Flirting with the devil

Elections in Spain come as a warning to the European centre-right that flirting with the far right’s culture wars can be a turn off for women and younger voters, says JAMES DEBONO in his analysis of the reverberations of the Spanish election results

Incumbent Pedro Sánchez is poised to remain the Spanish prime minister
Incumbent Pedro Sánchez is poised to remain the Spanish prime minister

Polls had shown the Spanish Popular Party led by Nunez Feijoo on the verge of winning a majority of seats in alliance with the far-right Vox.

Feijoo and his party are members of the centre right European People’s Party and allies of the local Nationalist Party.

But when the Spanish election results were out, the PP and Vox could only garner 169 seats between them falling short of the 176 needed for a majority.

While the PP has emerged as Spain’s largest party with 132 seats in the 350-seat parliament, it is the Socialist Pedro Sanchez who has the best chance of cobbling a winning coalition.

It will still not be easy for Sanchez, who must renew his alliance with the left-wing Sumar and secure the support of an assortment of regional parties. The alternative to that would be another election in December.

This suggests that Pedro Sanchez’s gamble of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by calling an election in May in the wake of major victories for the right in local elections, has so far paid off.

By forging regional coalitions with Vox, the PP not only turned off younger and more liberal voters but also energised the left-wing vote which found a raison d’etre in its defence of modernity against an onslaught of cultural conservatism.

This enabled Sanchez to frame the elections as a stark choice between “progress and backwardness” and “the future over the past.”

On the other hand, the PP could not frame the elections as a choice between different economic and fiscal policies.

Instead with polls suggesting that Vox would emerge as king makers, attention was drawn to the Vox manifesto, characterised by commitments to repeal abortion and euthanasia laws and which downplayed climate change.

The party also promised to repeal a gender identity law which allows transgender people aged 14 and over to change their legal gender without the need for psychological or other medical evaluation, and even the repeal of gender violence laws and their replacement with laws “which protects every possible victim of violence in a domestic setting.”

The focus on culture wars was also somewhat inevitable in view of low inflation figures and popular approval for the ruling coalition’s social policies which including a raise in the minimum wage pushed by the ruling coalition.

But the PP could still project itself as a guarantee of stability to a weak coalition which depended on the support of an assortment of left wing and separatist parties to govern.

But with Sumar led by the pragmatic and popular deputy prime minister Yolanda Diaz replacing the more intransigent Podemos, it was Vox’s radicalism on social issues which attracted most attention.

Moreover, while Vox was catapulted to the national scene in the wake of state repression following an outlawed Catalan referendum on independence in 2017, its ultra-nationalism is now a major stumbling block for alliances with regional parties in both Catalonia and the Basque country, which the PP needs to govern.

And while other far right movements like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy have downplayed issues like abortion to capitalise on the anti-immigration vote, Vox is more defined by its social conservatism which in Spain brings back memories of Franco’s church-backed dictatorship.

Inevitably the result which saw Vox losing 19 seats, arrests a trend in Europe which saw the far right joining centre-right government coalitions in Italy, Sweden and Finland and raised the spectre of a similar coalition in the European parliament after next June’s elections, as advocated by EPP chief Manfred Weber.

And while in Germany some exponents in the CDU were warming up to regional alliances with the AFD another social conservative and Eurosceptic outfit, this has created consternation among more liberal elements in the party.

The Spanish election does underscore the risk of a popular backlash against culture wars advocated by the far right which can turn elections into a stark choice between social liberalism and social conservatism. For while on paper the sum of the centre right and the far right can be majoritarian in several EU countries, the fear of coalitions involving far right elements may itself push the political centre to the left.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola

The PN’s balancing act

Unlike Spain, Malta lacks an effective and coherent far-right voice like Vox.  Instead, far right parties remain fragmented and are associated with fringe and eccentric personalities who normally make some noise in MEP elections only to wither away in subsequent years.

Moreover, with the notable exception of abortion where the PN’s stance is to the right of the far right, the party has officially endorsed most of the liberal reforms promoted by Labour, including marriage equality and gender identity laws.

Yet periodically certain PN exponents also send a message that shows discomfort with these reforms as was the case recently in posts by Nationalist MPs misrepresenting a pride event which involved children.

Moreover, with regards to irregular immigration, the PN keeps chasing with the hounds and running with the hares, by focusing its criticism on an economic model relying on foreign workers while sounding less hawkish than Labour with regards to irregular migration.

With polls showing Labour in decline but the PN making very few inroads especially among younger voters, the party finds itself in a quandary; should it present itself as a big tent where liberal voters can feel at ease, or should it focus on galvanising its core vote by reinforcing its conservative identity?

Surely at this critical juncture the PN can’t afford any competition from the far right or any internal backlash from conservative forces who may abstain if the party drifts further away from its conservative roots.

But neither can the party afford to give Abela the opportunity of doing a Sanchez by presenting the next elections as a stark choice between a forward-looking progressive Malta and the conservatism of the past. And with Metsola running as the party’s front candidate in next June’s election, the party must be careful not to upset her apple cart by alienating social liberals who could potentially see her as a safe bet in giving a drubbing to Labour.