The Spanish Exception

Why Spain Has Resisted Right-Wing Populism

Toledo, Spain, January 2010. Sergio Perez / REUTERS

Although much of the West has been shaken by right-wing populist rebellions—from the stunning victory of President Donald Trump in the United States to the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union—one country seems curiously immune from it all: Spain. No electorally viable movement in Spain espouses a nativist, xenophobic, or anti-globalization platform. Indeed, far-right or populist parties in Spain have been unable to get more than one percent of the vote in most recent elections; the Spanish Parliament is one of very few in Europe in which these parties have no representation. Similarly, euroskepticism—the desire to lessen ties with the EU—is weak among Spaniards. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that, among all Europeans, Spaniards were the least supportive of reclaiming more power for national governments from the European Parliament in Brussels.

Spain’s apparent imperviousness to these trends is intriguing because the nation has been anything but immune to the challenges that have elsewhere stoked a populist right-wing backlash. First is immigration. Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders have each used this issue to rally supporters around the notion that immigrants are eroding their respective national “identities,” dragging down their economies, and threatening national security. Yet it is Spain that, among European nations, has experienced the most transformative immigration. According to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics, the foreign-born population in the country swelled from one million to close to six million between 1998 and 2016. In the first decade of this century, Spain received nearly half of all immigrants coming into the EU and had the highest net immigration per capita of any EU nation. Clearly, Spain’s resistance to populism is not explained by a lack of immigration.

Economic deterioration is another factor that is often mentioned as fueling right-wing populist movements, and once again Spain is—as it were—top among its European peers in this regard. After 2008, Spain fell into

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