Politics of fear in the Spanish elections

Spain’s Socialists won the vote but far-right Vox party enters parliament for the first time with its politics of fear.

Spain elections 3 Sandra Gathmann
Fear of the far right and loathing of separatist movements dominated the election campaign [Sandra Gathmann/Al Jazeera]

It was election day and a cameraman and I were chasing voters outside a polling centre in Madrid. 

All week, the media had hyped it to be the most “divisive” election in Spain’s young democracy. They speculated that millions of torn and undecided voters might choose to stay home instead.

But this was the first sunny Sunday in weeks, and a steady stream of people had shown up to cast their ballots. What drove them here?

“We had to block the fascists,” admitted our first victim.


“Because the left could put Spain‘s unity in danger,” confessed the second.

My cameraman and I looked at each other to confirm the hunch we had formulated that week. 

This election was running on fear of the far right and loathing of separatist movements.

Rise of Vox

The far-right Vox party’s five-year journey from political obscurity to centre-stage rang alarm bells early on.

In the lead-up to 2018’s regional elections in Andalusia, party leader Santiago Abascal was filling stadiums and spooking critics with pledges to “Make Spain Great Again” by fighting an “Islamist invasion” and reversing abortion laws that “radical feminists” had fought for.

Opinion pieces warned of threats to Spain’s 40-year democracy and a return to the right-wing era under General Francisco Franco.

This voter says he went to the ballot box 'to block the fascists' [Sandra Gathmann/Al Jazeera]
This voter says he went to the ballot box ‘to block the fascists’ [Sandra Gathmann/Al Jazeera]

Abascal even addressed his enemies’ fears head-on in a highly quoted speech. “The left is obsessed with calling Spaniards who love Spain, fascists … those of you who want to defend your borders and your country, xenophobes and fascists … those of you who like Spanish traditions, retrogrades and fascists.”

In response, supporters on social media embraced the label. “If that’s being fascist – then I am!” they tweeted.


Vox went on to win a record number of votes, joining forces with the conservative People’s Party and centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party to unseat the socialists in Andalusia after 36 years.

By the time the 2019 general elections kicked off, there was growing uncertainty about whether the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) could win enough votes to keep their lead, or whether Vox would become kingmaker in a conservative coalition once again.

The party ended up getting 10 percent of the total vote, entering parliament for the first time.

So what led to the rise of Vox? In part, fear.

The party capitalised on culture clashes with left-wing proposals such as mandatory feminism classes in schools as well as animal rights groups’ efforts to ban rural traditions like bullfighting and hunting.

We filmed inside one bullfighting ring in the small town of Santa Cruz de Mudela, where some fans told us that Vox was standing up for the sport.

“Bullfighting absolutely needs protecting because Spain wouldn’t be Spain without it,” said one woman.

But it all boiled down to one issue in particular – Spain’s national unity.

Catalonia fear factor

We sat down with Jose Ignacio Torreblanca from the European Council on Foreign Relations who explained the rise of the far right is in part a reaction to the 2017 failed independence referendum attempt in Catalonia.

“When you have a nationalist push for an illegal attempt to secede and when you have victimisation in Catalan society saying ‘Spain robs us, Spain oppresses us, Spain is nasty, Spain is poorer than us’ … you start feeding into a sentiment that was dormant,” said Torreblanca.

Some voters say Spain's unity is in danger because of separatist groups [Sandra Gathmann/Al Jazeera]
Some voters say Spain’s unity is in danger because of separatist groups [Sandra Gathmann/Al Jazeera]

“In the 2016 elections, parties presenting Franco nostalgia got 90,000 votes in a country of 45 million people,” Torreblanca added. “And now we’re speaking of Vox getting 10 percent of the vote, which means something has been shaken. Someone has kicked the beehive and the bees are out.”

And frustration with the Catalans was not contained to the far right.

There was a backlash in moderate circles against Pedro Sanchez and his PSOE when they took power in 2018 and joined Catalan separatist parties in a coalition. The Catalans’ demand for a new vote on independence was seen as a liability, especially after they voted down Sanchez’s budget in protest, triggering elections.

A sort of “Never Sanchez” campaign was pushed by both the conservative People’s Party and Ciudadanos, which conveyed that a vote for the socialists was a vote for political chaos.

Against the backdrop of the Venezuelan crisis, there were fears too that the far-left Podemos party (which has been accused of having been funded by Hugo Chavez’s government) would once again share power with the socialists, and bring Spain’s recovering economy to ruin.

Surprise turnout

If there was a single indicator that Spaniards felt their future was at stake in these elections, it was a very high turnout.


A total of 73 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, mostly for the incumbent socialists, though they fell short of a parliamentary majority.

In Catalonia, participation reached record highs, with voters (including two-thirds of Catalans who consider themselves Spaniards) appearing to throw their weight behind moderate separatist parties.

The Republican Left of Catalonia party, which is most open to talks with Madrid, won 15 seats – up from nine in 2016. While the more hard line Together for Catalonia lost one seat, leaving it with seven.

When the results rolled in, one Spaniard confessed to me he was disappointed – not with the result themselves – but the fact they did not convey party loyalty.

These were “votos del miedo” or “votes out of fear”, said Jaime. “People just wouldn’t have gone to the polls otherwise.”

Source: Al Jazeera