Editor’s note, July 24, 8:30 am: The results of the Spanish election were inconclusive, with neither a conservative Partido Popular-Vox coalition nor the current left-leaning governing coalition garnering enough votes to form a government. The Partido Popular is expected to attempt to find enough support to form a government. A coalition government between the center left, left, and separatist parties may be more realistic, however. The piece below, written before the election, explains a potential Partido Popular-Vox coalition, and how the far-right Vox expanded its power.
After its July 23 national elections, Spain could be partially governed by a far-right party for the first time in generations.
It’s a development that would be significant both for Spain — and the rest of Europe. Domestically, it would mean that Vox, the country’s hard-right party, could help influence policy, advancing harsh attacks on LGBTQ people, women, and migrants. Broadly, it would also send a message outside Spanish borders, adding to the victories of the far right in places like Greece, Finland, and Italy in the last year.
Ever since the demise of the ultranationalist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in the 1970s, Spanish voters have been hesitant to give the far right federal power. That this could change in the coming elections signals how much ground the movement has gained in Spain and elsewhere.
According to polls, the July 23 elections are likely to see unpopular center-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez voted out and a new conservative coalition government voted in. While the center-right Partido Popular (PP) — home to Spain’s traditional conservatives — is set to win the most legislative seats, it’s not poised to get enough to secure the outright majority needed to form a government. As a result, it will likely need the help of Vox, and the seats that the hard-right party is able to secure, in order to set up a coalition.
That puts Vox in the position of becoming PP’s “junior partner” in government, a role that will give it influence over key leadership positions in the administration and a much bigger platform to tout hard-line immigration policies as well as misogynistic and homophobic views.
“If the party were to enter into government as a junior partner to ... PP, I would expect the party to push the government toward the right on a whole host of issues, including social justice, gay rights, and gender parity,” Omar Encarnación, a Bard politics professor who studies Spain, told Vox.
What is Vox (Spain’s version)?
The two largest parties in Spain are PP, which is running Parliament member Alberto Núñez Feijóo for prime minister, and the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), which is running Sánchez for reelection.
As Vox’s Jen Kirby has previously explained, discontent with how these two parties handled the 2008 financial crisis and a subsequent austerity program, as well as conservative blowback toward the Basque and Catalonian push for independence, led to the emergence of several smaller political parties, including Unidos Podemos on the left, and Vox on the right.
The Vox party was officially launched in January 2014. Breakaway members of the center-right PP formed the party, disgruntled by what they viewed as the PP’s lackluster economic policies and weak response to separatists in Catalonia and the Basque country.
Vox shares similarities with other far-right movements in Europe, such as the National Front in France or Alternatives for Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. Vox is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and skeptical of elements of the EU. It is also very conservative on issues like LGBT rights, abortion, and women’s rights.
Vox’s platform is founded heavily on nationalism and a return to “tradition” on social issues: The Spanish nation, to hear the party tell it, should prioritize its residents and practices like bullfighting rather than welcoming migrants, should be skeptical of efforts to advance gender equity, and should be actively opposed to LGBTQ rights, including gay marriage. Key stances Vox has championed include claiming that gender violence doesn’t exist, pushing to reverse a trans rights law that just took effect this year, banning abortion, and closing shelters housing foreign minors.
A campaign poster in Madrid captures the party’s stances: In it, a hand can be seen throwing symbols that represent women’s empowerment and LGBTQ rights into the trash.
Vox despliega una lona en Madrid contra contra el feminismo, independentismo, el lobby LGTBIQ+ y la Agenda 2030. pic.twitter.com/PKNlFQfcQ3— Wall Street Wolverine (@wallstwolverine) June 18, 2023
Vox’s prominence has grown since the party’s founding less than a decade ago. Part of that, again, was reactionary: A newly emerged class of nationalists and ultranationalists were looking for a political home amid the backlash to separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque region. Vox also gained steam as a rise in migration from non-white Middle Eastern and African countries has increased in recent years due to conflict in these regions.
Additionally, experts tie the rise of Vox to economic anxieties some Spaniards have: “There are cost-of-living issues, the fear of being left behind by tech and digital transformations, shifts in the economy and workforce,” says Jörn Fleck, a Europe expert at the Atlantic Council. Vox promises it can solve these problems, giving voters a “Spain First” message and pledging to invest in industries like the country’s agricultural sector.
But it often ties those ideas to anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, and anti-LGBTQ stances. And now, those views are poised to help shape Spanish policy.
Is Vox really going to be part of the Spanish government? How’d that happen?
Vox finds itself on the verge of federal power not because it’s widely popular but because discontent with Sánchez’s government has created an opening for the center-right to return to power — but PP likely won’t have the numbers to govern on its own.
While Sánchez has had some policy wins as prime minister, including lowering inflation, he’s also faced pushback. Votes from a left-wing Basque separatist party helped him get through major labor and housing reforms, for instance, but his alignment with the group — which includes people convicted of armed violence and terrorism — has prompted backlash from some voters, among other issues.
After his party struggled in regional elections this spring, Sánchez called early elections.
But for any party to take control of the government unilaterally, it needs 176 of 350 seats in Spain’s lower house of Parliament. Recent surveys show PP securing roughly 140 seats and Vox projected to win roughly 36 seats, a combined total that could clear the threshold needed. Of Spain’s political parties, Vox is the most likely partner for the Popular Party as the other major options are left-leaning.
That doesn’t mean Vox is broadly welcome in national government: Sixty percent of Spaniards have said in a recent Ipsos poll they are worried about it being part of a coalition. And thus far, it’s estimated to only get about 10 percent of seats in the upcoming election, per recent surveys.
Still, if it’s able to become a junior partner, that could do a lot to normalize the party and its extreme views. The support it received in regional May elections, for example, allowed it to join coalition governments in several autonomous regions including Valencia and Extremadura. That gave Vox a foothold and legitimacy it had previously struggled to achieve.
“Leaders across Spain said they wouldn’t get in bed with Vox,” says Johns Hopkins University Iberian Studies professor Bécquer Seguín. “Within a two-three week span, every single one of them flipped.”
The July 23 elections could mark some of Vox’s most substantial inroads yet. The party first picked up 24 legislative seats in the April 2019 election, a number it went on to double when another snap election was held in November 2019.
What would Vox coming into power mean for Spain?
If the PP were to form a governing coalition with Vox’s members, it’s not clear exactly what that arrangement would include. But it could lead to the incorporation of some of Vox’s hard-line views on immigration, abortion, and LGBTQ rights in the administration’s approach to governance.
As a junior partner, “Vox would be entitled to make petitions upon the PP, like controlling ministries or adopting some of its electoral agenda,” Encarnación told Vox. “Spain at the moment has a coalition government in place led by the Socialist party in coalition with Podemos, a left-populist party. As part of that coalition, Podemos controlled several ministries, including labor, and at one point it had the vice-presidency.”
Overall though, a coalition could include some discomfort for both parties. Many of Vox’s policy positions are viewed as extreme even by leaders in the conservative Popular Party.
“Gender violence does not exist, macho violence does not exist,” José María Llanos, the head of Vox in Valencia, has said. Already, Vox’s wins at the local level have spurred policy changes that incorporate elements of their nationalistic and traditional ideology.
A town in eastern Spain has banned the use of the pride flag in public places following the election of a Vox-aligned mayor there. And another town in Northern Spain has barred the screening of a Disney film about Buzz Lightyear because it includes a same-sex kiss.
A top leader for the PP, Esteban González Pons, told the New York Times that the party does not support Vox’s views on gay marriage or violence toward women, describing them as “red lines.” Pons also described Vox as anti-Europe and in favor of movements like Brexit, something PP opposes. Climate is perhaps another area where the two groups disagree, with Vox denying that human-made climate change exists, and PP taking a slightly more moderate approach.
The two do have similarities, however, with some members of the PP also pushing more restrictive immigration policies, which are often backed by leaders on the coasts. Additionally, both have used anti-trans rhetoric and signaled interest in reversing a law that expanded trans rights in the country.
Some in the center right hope that a partnership with Vox would neutralize some of its more extreme views. But others fear that if the PP needs Vox to come into power, their coalition would give the smaller party much more credence than it previously had.
“First, the bad scenario: We can legitimize Vox,” Pons told the New York Times. “Then, there is a second chance: We can normalize Vox ... Vox will be another party, a conservative party inside of the system.”
What does Vox’s rise mean for Europe broadly?
Vox’s rise in the national elections would add to the gains that far-right parties have made across Europe in recent years and may embolden such groups further.
“The rise of Vox in Spain cannot be separated from the global forces giving rise to right-wing populism in the developed West — including anxiety about immigration, economic insecurity, and a perceived sense of loss of national identity,” says Encarnación.
The Spanish election follows races in other countries where members of the hard right also saw increased momentum. In Greece, a rebranded version of the far-right group Golden Dawn won seats in the legislature in June. The far-right anti-immigration Finns Party also made inroads during the Finnish election this past spring, and the alt-right Alternative for Deutschland party won its first local election in June after securing about 10 percent of the Bundestag in the last national elections. Any gains Vox makes could, in turn, boost the momentum of far-right efforts in other European countries as, for example, elections loom in Germany in 2024.
Vox has been buoyed by other far-right leaders across Europe as well, with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni offering a fiery endorsement at a recent rally, and others, including Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, praising its positions. Spain’s relationships with these leaders could deepen if Vox secures its foothold in national government, particularly if the right’s influence over European Union politics grows.
“Vox is openly Euro-skeptical and seems willing to violate EU norms,” says Oberlin College Hispanic studies professor Sebastiaan Faber. “But if there is a change of guard at the EU after next year’s elections, the EU itself may become much more right-leaning.”