The End of the Spanish Exception?

Far-Right Populism Has Finally Conquered Spain, but the Real Shift Lies Elsewhere

PP leader Pablo Casado at a news conference in Madrid, April 2019 Susana Vera / REUTERS

On Tuesday, Spain’s acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, announced that his center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) would seek to form a minority government in cooperation with the far-left party Unidas Podemos. Six weeks after elections in late April left no party with a clear majority, the country is edging closer to a new left-wing government.

In the international press, the national election made headlines for two reasons, each offering a different picture of the state of Spanish—and, by extension, European—politics. The shocking entry into the lower house of parliament of the far-right nationalist party Vox appeared to augur a potential new threat to liberal democracy in a country long considered immune to right-wing populism after 40 years under the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. By contrast, the victory of the PSOE, which came in first with some 29 percent of the vote, seemed a sign of democracy’s resilience (and a rare win for Europe’s beleaguered social democrats).

Few expected the PP’s near-complete collapse this April.

Both of these developments were actually the outcome of a far more momentous shift: the stunning implosion of the center-right People’s Party (PP), the Spanish right’s home for the last 30 years. Founded in 1989, the PP united camps on the right that ranged from centrist fiscal conservatives all the way to a far-right minority nostalgic for Franco’s dictatorship. The party took somewhat of a hit in 2015, when upstart leftist parties such as Podemos began chipping away at Spain’s traditional two-party system. Yet few expected the PP’s near-complete collapse this April. The party won only 17 percent of the vote, gaining a mere 66 seats in the 350-seat parliament—its worst-ever result and a dramatic comedown from the 186 seats it held at its height in 2011. In municipal, regional, and European elections in May, the PP’s downward trajectory continued, the party averting complete disaster only because of strong results in Madrid.

How did this bastion of the Spanish

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