Nothing New Under the Sun

On the Upcoming Spanish General Elections

Spanish local elections in June were a watershed for the progressive coalition led by the socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Disillusionment with the government’s liberal cultural agenda, along with stubborn inflation, and rising anxiety over mass migration resulted in widespread abstentions by left-wing voters, leading to victory for the center-right People’s Party (PP) in key Spanish cities and a significant increase in votes for the avowedly right-wing Vox. 

Meanwhile, Catalan nationalist activists are refusing to endorse the current subservience of former pro-independence leaders to Madrid. Without the support of left-wing Catalan “pro-independence” parties, Sanchez will have enormous difficulties staying in office. 

In an attempt to stop the bleeding, Sanchez called a snap election for July 23rd hoping that the opposition won’t be able to craft an effective national campaign strategy in time. Yet the momentum gained during the local and regional elections gives a coalition government led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo of the PP and Santiago Abascal for Vox a real shot at victory. 

As in other countries, for many Spanish voters, electoral politics have become a form of entertainment. The possibility of seeing the programs of their party come to fruition is slim. In many European Union countries fiscal policy is no longer even in the hands of national governments. For this reason, culture wars have become the electorate’s main attraction. 

In local elections is more difficult to gaslight the electorate with greenwashing or pinkwashing when the streets are dirty and unsafe. But in a general election, culture wars reign. Accordingly, the Left is currently resorting to conjuring up the specter of a Francoist Spain if Vox gains influence in a right-wing government. This prospect has in fact been received with excitement on the mainstream Right, with some even speculating that Spain may be on the brink of a “great realignment” to save Spain from destruction. Meanwhile, the Left appeals to the narrative of the Popular Front – the left-wing coalition that won the elections before the Civil War. The theme of the Spanish Civil War obviously still goes a long way in Spanish politics. The fact that the Spanish electoral system is organized among two large parties helps to play this alignment. Nonetheless, most of the time, this is nothing more than self-serving posturing. 

Although after the Euro crisis and the populist upheavals of the 2010s Spain’s political system has been somewhat destabilized, the ruling bloc of the Spanish elites is in no way fractured. Regardless of who wins the next election, the current regime will remain robust. 

In general, the progressive coalition between the Socialists and the radical formation, Podemos, has played the culture war card to cover for its unsatisfactory economic performance. Culture war policies also help to sustain the support of a “deep civil society” ecosystem of client organizations, non-profits, foundations, and research groups dependent on government funding. Pedro Sanchez has used the EU Next Generation Funds to buy social peace for young middle-class educated through opening government jobs and grants for graduates in sociology and gender studies. 

The progressive coalition has been good at antagonizing right-wing sentiments with the exhumation of the tombs of General Francisco Franco and Primo de Rivera from the el Valle de los Caídos and by checking the boxes of a Netflix-style liberal agenda on race, education, and gender, including passing a law that makes it easier to legally change gender. 

The People’s Party, for its part, has found itself in a more precarious position. Ultimately Spanish politics is a duopoly, and the rise of Vox has been a blessing for Pedro Sanchez’s strategy to sideline the PP. Vox dominates the memesphere and has played well with vloggers and online influencers to the point of becoming hot among right-wing young voters. Aware of this, the Socialist strategy has sought to try and force the PP to compete in a battle it cannot win for being more rhetorically hard-liner than Vox. 

The State of Vox

The rise of Vox, which has strong anti-immigration rhetoric, challenges the UN Agenda 2030, and presents a strong Spanish nationalist feeling, has led many to think it represents an upheaval in Spanish politics equivalent to populist formations elsewhere in Europe, like Fratelli d’Italia, Lega Nord, the Front National, or even America’s Donald Trump. Ideologically its programs may share many commonalities. However, its origins are totally different.

Born in 2013, Vox is a splinter party from the PP that captured its most neoconservative sectors. Its current leadership, Santiago Abascal and Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, may like to speak against “globalist elites,” but Vox was never a party born to challenge Spanish elites, and is in fact intimately connected to some of them. 

His economic program follows a special kind of Spanish neoliberalism. It favors economic deregulation while supporting a conglomerate of big corporations dependent on government contracts. For a while it was celebrated in post-liberal conservative circles that Vox was launching a union called “Solidarity.” Four years after its foundation, however, any activity on such front is unknown. The only unions that Vox seems to have a close relation to are those linked to the Spanish police. 

There might be some protectionist rhetoric, but Vox’s economic program and policies facilitate a neoliberal-stye free market. Instead of acting for the reinvigoration of industry and manufacturing, Vox reinforces economic activities dependent on cheap migrant labor, like tourism, consolidating Spain’s position as a peripheral Southern European economy. 

For example, under the rhetoric of the defense of the Iberosphere, Vox bypasses its opposition to migration, supporting the entry of Latin American migrants to Spain. Vox also defended the homologation of university titles from South American universities to those of European universities. That not only poses questions on the differences in the quality of those degrees but would also facilitate 40,000 foreigners to compete for jobs mostly taken by Spanish citizens. 

Indeed, importing Latin American migrants to Spain is a policy that has already been intensified by Pedro Sanchez’s government under an agreement with US President Joe Biden. Accordingly, the current role of Vox in Spanish politics is to fulfill the performative needs of the culture war of the conservative Right, just as Podemos does for the liberal Left. Vox provides an updated right-wing national conservative force with a Franco-nostalgia flavor. But memes about the return of a Chad traditionalist Spain are just memes.  

The Catalan Factor 

Catalonia’s bid for independence has been one of the last real political events outside of the performative limits of culture wars that have challenged the core of Post-Franco Spain. Following the surrender of the movement’s leadership, Catalan secession is not on the horizon of the July elections. However, subjugating Catalonia is a perennial obsession of Madrid which, despite the narrative of Spanish conservative media, the Socialists have continued. It is true that Pedro Sanchez pardoned the jail sentence of Catalan leaders that participated in the failed independence attempt of 2017. But thanks to giving this to the pro-independence leadership, Sanchez has domesticated them. In general, by capitalizing on the PP and Vox’s vehement anti-Catalan sentiments, Sanchez has secured the support of Catalan parties without making substantial concessions.

Despite being a pro-independence government on paper, the current Catalan government has collaborated extensively with Madrid and even persecuted pro-independence supporters. At the same time, following the Scottish Nationalist playbook, the cultural strategy of the left-wing Catalan government has been aimed at promoting a thin form of Catalan identity connected to a culturally-liberal cosmopolitan agenda. Catalans have accordingly become the scapegoats for a myriad of societal ills, including sexism, slavery, racism and climate change. This shift has reached a point where a supposedly pro-independence government adopts Spanish unionist talking points and attacks any form of strong Catalan nationalism as ‘supremacist’.

This strategy has generated a backlash from the Catalan nationalist grassroots. In the recent local elections, Catalan voters sought to punish collaborationist elites. The ruling party, Catalonia’s Republican Left, has lost a third of its voters since 2019. A noteworthy development is the relative success of small and poorly organized yet active right-wing Catalan nationalist forces critical of mass migration, such as the Catalan National Front and the Catalan Alliance. The latter, led by Silvia Orriols, obtained the government of the millenary town of Ripoll. 

What will come next in Catalan nationalism is still unknown, but it seems that its call to boycott Spanish elections can derail Pedro Sanchez’s ambitions. Feijóo knows that Sanchez can only lose the elections thanks to the rise of abstention. For this reason, Feijóo is trying to differentiate himself from hard-liner Spanish nationalists of his party and Vox, presenting a more conciliatory view of the Spanish state peripheries. But that is unlikely to do the trick. 

The Right-Wing Coalition Government 

Polls seem to indicate that the rhetoric of “Fascism is Coming” of the Spanish Left is working to mobilize their voters, but that the election is still on an edge, and Feijóo and Abascal may yet take victory home. In that case, Vox will be the junior partner of the People’s Party, a mature force of government and one of the pillars of the system born after the 1978 transition. 

PP ministers have extensive experience in the system of governance and deep ties to the inner circles of the Spanish state. Accordingly, in most places where the PP has formed a coalition with Vox, the latter has been subordinated. As such a coalition with the PP arguably offers Vox more risks than benefits. There is a chance that Vox will endorse a government led by them but that will remain outside of it. 

The right-wing coalition government won’t change much of the fundamental course of Spanish economic policy. Despite accusations of Communism, socialist Finance Minister Nadia Calviño has maintained a subservient fiscal policy to EU demands. A conservative minister won’t change the fundamentals or get serious about re-industrializing Spain. It is worth noting that Vox, following the program of the ECR, has talked about the need to preserve national law over European law, but it has never challenged the rule of the Euro and Brussels’ fiscal discipline. 

Nonetheless, Vox could play a key role in steering the wheel to push back some of the policies of the left-wing coalition. Progressive gender policies will be halted, and maybe the Trans Law reversed. Limiting funding for organizations promoting liberal agendas is where the PP-Vox coalition might have the most impact, and also in curtailing the power of pro-migration organizations like Open Arms. But it is hard to see anything getting done beyond this point. 

One area where there might be advances is in the attempts to keep centralizing the Spanish state. Taking the precedents of the recently formed coalition agreements in Mallorca and Valencia, we can see how the cultural policy of a Vox will ironically focus most of its energies on attacking the power of the Catalan national minority while its position on issues related to migration and LGTQB questions will likely be watered down. 

In short, the prospects of a right-wing coalition in Spain are likely to follow the broader trend of right-wing governments seen across Europe. We witness variations of criticism of liberal values, different degrees of state interventionism, and shades of populism but no grand vision capable of fundamentally altering the course of European nations. Sometimes elections decide on the soul of a country and mark a defining moment in history, but Spain’s general election next week is unlikely to be an example. 

Miquel Vila is the executive director of the Catalonia Global Institute. His research focuses on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of East Asia and on nationalist movements.


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