Lauren Olsen - International Relations intern from Brigham Young University, USA
The results of Spain’s recent election were a disappointment for some, a surprise for many, and a lesson for all. For the first time since the restoration of democracy after Franco, a far-right party gained representation in the Spanish parliament. The center-right PP suffered a disastrous loss. Its efforts to recover its voters from Vox pushed many of its more moderate voters to favor the more central party, Ciudanos instead. PSOE, the left-wing socialist party, reaped major benefits from these internal divisions of the right.
These important results are significant, not only for Spain, but also because of what they mean for Europe. They indicate changing social and political tides that extend far beyond the borders of Spain and even beyond Europe. As the European elections approach at the end of this month, citizens and policymakers alike must cautiously consider the implications of Spain’s elections. The rapid and relatively unexpected success of Vox, the new far-right party in the Spanish parliament, is only one example of a larger, dangerous trend throughout Europe.
As an illustration, Figure 1 to the left shows the strength of right-wing populist parties in each country in Europe. It is certainly alarming that nearly all of the EU member states have a degree of far-right representation in their national parliaments, but the dark blue belt from Italy up through Eastern Europe is particularly worrisome.
What does this tide of populist sentiment mean for the upcoming European elections? Nationalist, anti-immigrant parties have been gaining traction in national legislatures across Europe for several years, both from the left and the right. However, they may gain even more influence in the European Parliament during this year’s elections than they have in their own countries.
This outcome is possible due to a phenomenon known as the “second-order election theory.” The theory asserts that elections for the European Parliament are often viewed as less important and less relevant than national elections. In this sense, they are considered ‘second-order’ elections. Consequently, national issues often dominate European elections more than collective European issues. Voter turnout is also consistently much lower for European elections than for national elections, and this is increasingly true in recent years. In Spain for example, voter turnout for national elections has remained relatively constant for decades, as shown by the dark line in Figure 2. In contrast, Spanish participation in European elections, the lighter line, has been consistently falling since the turn of the century.
Because European elections are often viewed as ‘second-order,’ more moderate populations tend to be underrepresented in the European parliament. Historically, the most politically active groups at the European level are those with the most grievances. Consequently, smaller protest parties generally fare better than large mainstream parties in European elections.
The current political climate has only exacerbated this problem. Mass immigration, terrorism, and economic woes are just a few of the problems that have driven more radical ideas onto center stage. In reality, the voting population as a whole does not necessarily favor radical solutions to Europe’s problems, but many feel unsatisfied with the current approach. Brexit is an extreme illustration of what can go wrong when voter concerns go unresolved. With no end to the current difficulties in sight, radical solutions will likely continue to attract many voters.
To be sure, today’s European politicians face some very daunting obstacles. There are no simple solutions, even if far-right parties claim there are. However, the results of Spain’s national elections illustrate the high costs when mainstream politicians fail to rectify these overwhelming grievances. As the elections approach, European politicians and citizens alike need to consider the warning from Spain’s election results. This is no time to be divided. It is no time for second-order elections. It’s time to learn from the lesson Vox has taught us in Spain—when we are divided, we lose to populism every time.