No right turn for Spanish politics

Cristóbal Rovira, Financial Times

Despite an economic meltdown rightwing populists failed to gain a foothold in the country. Why?

Villacañas still bears the scars of Spain’s economic crisis. Driving into the small Castilian town, the first thing you see is a row of vast, silent factories. Some are plastered with faded “for sale” signs. Others face a slow, losing battle against the weeds encroaching from all sides.
These factories were once the pride of Villacañas. Although home to just over 10,000 people, the town used to be known as the “door capital” of Spain. Before the collapse of the country’s decade-long housing boom in 2008, it boasted 10 large manufacturers that produced millions of doors a year. Local unemployment hovered below 2 per cent and workers had money to burn: luxury cars became a common sight, fancy overseas holidays a regular treat.

When the property bubble burst, six of the main manufacturers were forced to close. Some 3,000 workers lost their jobs. Unemployment in the area increased more than tenfold, eventually peaking at 28 per cent in 2012. So jolting was the transformation that Villacañas became famous once again: as a symbol of Spain’s crisis and its economic woes.

In political terms, however, the real story is what happened next — or what didn’t happen. For all the obvious parallels with the rust-belt states in the US or the hard-hit industrial heartlands of England and France, Villacañas experienced no populist backlash, no anti-immigrant wave and no revolt against globalisation. Despite brutal economic decline and mass unemployment, the political centre held in towns like Villacañas, and across the country.

A decade after the start of the crisis, Spain has yet to see the arrival of a populist far-right party like the National Front in France, an anti-immigration platform like the Alternative for Germany, or an anti-EU movement like the UK Independence party.
In political terms, however, the real story is what happened next — or what didn’t happen. For all the obvious parallels with the rust-belt states in the US or the hard-hit industrial heartlands of England and France, Villacañas experienced no populist backlash, no anti-immigrant wave and no revolt against globalisation. Despite brutal economic decline and mass unemployment, the political centre held in towns like Villacañas, and across the country.

A decade after the start of the crisis, Spain has yet to see the arrival of a populist far-right party like the National Front in France, an anti-immigration platform like the Alternative for Germany, or an anti-EU movement like the UK Independence party.

Outside Spain, only a handful of smaller European countries, such as Portugal and Ireland, have been able to resist the tide. But recent polls and election results all point to the same conclusion: Spaniards are overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership, and remain untroubled by immigration.

“People here worry about jobs, not about migrants,” says José Manuel Carmona, a member of the Villacañas local council for the centre-right Popular party, the ruling party in a minority government. “If they blame anyone for the crisis it is the politicians.”

Sentiment towards the EU has been profoundly marked by decades of subsidies for local farmers and — once the crisis hit — for retraining workers who were laid off during the downturn. “I think locals here understand that the EU is an institution that has provided funds and help,” says Santiago García Aranda, the town’s Socialist mayor.

Rise of the left

On the face of it, Spain has long seemed like an inviting target for political parties with an anti-EU and anti-immigration message. Since the collapse of the housing boom, the country has suffered a deep recession and a sharp rise in unemployment and inequality. A budget crisis meant Madrid had to slash spending and raise taxes — measures that were blamed at least in part on EU pressure. Trust in the political elite was shattered by corruption scandals.

Moreover, the crisis erupted at the end of a decade that saw unprecedented numbers of migrant arrivals. In 1998, immigrants accounted for just 3 per cent of the population. By 2008, the share had jumped to 13 per cent — one of the highest in Europe — according to official data. And yet, at no point has a far-right anti-immigrant party gained traction at the national or regional level. At last June’s general election, the only party that came even close to fitting that description, a three-year-old movement called Vox, secured just 0.2 per cent of the vote. In Villacañas, Vox obtained just 10 out of 5,771 votes — far behind the local offshoot of the animal rights’ party.

The main political beneficiary of the crisis has been the far-left, not the far-right. Since its creation three years ago, the anti-austerity Podemos party has emerged as a powerful force, winning 21 per cent of the national vote last year. It is, in many ways, a proudly populist movement, whose leaders rail against the elites and are not averse to using divisive rhetoric.

However, the party’s base of supporters and its political platform have little in common with far-right populists: Podemos backers are typically found among the young, well-educated and urban population, who are generally open to migration and support EU membership.

What, then, explains the Spanish exception? Analysts argue there is no single reason, but rather an idiosyncratic bundle of causes and conditions. Lack of strong leadership is one obvious factor. Another is the complex legacy of the Franco dictatorship, which has instilled a profound scepticism towards rightwing authoritarianism. There is also a collective understanding that tough times force people to seek work abroad — as many Spaniards did during the 1960s, and then again during the crisis. A fourth cause cited by researchers is the nature of the recent migration flows into Spain: many of the arrivals hail from Ecuador, Peru and other Latin American countries. They were foreigners, but familiar ones — with the same language, religion and culture as the native population.

These explanations, however, only go so far. Latin America indeed accounted for a significant number of migrant arrivals, but the two largest groups were from Romania and Morocco. According to official data, there are 1.4m migrants from the two countries living in Spain — almost a third of the foreign population.

For a deeper understanding of Spain’s resilience, two additional elements help to set the country apart: national identity and the welfare system. “The main difference between Spain and other European countries is that, here, people see no link between immigration and national identity,” says Carmen González Enríquez, a senior analyst at the Real Instituto Elcano think-tank. “The sense of national identity is generally rather weak in Spain. You sometimes hear local complaints. People will say: ‘All the local shops have gone’. Or: ‘This village has changed so much’. But it is never expressed in any political form.”

In a forthcoming report for the Elcano Institute and Demos, the UK think-tank, Ms González Enríquez argues that the sense of identity in Spain continues to be shaped by the experience of dictatorship. “The overuse of national symbols and of references to national identity during Francoism caused a countermovement which still persists. The pro-democratic opposition to the regime rejected the exhibition of national symbols, the flag and the anthem, and Spanish nationalism was completely absent from their discourse. Instead, they looked to Europe,” she argues.

Even today, the attachment to Europe and the EU remain strong. According to a poll conducted for the Elcano/Demos study, only 10 per cent of Spaniards want to leave the EU, compared with 22 per cent in France and 45 per cent in the UK (though more than half of British voters chose to leave in June). That level of support reflects Spain’s status as a net recipient of EU funding, but also less tangible factors. For many Spaniards, the EU continues to represent modernity and progress — while Spanish membership of the union offers reassurance that the country has finally joined the European mainstream.

Regional focus

A political appeal to Spanish national identity is further complicated by the long-running tensions between the central state and its regions, specifically Catalonia and the Basque country. Many Catalans and Basques claim a national identity that is not just distinct from the Spanish one but in direct conflict with it. Both regions have strong secessionist movements that hope to eventually achieve statehood and independence from Spain.
For any rightwing movement seeking to activate nationalist sentiment, that presents an immediate problem. If its leaders try to tap into Spanish pride, they risk losing support in two crucial regions that account for almost a quarter of the total Spanish population. If they appeal exclusively to Catalan or Basque national identity, they shut themselves out of the rest of Spain.

At the same time, the political conflict between Spain and the regions has allowed the ruling Popular party, led by Mariano Rajoy, to protect its rightwing flank without stoking or pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. “The PP has been able to remain a catch-all rightwing party, in part because it has a strong message about defending the unity of Spain. That is a key issue for rightwing voters,” says Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, a political scientist at Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile.

Spain’s centre-periphery tensions aside, analysts also highlight a welfare system that grants generous access to core services such as health and education but offers little in the way of social housing and direct support payments.

“You don’t have this conflict between natives and non-natives over welfare that you have in other countries,” says José Fernández-Albertos, a political analyst at the CSIC research centre in Madrid. “Spain has pretty good public services but when it comes to housing and 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.”

As a result, headlines about foreigners claiming benefits and migrant families living off welfare are rare in Spain. “Part of this is always about competition for resources. When there are no resources to compete for, the potential for conflict decreases,” says Sergi Pardos-Prado, a researcher at Oxford university.

It is an argument that goes hand-in- hand with another feature of Spain’s crisis: the fact that migrants were usually hit much harder than the native population, which could rely on family networks to cushion the blow. Foreign workers had no safety net to fall back on. It was, as Mr Fernández-Albertos points out, “objectively difficult to argue that Spain treated its migrants too well during the crisis”.

Back in Villacañas, that is certainly the impression of hard-hit locals. At the height of the boom, migrants accounted for 5 per cent of the town’s population — but their share has decreased markedly in the years since. “When the crisis came, most of them just left,” says Mr García Aranda.

Looking ahead, most experts voice confidence that Spain will continue to resist the populist far-right surge. Most of the factors that explain the country’s exceptional status are deeply rooted in its history and society, and are therefore unlikely to change in the short term. What is more, Spain is in the midst of recovery — annual growth in gross domestic product hit 3.2 per cent last year — suggesting that some of the social and economic pressures will recede.

For the leaders of Europe’s political centre, the story of Spain after the crisis offers a glimmer of hope — but not much more than a glimmer. The Spanish exception is less the result of smart politics than of historical accidents and complex social trends that are hard to replicate. Policymakers in Berlin, Brussels and London will find plenty to admire in the country’s resilience to the populist backlash — but not a lot to copy.

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