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Spain is making a leap to the populist proper

An expert's point of view on a current event.

May 21, 2021, 5:36 p.m.

In less than 24 hours earlier this week, at least 6,000 migrants, including 1,500 minors, crossed the border from Morocco to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast. To avoid the border fences at this European Union outpost, most of the migrants swam to a beach in Ceuta. Some cruised on rafts and at least one person drowned. The border is usually calm and is strictly controlled by Morocco. But this week Morocco decided to rattle Spain – presumably because Madrid had admitted Brahim Ghali for medical treatment. Ghali is the leader of the Polisario Front, a rebel movement in Western Sahara that has annexed Morocco.

Ceuta, a 7 square mile area with only 85,000 residents, was quickly overwhelmed by the newcomers. After the border police lost control of the situation, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sent the army to arrest the immigrants and eventually send them back to Morocco. On Wednesday, the crisis appeared to have subsided after Morocco resumed controls on its side of the border.

However, the political ramifications for Spain will be long-lasting as immigration has returned to the center of the political debate in Spain. Pablo Casado, chairman of the largest opposition party, the Center-Right People's Party (PP), said Sánchez was not fit for office. The extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant Vox party, which currently ranks third among Spanish voters, has been particularly hard hit. Vox politicians called the arrival of the immigrants "an invasion" and called for the "permanent militarization of the border" and the building of a wall. Vox also threatened to withdraw its parliamentary support for the PP-led regional government of Andalusia if it grants asylum to one of this week's arrivals. This would lead to a breakdown of the region's government, an early election, and a likely rebound for the xenophobic Vox.

Most likely, the Ceuta crisis in Spain will have similar effects as the mass exodus from Syria and other countries to Europe in Austria, France, Germany and Hungary over the past decade: strengthening the country's far-right nationalist elements. The PP in particular faces the same dilemma that other conservative parties across Europe have faced: can it win the next national elections, which are due by 2023 at the latest, and Sánchez – a socialist who includes a coalition with communists – with a moderate one Replace attitude? Message in a certainly divisive and emotional campaign? Or does the PP have to shift further to the right or take on elements of Vox populism in some other way?

This question – and one possible answer – has a face: Isabel Díaz Ayuso. On May 4th, the PP politician was re-elected as president of the Madrid region due to a landslide. Greater Madrid, which makes up around 14 percent of the country's population and generates around 20 percent of its GDP, is often viewed as a trailblazer for the rest of the country. Ayuso's original campaign motto "Communism or Freedom" was later abbreviated to "Freedom" when she successfully appealed against the Madrid Pandemic. Unlike most European governments, it hadn't launched a tough lockdown during the second wave of the Madrid pandemic, which increased support. Her decision to keep the city's hotel industry open was particularly popular – including among immigrants, many of whom work in the service sector.

Ayuso's rule since her first victory in 2019 and her recent election campaign marked a clear break with previous generations of PP politicians. Current party leader Casado is a traditional conservative who has tried to steer a middle ground by combining opposition to Sánchez with support during the COVID-19 crisis. Ayuso has, however, openly played the populist card – without previously taking up Vox's right-wing extremist positions. In addition to rejecting strict lockdown measures and promising tax cuts, she has been eager to delve into the Spanish culture wars. Their anti-communist railing helped mobilize conservative voters in a region where the communists are just a fringe party that is part of an electoral alliance of the far left that received just 7.2 percent of the vote on May 4th. She has generally stayed away from immigrant rhetoric, despite blaming the "immigrant lifestyle" for COVID-19 case variability.

Ayuso's strategy was an overwhelming success. Due to its popularity, the PP doubled its share of the vote – from 22 percent in 2019 to 45 percent. It struck down the left and wiped out the liberal-centrist Ciudadanos party, which went from being the third largest party to losing all seats in the regional parliament. Ayuso's populist style and anti-lockdown message also appealed to many voters who may have voted for Vox, whose support remained virtually unchanged despite the left's implosion. Vox's nickname for the PP – "derechita cobarde" or "cowardly little rights" – no longer met with a response from voters, for whom Ayuso looked anything but cowardly.

However, in order to become president of Madrid, Ayuso needs a majority of the votes in parliament, which makes it far from certain that she depends on Vox's support. This means that the right-wing extremist party, like in Andalusia, remains the key for the PP to stay in power in Madrid. This gives Vox the opportunity to pursue its own, more extreme, policies. Rocío Monasterio, the head of Vox in Madrid, has become a political star with violent attacks on immigrants. During the last campaign, Vox planted billboards in Madrid showing an elderly woman next to a young man, presumably of Arab descent, with the sentence “Your grandma receives a monthly pension of 426 euros; (a minor without papers) receives 4,700 euros. “With Vox increasingly acting as kingmaker in Spain, the PP must seriously consider moving to the right as a strategic decision to gain power.

This mainstreaming of the populist right occurred at the same time as the populist left collapsed. Support for Unidas Podemos, a left-wing populist alliance whose dominant faction first emerged during the euro crisis, has increased. Its founder and leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias – a self-proclaimed communist and admirer of the late Venezuelan mighty Hugo Chavez – has left politics.

The elections in Madrid cement Spain's change from the temptation of left-wing populism to the temptation of right-wing populism. Indeed, Ayuso's victory has catapulted the PP to the top of national polls, and the Ceuta debacle makes it very unlikely that Sánchez's weak popularity will be revived.

So the big question is how the PP will try to capitalize on Spain's shift to the right and strengthen its newly acquired national leadership. One outcome could be a PP that follows Ayuso's example – adopting a populist message that mobilizes voters but does not take the more extreme positions of Vox. But with the pandemic likely to be under control soon and lockdowns no longer an issue, immigration could once again play a much bigger role in the political debate, as was clearly seen this week. At this point, moderate Ayuso-style populism is prone to attack from the right – be it from Vox or the more extreme elements of the PP.

The other outcome could be a PP that is giving up its Christian Democratic roots in order to adopt a more nationalist stance – along the lines of the British Conservative Party, which took many of the positions of the far-right British Independence Party, or the US Republican Party, which became one nationalist-populist movement under the former President Donald Trump. After the Ceuta crisis, no matter what Casado desires, the temptation to do this will be greater. The refugee crisis sparked by Morocco this week could make Spanish politics more nationalist, populist and anti-immigrant.

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