Why right-wing populist parties have failed to flourish in Spain

Some 160,000 Spanish protestors took to the streets in Barcelona on Saturday to call on the government to take in more refugees. Demonstrators criticized the government for falling short of a 2015 pledge to allow more than 17,000 refugees into Spain within two years.

The huge demonstration is a striking reminder of what Carmen González-Enríquez, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, has dubbed “the Spanish exception”(pdf). Following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) last year, there’s been growing anxiety that right-wing populism will gain more ground in Europe. But this populist wave has yet to make much of a splash in Spain, where right-wing populist parties have failed to obtain more than 1% of the vote in national elections in recent years. The working paper is one part of a major new research project led by British think tank Demos on feelings about current policy and politics across six EU member states.

The paper restricts the definition of right-wing populism to a party or a movement that is xenophobic, anti-European, and anti-globalization. González-Enríquez notes that Spain has the conditions that so many right-wing populist parties have successfully exploited across Europe: a massive influx of migrants, economic crisis, and growing dissatisfaction with political elites. In 1998, immigrants accounted for 3% of the population, but this figure jumped to 14% by 2012, the paper notes. The increase in immigrants coincided with a boom in the Spanish economy between 1996 and 2007, which was largely based on a construction bubble.

The bubble burst in 2007 when the construction industry collapsed. The unemployment rate shot up to 26% in 2013 from 8% in 2008, according to the paper. In comparison, unemployment rose to 11% from 7% across the EU in the same period. The financial crisis in Spain was particularly brutal to migrants and low-skilled workers. This collapse of the economy was coupled with a crisis in trust; particularly in domestic, European, or international public institutions, the paper notes.

Using public data (including statistics and opinion polls), interviews with experts and original polling, González-Enríquez gives three-explanations for the absence of an enduring right-wing populist response to the crisis. First, a lack of strong leadership by the far right, then the Spanish electoral system, which tends to favor big parties that have an established presence in electoral districts of differing sizes. Lastly, González-Enríquez cites the dark legacy of Francisco Franco’s 1939 to 1975 dictatorship, which weakened national identity and introduced a strong sense of cynicism in the authoritarian right.

“The most important factor is our recent history,” González-Enríquez explains. “The Franco period, which lasted for four decades, has in some way inoculated the country from the virus of extreme nationalism and xenophobia.” The horror of Franco’s dictatorship is ingrained in the nation’s memory and has been taught to subsequent generations. “It will take several decades for that to disappear,” González-Enríquez says.

It’s for this reason that most of Spain’s political parties have been careful when discussing immigration, and don’t “use it as an electoral weapon,” González-Enríquez explains.

The paper’s findings reflect a previous report by the Migration Policy Institute, which characterizes Spain’s immigration policy as “generally open, committed to integration, and more concerned with enlarging avenues for legal immigration rather than limiting flows.”

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