ability to get a serious hearing in this election all the more surprising. They have managed to stoke nationalism by doubling-down on opposition to Catalan independence. While PP and Ciudadanos already oppose independence, Vox outdoes them at every turn. PP pledges to suspend Catalonian home rule (just as Rajoy did following the 2017 independence vote), Vox wants to abolish regional autonomy as a constitutional precept. But even this, by normal measures of political rationality, seems a losing strategy, with just 3.7 percent of Spaniards viewing Catalonia’s bid for independence as the most important issue facing the country. This is far behind unemployment (39.5 percent), political parties (12.8 percent), corruption (11 percent) and general economic problems (8.2 percent) in the CIS study.
“Political entrepreneurs are able to show something and give it importance. Concerns of the people do not matter as much,” Lapuente suggests. “The supply side is more important than ever.”
Vox has made heavy use of the messaging application WhatsApp during the campaign. In Spain, the app is commonly exempt from mobile phone data plans, meaning it costs nothing to use even outside wifi coverage. Techniques like this, lead Cardenal to call their campaign a “black box” and help make, along with some 40 percent of voters that claimed to be undecided, the election the most “unpredictable in the history of Spain,” she says.
While it seems certain Sanchez’s Socialists will get the most votes April 28, the rest is anybody’s guess. A leftist coalition of the Socialists and Podemos is possible, and more likely with support from regional parties (likely Basques rather than Catalans). A Socialist-Cidadanos centrist government looks mathematically difficult. In polls, PP looks poised to lead the right, but the viability of a right-wing coalition depends almost entirely on Vox’s ability to turn out new voters or poach former working class leftists. Thus far, they have cannibalized the other rightwing parties.
“We do have important problems with the economy, child poverty, inequality, the sustainability of the pension and health care systems,” Lapuente says. “But what we are talking about is all the things Vox tweets about, or whatever Abascal is YouTubing”
Vox is not going to win the election, but in many important ways, they are winning the campaign.