Post EU Elections

Populist Spanish parties test water in EU elections

21.02.14 @ 09:28

  1. By Helena Spongenberg

Barcelona - Mainstream political parties in Spain are set to lose ground to smaller populist movements in the May EU elections, which are seen as a test ground for next year's local and general votes.

  • Different national identities within Spain make it 'complicated' to tie xenophobic speech with nationalism (Photo: Xurxo Martínez)

Although economic growth has picked up a little, the reality of life is still harsh for many Spanish people. Unemployment is the second highest in Europe with over 25 percent out of work compared to the EU average of around 10 percent.

Some 1.8 million households have nobody bringing in an income; severe budget cuts have strained the education and health systems; and people continue to feel the economic crisis right up close.

This, coupled with a surge in political corruption cases, has increased dissatisfaction with the Spanish two-party system that has dominated domestic politics since the late 1970s.

The two parties in question – the governing Partido Popular (PP) and the opposition Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) – are expecting citizens to register discontent with their EU vote.

Combined they are set to gain 54.4 percent of the vote, according to a Metrocopia opinion poll in January.

This would be the lowest since the 1989 European Parliament election in which together they got 61 percent.

The PP is set to lose eight seats, going from 24 to 16, while PSOE looks likely to lose six seats, down from 23 to 17.

These predictions have galvanized politicians into action.

Socialist leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba has appointed Elena Valenciano, a close associate and Socialist party vice-president, to head the party's list.

A socialist MEP from 1999 to 2008, Valenciano has been the vice-president of the Party of European Socialists since 2012.

She wants to turn the tide of Europe’s economic crisis by returning to a more left-wing discourse.

"We have lost a lot of time and a lot of ground in the fight against the crisis in the last few years [...] with terrible consequences for the lives of many citizens," she said recently.

The EU parliament elections "are key for the recuperation of Europe".

The socialist's high profile appointment is putting pressure on conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who has yet to make any public statement as to who will lead the Partido Popular’s list.

The former interior minister Jaime Mayor Oreja, who has been a conservative MEP since 2004, has declined to head the list as he did in the two previous European Parliament elections.

A new party to the right of the right

Both the PP and the PSOE are facing difficulties. While Rubalcaba is failing to recover his socialist party's shrinking support, Rajoy’s conservative party is facing a creeping crisis of ideology and is losing support among some of the party's most conservative members.

José María Aznar, conservative prime minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, has publicly criticised Rajoy and his policies.

Furthermore, a few party militants have resigned and joined a new right-wing party, Vox. They accuse the conservative government of being too "soft" on separatist regions and on ETA, the Basque separatist group that announced a ceasefire in 2011.

At their formal presentation in January, Vox members said they aim to participate in the European Parliament election. One of the party's leaders is conservative MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras, who is currently EU parliament vice-president. He quit the PP earlier this year.

While it is too early to judge what kind of party Vox really is, its leaders are keen to make the most of the current changes in Spanish politics.

"It is a protest vote from the right of the PP," says Xavier Casals, a university professor and specialist on Spain's extreme right.

Vox could eventually capture Spain's small number of extreme right voters, he says.

Extreme right and hate-speech in politics

There are a few extreme right and ultra right parties in Spain and although they are growing in members, the parties are still very marginal.

"The extreme right is fragmented. It is tied to small territories and it doesn't have a leadership. Furthermore, it has difficulties in competing in the electoral market because there are other ideological options for the protest vote,” says Casals.

Despite the extreme right's marginal position, there has been an increase in xenophobic statements in Spain over the last few years.

"We have to worry and be alert in Spain," says Ricard Zapata, a university professor specialising in political hate speech.

"Compared to other countries, xenophobic rhetoric has not resulted in a specific political party with this specific discussion, but it has rapidly been incorporated by a party that at the moment is in power, the Partido Popular," he notes.

At the height of Spain's two-party system in the mid 1990s, Aznar's Partido Popular was able to unite the entire spectrum of right-wing ideologies from the most liberal, to the Christian democrats, to the extreme right.

"Partido Popular is a conglomerate of many right-wing ideologies," says Zapata.

In contrast to other EU countries, xenophobic rhetoric is still concentrated at the local level in Spain and has not yet coloured regional, national or European politics.

There is also no link between populist statements and anti-Europeanism, like there is in many other EU countries.

"Because isolation from Europe was so long during the Franco regime, anti-European speech has failed to take root," says Casals. Indeed anti-Europeanism does not have great support in Spain, he adds.

"It is perfectly possible to be xenophobic and pro-European at the same time," he says.

Another fact that differentiates Spain from other EU members is that, in general, political extremist rhetoric has not been linked to national identity such as in Denmark, France, and the Netherlands.

Zapata argues this could be a reason why the extreme right in Spain is still marginalised,

The different national identities within Spain itself makes it "complicated" to tie xenophobic speech with nationalism. Rather, hate speech in Spain is populist, he explains.

Spanish politics versus European politics

As dissatisfaction with Spanish politics deepens together with the country’s social crisis, voters are set to use their vote to protest against the country's political establishment. And this will also be the case for the European Parliament elections.

According to the Metroscopia poll, 72 percent of Spanish voters will vote – or abstain – for domestic economic and political reasons, rather than for any reason to do with the EU.

Turnout is expected to be around 46 percent, similar to the last European Parliament elections in 2009.

Spanish voters will elect 54 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on Sunday 25 May.

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