Day 6

A far-right party is poised for a breakthrough in Spain's elections for the first time since Franco

Since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, a far-right party hasn't won more than a single seat in the Spanish parliament. That's expected to change on Sunday, when Vox is projected to win about 10 per cent of the vote.

Vox is projected to win about 10 per cent of the vote in Sunday's election

Supporters of Spain's far-right Vox Party wave Spanish and Vox flags during a party event in Leganes, on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain. The party is poised to win as much as ten percent of the vote in Spain's election on Sunday. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

Spain's far-right party, Vox, appears to be headed for a major breakthrough in the country's parliamentary elections Sunday. 

Currently polls show that the party, lead by Santiago Abascal, could capture about 10 per cent of the vote. It's a significant development because the far-right hasn't won more than a single seat in Spain's national parliament since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

But Spanish voters feeling the pinch of austerity measures are being drawn to Vox's anti-immigration messaging, joining other countries across Europe where citizens are turning to far-right populist parties. 

Edward Koning is an associate political science professor at the University of Guelph and he specializes in far-right politics in Europe. He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what the election means to Spain's future. 

Here's part of that conversation.

Populist parties are rising in a lot of countries across Europe. Why would it be surprising that Vox is poised to win seats in Spain?

If you look at the what political scientists have to say about it they usually point out a couple of explanations. First, the fact that the history of Francoism doesn't really give a good taste to add to the ... extreme right experience. And second, that Spanish politics are being so dominated by controversy about nationalism versus separatism, and in particular the Catalonian and Basque issue, that voters don't really use immigration as an issue to make up their mind [about] which party they will vote for.

So it's not so much that they ... might not be concerned about immigration, but it's not really one that will determine their their vote for one party or another.

Vox banners hang from a bar in Brazatortas, on the edge of the Alcudia valley in central Spain. Spain is preparing for its third parliamentary election in less than four years, and the far-right Vox party is projected to win seats. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

Obviously that's been the situation since Franco. But what's happened in recent years that's adjusted the way people are thinking now?

Spanish politics are really in a state of turmoil and this is usually what we see that when anti-immigrant parties first do well. [It's] always in unusual elections; and these elections are really looking to be very unusual in Spain. 

First of all, there are socioeconomic conditions that are very unusual. The country is still struggling with the ... aftershock of the economic crisis and the austerity measures. The aftermath of the refugee crisis [has also] led to a ... quite significant increase in the number of asylum seekers that entered the country.

But then the political conditions are also very unusual. For one thing, there's still a constitutional crisis about the status of Catalonia. 

What you usually see in countries where anti-immigrant parties do well is that there is a weird election where they establish themselves.- Edward  Koning , professor or political science

And on top of that .. the message that populists always want to voice — which is, there is a corrupt and self-serving and politically correct elite that doesn't care about the interests of real ... Spaniards — seems particularly appropriate today.

On the one hand, you have the centre right party, the Partido Popular, which has been embroiled in a massive corruption scandal. This corruption scandal was so damaging to the party that the incumbent government had to step down.

The current prime minister is a man by the name of Pedro Sanchez who is basically everything that a populist likes to criticize. He has a PhD in economics; he's an intellectual. When he's asked about his opinion on immigration, he tends to answer in at least 10 sentences, with nice subordinate clauses.

So if you're a populist and you say the elites are either [corrupt] or don't care about the views of ordinary Spaniards, you have two very easy examples to draw from.

People walk past a billboard of Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sánchez in Madrid, Spain. Appealing to Spain's large pool of undecided voters, top candidates on both the right and left are urging Spaniards to choose wisely and keep the far-right at bay in Sunday's general election. (Andrea Comas/Associated Press)

You study far right movements in Western Europe. Where does what's happening in Spain fit into the broader trend that you're seeing in that part of the world now?

What you usually see in countries where anti-immigrant parties do well is that there is a weird election where they establish themselves. And then once weird times are over say, so to say, when the conditions stabilize, these parties stick around because by that time they have familiarized the electorate with their presence.

They have established themselves as some sort of credible political player. They have built up some party organization, so they won't go away.

The timing is different because it requires one of those unusual elections.  For example in the Netherlands, where I'm originally from, it was the elections of 2002 that marked this type of watershed.

Since then the Netherlands have been marked by anti-immigrant politics quite significantly and so we can tell a similar story for almost every country where anti-immigrant parties have broken through.

So Spain fits in this story quite neatly.

Edward Koning is a professor of political science at the University of Guelph. He says once far-right parties establish themselves through unusual elections in Western Europe, they tend to stick around. (Submitted by Edward Koning)

That means if Vox wins only 10 per cent of the seats, as they're projected to in tomorrow's election, that's still very significant for Spanish politics going forward.

Absolutely. Yes. It will mean that it's unlikely that we will see this type of party disappear anywhere in the near future.

What you see sometimes is that new anti-immigrant parties are so poorly organized or so centred around one particular person that they kind of blow up once they have any type of responsibility, but that never actually leads to a permanent disappearance of these parties in general.

What instead you'll see that quickly another party will appear that learns from the organizational mistakes of its predecessor and then will secure the anti-immigrant vote in the subsequent elections.

So it's absolutely important because these kinds of parties will stick around. And the other reason why it's very important is that these parties always turn out to be quite influential although to varying degrees in different countries.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Edward Koning, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.