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Breaking the Stigma—The Rise of the Iberian Radical Right

Since 2014, a political wave has swept through Western European Parliaments: the rise and mainstreaming of the new European radical right.

Their ideological profile focuses on a critical stance on the political establishment, multiculturalism, globalisation, and the European Union while upholding the concept of a sovereigntist European order of ‘Nations and Freedoms’. They aim to preserve the proclaimed national-conservative values of Europe—represented in the European Parliament by the political group Identity and Democracy and the radical faction within the Europe of Conservatives and Reformists. While the initial scope of this phenomenon is limited to Western, Central and Northern Europe, down in the Southwestern peninsula this development takes a slower pace. 

Established at the dawn of the third wave of democratisation in the 70s, while distinct from one another, the Iberian democracies share historical similarities that shaped their stable but relatively unmodifiable political party systems. The party systems were dominated at the start of the decade by traditional mainstream parties ranging from the centre-left Partido Socialista (S&D) and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (S&D) to the centre-right Partido Social Democrata (EPP), Centro Democrático e Social-Partido Popular (EPP) and Partido Popular (EPP). Additionally after the Troika and eurocrisis of 2010s, the anti-austerity populist left-wing parties Bloco de Esquerda (GUE/NGL) and Unidas Podemos (GUE/NGL) played a role. The major exceptions being the Partido Communista Português (GUE/NGL) and the Spanish regionalist and separatist parties. Towards the latter half of 2010s, political issues such as the moderate parties’ stagnant political rotativism, social unrest in response to the Troika’s austerity, and the eventual importation and adaptation of nationalist rhetoric in Europe to these countries’ socio-economic realities catalysed the emergence of new political actors on the further right side of the hemicycles.

Identifying the new ‘Iberian radical right’

In general terms, the ‘populist radical right’ can be categorised as one that values social authoritarianism and nationalism highly. In other words, parties that are either or both ultra-nationalistic and ultra-conservative on social issues. Political scientists have commonly described the European case as one of ‘nativist populism’, holding a tendency to use rhetoric to create an external threat to the country, accuse the domestic elite of betraying the people and, in some cases, siding with ‘foreign intruders’, and encouraging popular mobilisation by discursively positioning themselves as true representatives of the ‘native people’ they vow to protect against the elite and these foreign people they exclude from their concept of nation. Political scientists such as Hans-Georg Betz also refer to ‘revivalism’ as an essential element of this populism and nativism, the nostalgic ambition of ‘returning’ to an imagined past designed as a golden or hegemonical period of the defended nation. However, this ideological trait would have its shortcomings in national contexts where such idealist times seem to be located by far-right nativists under traumatic authoritarian rules from which societies haven’t fully recovered—and such is the case in the Iberian states.

Prior to the formation of these new right-wing actors, Iberian democracies’ previous encounters with radical or far-right forces were mostly limited to a few episodes during the early years of regime transition, the extra-parliamentary presence of minor extreme right parties, and new underground movements nostalgic for the former dictatorships. And it was not until 2010s that the foundations of the nativist right began to take shape in Iberia. Part of this is due to the fact that both parties arose as splinters from the mainstream centre-right parties and were founded by publicly known politicians which made them ‘(…) likely to have benefited both from greater media visibility and from less stigmatisation’.

By 2013, a group of disgruntled Spanish politicians affiliated with the right-wing faction within the centre-right Partido Popular—the Aznaristas, embodied by former conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar and also represented by former President of the Community of Madrid Esperanza Aguirre—had split off and founded the anti-establishment and national-conservative political platform Vox (ECR). It included politicians such as Santiago Abascal, the current president of the party and former PP member in the Basque Country, and Alejo Vidal-Quadras, former PP president of Catalonia. Some of the most prominent reasons for the formation of Vox was dissatisfaction with the political handling of separatist efforts, mainly in Catalonia, and the affirmation of a more conservative right-wing alternative to PP.

In Portugal, Chega (ID) was founded and is presided by André Ventura, a former politician from the centre-right Partido Social Democrata (EPP) and their candidate for 2017 local elections in the city of Loures. Ventura was foremostly well-known for his job as a football commentator in a major TV station, further promoting his public profile. Similar to Abascal, he has been associated with the liberal-conservative ideological legacy of another former centre-right Prime Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, known as Passismo. The party stands on an ‘anti-establishment’ platform that intends to aggregate all the discontent voters, frequently criticising all the other parties as siding with malignant and corrupt interests and fighting for the minorities to the detriment of the ‘good Portuguese’. Ventura also makes frequent references to a dream of a ‘Fourth Portuguese Republic’, a concept of a new political system based on nationalistic and traditionalist values that will break off from the morally stagnant current one.

Political scientists Lea Heyne and Luca Manucci—both researchers affiliated to the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon—show in their 2021 report findings that while Chega and Vox appeal to voters with expected features of the average radical right’s target electorate, their support also has some distinctive characteristics. In terms of socio-demographic aspects, the electorate who is more inclined to vote for Vox and Chega follow a pattern that has been observed in previous research on the radical right:  ‘(…) young, highly religious men with low education, and in the case of Chega, they live in rural areas’. The Iberian radical right ability to attract a modern and younger electorate signifies that both Chega and Vox do not merely attract older disaffected voters still nostalgic of the 20th century right-wing authoritarian regimes. Political dissatisfaction is a determinant predictor of support for the two nationalist parties, even though perceptions of corruption are not a driving factor. Furthermore, their media consumption is consistent with prior literature on the subject: those more likely to vote for Chega and Vox get political information from Facebook and tabloids (Correio da Manhã in Portugal and ABC in Spain). Moreover, Vox supporters appear to be more likely to obtain political information from online forums than from major social media platforms such as Twitter.

The Iberian (Un)exceptionalism and concluding remarks

Hitherto the foundation and consolidation of these two political platforms several political analysts sought to justify the absence of the radical right in Spain and Portugal due to specific historical, political and sociological factors, or a mix of them, that they argued made it an infertile ground for such political parties to bloom. Some of these presented factors for this Iberian ‘exceptionalism’ were the enduring right-wing dictatorial past experiences—Portugal’s Estado Novo and Spain’s Franquismo; the integration of the most conservative tendencies within the mainstream right parties, and the populist advance of the anti-Troika radical left.

Perhaps this indicates that these expectations were incorrect or inaccurate, and that no country is immune to either nativism or authoritarianism, as political scientist Cas Mudde puts it. The demographic trends, ideological-discursive elements, and media attention these parties received show that even in societies that have recently experienced right-wing dictatorships, there is a window of opportunity for new radical actors from the same side of the spectrum to bloom, breaking through the country’s past stigma. What’s more intriguing is how the Iberian radical right openly embraces former authoritarian hendiatris—Salazarism’s ‘God, Homeland, and Family’ and Francoism’s ‘One, Great, Free [Spain]’, Demonstrating how much of this traumatic past can still be ideologically harnessed by these new political forces without jeopardising their identity as political parties partaking in a democratic set transitioned from the former regimes’ outlooks.