The populist radical right in southern Europe

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Populist Radical Right Parties (PRRPs) have gained ground in Europe in the past decade or so. Until recently, in Southern Europe, it had been primarily Populist Radical Left Parties (PRLPs) which had been eating into the vote share of mainstream parties: the radical-left Syriza replaced the mainstream The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) as the main force on the left in Greece and Unidas Podemos (Together We Can, UP) – a party which spawned from los indignados (the outraged) protest-movement of 2014 – entered coalition government with the historic centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain, PSOE) following the 2019 general election in Spain. The other main story of that election, and of concern in this post, was the result for the PRRP Vox.

Vox was founded by disaffected members of the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) in 2013 but had been a minor electoral force, winning a mere 0.2 per cent of the vote in general elections in 2015 and 2016. In 2019, the party came third with 15 per cent of the vote and won 52 seats in Spain’s 350 seat Congreso de Los Deputados (Congress of Deputies). Due to dimensions of issue competition in the country, the electoral system, and the role of the centre-right PP in absorbing voters with radical-right preferences, Spain had been depicted as “no country for the populist radical right” just a few years ago. How then do we make sense of the rise of Vox? And how does the case compare with the rise of PRRPs in Western Europe?

Class voting in Europe

Academic literature suggests that PRRPs attract disaffected working-class voters who are considered the “losers of globalisation” as well as small business owners with conservative social attitudes. Social democratic parties therefore suffer from the loss of part of their traditional working-class voter base. In Spain, the data tells a slightly different story. PSOE retains the overwhelming support of the working-classes. Vox voters are mostly from the middle-classes. The party therefore competes more directly with the PP and smaller, centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens). The February 2021 regional elections in Catalonia illustrate this: Vox entered the Catalan parliament winning 11 seats while PP won 3 (loss of 1) and Ciudadanos 6 (loss of 30). PSOE faces an electoral threat from the radical-left UP, and not Vox. UP attracts voters from a middle-class sub-group of socio-cultural professionals (including teachers, medical doctors, social workers), a reliable constituency for social democratic parties in Western Europe. Why does the panorama in Spain differ from Western Europe?

Political cleavages in Europe

The New Left Wave emerged in Western Europe in the 1970s and increased the salience of post-materialist issues, which led to increased salience of, inter-alia, environmental issues and support for Green parties. Later, the New Right Wave emphasised social conflicts stemming from globalisation and has been exploited by the radical-right. Social democratic parties responded to the increasing importance of the post-materialist dimension by adopting a progressive socio-cultural profile which appealed to middle-class voters with similarly progressive positions. In many cases, social democratic parties also recalibrated the welfare state from consumption policies (unemployment insurance, social security) toward more investment policies (childcare, active labour market policies) in line with middle-class voters’ preferences. These shifts changed the profile of the party, leading some to label social democrats as parties of the middle-class. Mainstream left and right parties have adopted more socially progressive positions on issues such as the legalisation of abortion or same sex marriage.

In contrast, these waves have arrived more belatedly to Southern Europe and not yet with the same force. Unlike social democratic parties in Western Europe, Spain’s PSOE never fully embraced the ‘Third Way’ of social democracy. Particularistic welfare policies and the support of trade unions and insider worker groups mean that the party remains anchored to its traditional support base. As a result, PSOE remained a traditional social democratic party of the working classes and the centre-right PP a traditional conservative party of business and the middle-classes. Thus, opportunities for challenger parties were limited and party competition was largely bipartisan until the mid-2010s. During the eurozone crisis, PSOE then PP in government introduced severe fiscal retrenchment in compliance with commitments to international organisations and to satisfy financial markets. These policies were deeply unpopular, particularly among voters on the left and youth. In the language of Peter Mair, the parties sacrificed responsiveness for responsibility in government. This created an opportunity structure for challengers to emerge as both mainstream parties were discredited and lost support. Podemos and Ciudadanos were first to exploit this opportunity structure, breaking the decades-old bipartisan structure of party competition. This laid the structural grounds for Vox to emerge.

Spain’s centre and its regions

The centre-periphery dimension – which refers to contestation between regionalist and national interests and parties – is central to political competition in Spain. The surge in support for Vox followed the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia and the issue of Catalan independence, with its multiple political and social consequences, is central to the party’s strategy and success. Vox focusses heavily on the unitary nature of the Spanish state and proposes to abolish the governments of Spain’s comunidades autónomas (autonomous communities). We do observe similarities with other PRRPs in terms of opposition to immigration, immigrant communities living in Spain (whom they accuse of being overrepresented as perpetrators of crimes), and a prioritisation of Spanish natives in policy areas such as education and welfare.

Nuances in the populist radical-right

The case of Vox and the recent result of the presidential election in Portugal, in which the PRRP Chega! candidate, André Ventura, won 12 per cent of the vote, show that Southern Europe is not immune to the PRR. However, the history of authoritarian rule, party characteristics, and dimensions of issue competition mean that the conditions in which PRRPs emerge, and their strategies and electorate, vary in several ways from those in Western Europe. This should encourage researchers and the media to re-evaluate some of their assumptions about the PRR in contemporary Europe.

Steven Ballantyne is a first year SPS researcher from Scotland. After completing a BA in History and Politics in 2013, he worked in the Scottish Government (2014-2016). He then lived in Spain for three years before returning to Scotland where he studied for a MSc in European Politics. His research interests include political parties, political economy and the welfare state.