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2023: Rise of the Spanish far-right

Inés Arangüena Aniceto

Vox rally with Spanish flags

What do Spaniards really want? Pedro Sánchez, the incumbent prime minister of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), has asked his citizens this very question after his left-wing coalition with far-left party Unidas Podemos took an unexpected hit. Instead, the centre-right Popular Party (PP) achieved a sweeping absolute majority across the Madrid region, as well as securing important regions like Aragon and Valencia. So, in response, Sánchez called a snap election for 23 July.

Spanish politics has been flickering between the two traditional parties for a long time – so why is the upcoming election so worrying? Despite winning several regions, the PP did not secure the necessary majorities in many of them, which means that they would have to form a coalition with far-right party Vox if they want to secure control of the government. A PP-Vox coalition would be the first time that Spain has been in the hands of the far-right since the fall of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975.

The rise of the extreme right has been a long time coming for Spain. In the past decade, the decline of support for centrism has made the traditional parties, PP and PSOE, rely on separatist and extremist parties, like Podemos and Vox, to govern. The upcoming general election will be the fifth since 2015, and, needless to say, it is a testament to the intensification of Spain’s political turmoil.

Up until about a decade ago, Vox was just another unelectable fringe party sidelined by its extremist views. It was founded by a disillusioned faction of the PP, who felt that the conservatives had gone much too soft. One of their foundational tenets, which is also reminiscent of the dictatorship, was that political power should be returned to the centre and wished an end to political autonomy. And yet, despite their radical anti-immigration, pro-life and climate change-denying views, Vox recently ranked as the third most popular party in the polls.

In terms of Vox’s voter base, it is comprised of what you could call the ‘average’ European nationalist, virtually indistinguishable from supporters of Le Pen in France, Meloni in Italy, and even Trump in the US. Indeed, Vox voters are vocal in their Euroscepticism, xenophobia, anti-immigration, and vehemently argue that human-induced climate change is a hoax.

There are many fingers pointing in many different directions to account for this dramatic decline in support for the socialist party in post-fascist Spain. Many have, rightly, remarked that Sánchez himself has driven the PSOE into irrelevance by way of his own incompetency. Firstly, PSOE formed a coalition with the extremist party Podemos, despite discarding this as a possibility. On top of this, Sánchez’s party has worked with other left-wing extremist parties, such as the Basque and Catalan separatists, which are tied in people’s memory to ETA’s terrorism.

It is also true, however, that several formative events in recent history have contributed to the rise of the far-right in Spain. One of these is, of course, the financial crisis of 2008, which plunged Spain into an economic recession that it has never really managed to recover from. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it severe cuts and inequality that became insupportable for Spaniards. From this, it is clear to see how economic and social damage of the degree that Spain has suffered makes for more than enough ample ammunition for the scapegoating tactics of the right-wing.

Another turning point for Spanish politics was the unconstitutional push for Catalan independence in 2017 and 2018, which kicked off the worst Spanish political and territorial crisis in recent years. Catalonia’s move for secession sealed the fate of the then-PP government headed by Mariano Rajoy, while Vox was quick to join a lawsuit against the Catalan leaders and secure itself as a defender of Spanish territorial integrity. A combination of all these factors has awakened a form of the Spanish nationalism that emerged victorious from the Civil War and became embodied by Franco until his death in 1975.

However, far-right nationalist movements have been creeping up on Europe as a whole, and Spain is only the latest nation to be teetering on the edge. As demonstrated by its counterparts in Italy and France, Vox’s great success has been to normalise views that would have once been considered too intolerant and regressive to capture a liberal democracy. Vox has been opportunistic at every turn of the changing political landscape, using hard-hitting crises to propel the paradigmatic shift we may now witness in Spanish politics.

The Spanish general election is set to take place just three weeks after the nation takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, an event which could well be undermined by a right-wing coalition victory.

It is hard to believe that Spain was once one of the European project’s most enthusiastic supporters. It joined the EU in 1986 alongside Portugal, suffering from obsolete industrial and agricultural sectors compared to other member states. Plus, in the wake of the death of Franco, Spain needed recognition, a consolidation of its status as a democracy, and to emerge from the international isolation they had been condemned to.

And yet, in the last decade, Spain seems to have turned increasingly to far-right nationalism, and away from Europe, for comfort and answers. As demonstrated by the success of Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy and Marine Le Pen’s growing success in France, Vox voters are no longer a margin voice.

The rise of far-right nationalism has posed a challenge for the European vision, as we witnessed after the 2016 political crisis following the failure to deal with the influx of immigration and Britain’s decision to leave the EU. As such, it is clear that a continuation of this European trend through a right-wing PP-Vox coalition in the Spanish government would only fuel the threat of political instability to the European status quo.

The far-right rides on crises and the failures of moderate incumbents to address them. Politics is fluid and ever-changing. It is crucial for Europeans to maintain a fierce commitment to the shared values of the European community – only then can we begin to roll back the far-right tide.

Image: Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images

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