Spanish Center-Right Makes the Same Mistake Again

They keep trying to outflank the far right and failing.

Spain's Pablo Casado attends a meeting with other European conservative party leaders in Brussels, June 30
Spain’s Pablo Casado attends a meeting with other European conservative party leaders in Brussels, June 30 (EPP)

Spain’s center-right parties haven’t learned anything from the last election.

When they tried to outflank the far right, it only helped Vox. The neo-Francoist party got 10 percent support then and polls as high as 15 percent now. And still the mainstream parties try to best it.

This is hopeless. Vox is always willing to go a step further.

One step further

  • When the conservative People’s Party suggested restricting access to abortion, Vox called for cutting public funding for abortion altogether.
  • When the same People’s Party suggested using Brexit to negotiate joint Anglo-Spanish sovereignty of Gibraltar, Vox argued for taking back the territory (after 300 years) outright.
  • When People’s Party leader Pablo Casado mused that Spain cannot “absorb millions of Africans,” Vox called for not just limiting immigration but expelling migrants who are already in the country.
  • When both the People’s Party and the liberal Citizens argued for suspending Catalonia’s autonomy, Vox argued for abolishing Spain’s system of devolved administrations entirely and ruling Catalonia from Madrid.

Common sense

The People’s Party, as least, seemed to recognize its mistake after the last election. Casado dismissed Vox as “ultra-right” and said he was willing to talk with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a social democrat, about how to best respond to the independence crisis in Catalonia.

That moment of common sense didn’t last long. In the only election debate on Monday, Casado once again tore into Sánchez for supposedly being soft on Catalonia. He did not once argue with Vox leader Santiago Abascal.

The Citizens have done even worse. They needed to make a decision between liberalizing Spain, which would argue for a coalition with the center-left, and fighting the Catalan independence movement, which would justify a pact with the far right. They chose the latter and a result have been reduced to 7-9 percent support in the polls, barely ahead of the Catalan independence parties at 6 percent.

After all, there are two more anti-Catalan parties. If your priority is keeping Catalonia in Spain, why not vote for the one that takes the hardest line?

Little difference

The opinions of People’s Party and Vox voters on the issue scarcely differ, according to a poll carried out by the Catalan pro-independence newspaper El Nacional. Voters of the Citizens are slightly more sympathetic to the Catalan cause, but even half of them want to rein in Catalonia’s autonomy. Most right-wing voters do not believe the Spanish government should negotiate with its Catalan counterpart, nor do they believe Catalans should be allowed to vote on independence in a legal referendum.

So the right-wing parties now argue for a legal ban on independence referendums and, indeed, on independence parties.

In a (for now) symbolic gesture, the People’s Party and Citizens backed a motion introduced by Vox in the Madrid regional assembly on Thursday to criminalize separatist parties that “attack the unity of the nation.”

Those parties represent half the Catalan voting population.

Making a bad situation worse

Not allowing a legal referendum on independence in 2017, sending in riot police to beat up voters who participated in that referendum anyway, imprisoning nine of the region’s separatist leaders for up to thirteen years for organizing the referendum and refusing to talk about transferring more power to the region has only had the — entirely predictable — effect of hardening Catalan attitudes toward Spain.

Regular readers will tire of reading this, but it’s even more clear now that if Spain doesn’t give the Catalans an alternative to putting up with the status quo or trying for independence, many will opt for the latter.

The People’s Party, Citizens and Vox seem determined to make a bad situation worse, and it’s not helping the first two win any favors.

It does look like the People’s Party will recover from an historic defeat in April, when it went down from 33 to 17 percent support. Polls now give it in the range of 19-22 percent. But that growth has come almost entirely at the expense of the Citizens, who appear to have missed their chance to become the third party of Spain.

Learn

They should have learned from other center-right parties in Europe that moved to the far right only to make it easier for voters to switch. By taking a harder line on such issues as the EU and immigration, those center-right parties inadvertently legitimized the far right and encouraged them to go further.

Parties which have held firm against extremism have done better. In Germany and the Netherlands, the Christian Democrats and liberals have been able to stay in power by ostracizing the far right (while sometimes quietly implementing reactionary policies).

That has left a gap on the German and Dutch right. But the voters who have stuck with the far right so far are unlikely to be won over while it has allowed the mainstream parties in those countries to appeal to a much larger group of voters in the center, who in Spain now vote for the Socialists.