Dancing with the far right doesn’t pay off

July 26, 2023
Photo credit: Gil Corzo / Shutterstock.com
It takes two to tango, and the Spanish election offers a sharp lesson for conservatives across Europe on how partnering with the radical right can go badly wrong.

Sunday’s general election in Spain was a turning point in Spanish politics — but in much a different way than anticipated.

The European Union’s fourth largest economy went to the polls expecting a landslide for a conservative coalition, which would have allowed a far-right party to claim some governing power at the national level for the first time in modern Spain’s 45-year democratic history. But in defiance of the polls, and much to everyone’s surprise, the vote became a plebiscite in favor of the political center.

While the conservative People’s Party (PP), led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, made great gains and emerged as a narrow winner with 33 percent of the vote, it failed to muster the necessary parliamentary majority to govern with the far-right formation VOX (12.4 percent), which lost over a third of its seats. In turn, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party was able to secure its position as the second largest force with 31.7 percent of the vote, and will now attempt to rally the leftist Sumar and an array of smaller parties to form a government.

Conservatives across Europe will have watched Sunday’s vote closely, as the rise of Spain’s far-right party seemed to eerily resemble patterns and developments observed elsewhere

Sánchez has rightfully been called a political gambler, calling this snap election just two months ago, following heavy losses for his leftist coalition in the latest local and regional elections. The negotiations ahead will thus be tough, as Catalan and Basque independence parties will be the likely kingmakers and an electoral re-run in December remains a possibility. However, the vote has clarified that the far right’s recent wins weren’t a litmus test for the national elections after all, and Spaniards sent an unambiguous message that they don’t want VOX to co-govern.

Conservatives across Europe will have watched Sunday’s vote closely, as the rise of Spain’s far-right party seemed to eerily resemble patterns and developments observed elsewhere. And the PP-VOX electoral alliance’s failure bears some important lessons for the role and strategy of the Continent’s center-right conservatives.

Founded in 2003 as a spin-off by defecting PP members, VOX’s astonishing journey — going from political pariah to potential government partner within just a decade — has been closely linked to its ability to fuel political polarization and tilt the political balance on several social issues to its benefit, channeling a strongly nationalist and nativist rhetoric into public discourse. It is this very ability to exploit and thrive in a climate of deepening social fissures that’s gained traction in France, Finland, Italy and other European countries as well. And so, Spain — which, from abroad, has often mistakenly been considered immune to far-right tendencies — was set, or so it seemed, to join the growing ranks of EU countries where such voices and parties gain popularity, broader societal acceptance and, ultimately, national power.

The PP’s shifting attitude toward VOX — ranging from ridicule and envy all the way to outbidding and the offer of partnership as the far-right formation gained popularity — helped weaken the redline that kept such fringe voices out of national politics for so long. As a party with a traditional voting block encompassing a broad conservative spectrum, the PP’s been trying to tiptoe between positioning itself as the moderate alternative to VOX, and staying close enough to the unequivocal ultra-conservative values VOX voters have been missing in the PP since its Mariano Rajoy era.

As the extreme right quickly flourished, PP figureheads thus began co-opting its extreme-right discourse. And, eventually, conservative leaders began testing the political temperature of embracing the once-taboo option of forming alliances with VOX to gain power in various municipalities and regions, at times even assertively encouraging reluctant subnational chapters to enter political pacts with the controversial party.

This profoundly ambiguous stance peaked during this election campaign, when Feijóo sought to portray himself as a bridge-building centrist but didn’t rule out governing with VOX, or making the party’s leader Santiago Abascal his deputy prime minister.

This trajectory of Spain’s conservatives mirrors that of other European center-right mainstream parties

At the same time, displays of emerging local and regional PP-VOX collaborations gave voters an uneasy glimpse of how this kind of cohabitation might tangibly impact their daily lives. And though the conservatives’ inconsistent stance sought to contain VOX while simultaneously attracting the party’s voters, it ultimately ended up doing neither sufficiently well. Instead, the PP’s own ambivalent actions helped enable and mainstream what VOX really stands for — a radical political rhetoric and an extremist policy agenda.

As Sunday’s result proved, this mattered: The PP won, but its win was both below expectations and inadequate. Voters swept away its prospective joint project with VOX, leaving the party with no (other) option to govern. 

This trajectory of Spain’s conservatives mirrors that of other European center-right mainstream parties, which have acted as enablers for the discourse and agenda of a creeping far right and now face the same dilemma of how to deal with an emboldened radical right. It reflects centrist parties’ very real predicament of whether to not cede any ground to the extremes — as most recently seen in Greece — or whether to seize power, even if it means working with and/or being supported by such forces, as has been the case in Sweden.

And other countries’ experience offers a cautionary tale of how, sooner or later, even a timid approximation of these radical right-wing forces means ending up adopting a great deal of their politics and policies.

Although the coming weeks will provide more of an idea as to precisely what shape the Spanish chapter of this European story will take, it’s already clear that the country has shown how far-right alliances can turn out costly — if not toxic — for moderate conservatives.

The symbolic impact of this election will be felt across Europe, offering welcome respite from the emerging narrative that conservative-far-right alliances are inevitable as the Continent’s overall center of gravity continues to swing to the right. It takes two to tango, and Spain offers a sharp lesson for Europe’s conservatives on how dancing with the far right can go badly wrong.

This piece was originally published in POLITICO