Why Spain Lacks A Far-Right Populist Movement

It is commonly observed that among the economically downtrodden in the West, right-wing authoritarianism is appealing. And yet, in financially unfortunate Spain, right-wing authoritarianism is decidedly not in vogue.

Whether it is Trump and the alt-right in the United States, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Golden Dawn in Greece, or the National Front in France, xenophobia runs rampant  across Western democracies. From Brexit to Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany to the Five Star Movement in Italy, anti-EU and anti-globalization sentiment is perilously pronounced on the European continent. Conventional wisdom suggests  political upheaval is rooted in the failure of economic growth to materialize and the antipathy voters feel toward immigrants. However, if these are the causes of far-right populist movements in developed nations, then such a movement is conspicuously lacking in Spain.

Spain is currently suffering from political dysfunction on multiple fronts. The Catalan government is threatening to hold a referendum to secede. The governing People’s Party lacks the votes needed in parliament to pass legislation on its own and therefore has to persistently cobble together shaky arrangements with its political foes. The country is constantly faced with the possibility of a breakdown of political coalitions, which could lead to a third general election in only two years. In addition, the routine graft and corruption plaguing  Spanish political parties is well known, and has undermined the people’s confidence in their leaders.

Finally, in the past few years new political parties have emerged as major forces in national politics in Spain. None of these parties, however, has right-wing authoritarian tendencies. Ciudadanos is a centrist party mostly representing Spain’s business elite and educated cosmopolitans disaffected with the aforementioned graft in the legacy parties. Podemos is a far-left populist party with a heavy concentration of political science professors among its leadership. The party advocates substantial redistribution from the rich to the masses, strong environmental protection, and has even flirted with the nationalization of certain industries. Yet, the party does not favor dismembering the EU. In fact, it is vocally anti-racist and pro-immigrant rights.


In the wake of the Great Recession, unemployment in Spain surged from a low of eight percent in 2007 to a high of 26  percent in 2013. Nine years after the housing bubble burst, Spain’s nominal GDP has yet to recover to pre-crisis levels. In the intervening years, millions of people lost their jobs, their livelihoods, and their homes. For years, economic anxiety has been palpable on Spanish streets, in bars, and in living rooms.

This economic transformation coincided with dramatic demographic shifts. In 1998, the foreign population of Spain comprised 637,085 persons, representing  less than two percent of the entire population. By 2014, mass immigration, mostly from northern Africa and South America, resulted in the growth of Spain’s foreign-born population to five million persons. Cumulatively, they represented 10.7 percent of the entire population.

Consequently, the ethnic composition of Spain has changed dramatically in the past decade and a half. Political scientists have noted that it is under these circumstances that latent racism generally surfaces and rots society. Fortunately, and somewhat quizzically, Spanish society has not suffered an outbreak of xenophobia, nor have far-right populists thrived.

But why has Spain thus far proven to be a special case? If Spain’s success in this regard can be replicated, many malignant forces in Western society can be quelled or contained.


The phenomenon of Spain’s restrained right-wing politics has not gone unnoticed. The trend and its explanations are featured in various recent studies, articles, and essays.

Writing in The New York Times, author Dan Hancox contended that right-wing authoritarianism is present in Spanish politics, but is obscured by a veneer of respectability in the governing People’s Party. He noted that though the People’s Party was founded after the transition to democracy in the 1970s, its founder, Manuel Fraga, was a Franco minister, whose stalwarts gave continuity to the Franco tradition within the party.

Yet, this argument is disproven by the fact that the People’s Party shifted ideologically over time. While still conservative, it is thoroughly integrated into the traditional liberal democratic process. Moreover, the party does not promulgate large-scale anti-immigrant messaging campaigns. The party’s main focus lies in combating Catalan separatism, boosting its public relations campaign concerning the recovering economy, and fighting the perception that the party is riddled with corruption. The party does not contain an illiberal contingent. The People’s Party has developed into a classic conservative free-market European party that maintains democratic norms and a robust social safety net, much like the Tories in Britain or the Christian Democrats in Germany.

Moreover, while it is true that the People’s Party’s origins lie in Francoism, political parties are constantly shifting and evolving over time. The Democratic Party in the United States was once the party of the slave-holding, Jim Crow South. Today, decades after switching values concerning race, the Democratic Party barely competes in the region. Most of Europe’s socialist parties were forged in the 19th century with explicit Marxist overtones; today, they are largely social-democratic parties embracing most of the basic tenets of capitalism.

The Financial Times freshly dedicated its “Big Read” section  to trying to formulate a cogent answer to the question of why Spain is lacking a far-right populist movement. In a piece entitled, “No Right Turn in Spanish Politics,” Madrid Bureau Chief Tobias Buck presented a series of plausible explanations.

One is that Spain has not suffered a major terrorist attack perpetrated by foreign or radical Islamic militants since the 2004 Atocha train bombings. Therefore, Spaniards possibly view this issue with less unease. Nonetheless, Greece and the Netherlands have likewise not had major terror attacks on their soil and yet still suffer the respective success of Golden Dawn and Geert Wilders. Furthermore, while Spain has not recently suffered a crippling terror strike, local authorities have recently foiled foreign plots. These received much media attention and hence placed the possibility of jihadi terror at the forefront of countless headlines in the press.

Another possibility is  that struggling Spaniards affected by the economic crisis look to their surroundings and do not see thriving immigrants usurping their jobs and livelihoods. Instead, they  do not see anyone reaping benefits for which they are not eligible. The reason for this pertains to Spain’s somewhat peculiar social safety net.

The Financial Times illustrates this phenomenon by depicting a devastated factory town wherein the immigrants are worse off than the original residents and the latter do not resent the former. This stands in marked contrast to the United States, where social service beneficiaries and low-wage workers often resent immigrants. During the Republican primaries, for example, newspaper reporters consistently encountered voters who feared immigrants would siphon off Social Security benefits away from them, or undermine their wages by competing for low-skilled jobs. The manner in which resources are distributed affects how beneficiaries perceive the merits of others.

While Spain affords universal healthcare and education, the Financial Times quotes Jose Fernandez-Albertos, a political analyst at a research center in Madrid, to explain: “Spain has pretty good public services but when it comes to cash benefits, it’s very weak. And those are precisely the areas where it becomes visible that the state is making transfers from one sector of the population to another.” The Financial Times concluded, “as a result, headlines about foreigners claiming benefits and migrant families living off welfare are rare in Spain.”

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan  DC-based think tank, studied the issue of Spain’s integration of immigrants before and after the economic crisis. In its report, the author theorized that a possible explanation for a lack of political backlash against immigration to Spain might be the low-visibility of immigrants in society.

Immigrants do not ordinarily possess positions of power in Spain  and most  have yet to achieve high socioeconomic standing. Plainly put, they are new arrivals seeking economic opportunity for their children. They toil so that their posterity may one day attain the status and opportunities they themselves were deprived. There will come a time in Spain when people of South American and northern African origin are well-represented among government ministers, business executives, doctors, prominent journalists, and the professional class more generally; however, because that day has yet to come, today’s struggling Spaniards are less likely to be what social scientists and political psychologists term “racially primed.”

Media representations of ethnic change and demagogic rhetoric racially prime individuals ensconced in ethnically homogeneous enclaves (both the economically anxious and affluent alike). This assertion is grounded in empiricism. It helps explain why Donald Trump so resoundingly carried Iowa (a white rural state with only four percent unemployment that Barack Obama previously won) and why certain lily-white areas in England voted so overwhelmingly for Brexit.


The Migration Policy Institute study also noted that it might be too early to tell if Spain has avoided the scourge of far-right populism, the undermining of liberal democratic norms, and the scapegoating of ethnic minorities. Because politics is ever shifting, caution remains just as judicious in 2017 as it did in 2013 when the study was first published.

A final theory for why Spain has yet to give into political demons may be that the memory of fascism is still too fresh. Dictator Francisco Franco,whose politics were an ideological heir to Spain’s centuries-old Inquisition, perished a mere 42 years ago. Maybe countries that have experienced and seared into their memories the horrors of malicious politics are less apt to make the same mistake. Then again, if that were the case, Golden Dawn would have zero support for replicating the military juntas that dominated 1970s Greek politics and Alternative Fur Deutschland would be in the political wilderness.

Maybe one of these theories concerning Spain is correct. Or maybe Spain has simply been lucky. Regardless, Spain today—while still mired in many other socioeconomic and political dysfunctions—inspires hope around the world on this front. For this at least, the pluralistic future of Spain, Europe, and liberal democracy generally should remain hopeful; the dream will not wither without a fight.

ImageThe National Day of Catalonia. (David Romalho, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review. A native Californian, he spent his formative years in Madrid, Spain.

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