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The religious dimensions of the Spanish left: Parties and electorates

Xavier Romero-Vidal, Jakob Schwörer

10 mins - 20 de Diciembre de 2021, 10:40

Although religious cleavages might have lost their power to determine voting behaviour, religion is on the rise in Western European politics. The growth of far right parties seems to be a crucial factor to understand why religion has regained salience among political parties. The exclusion of Islam by the far right allows the construction of a Christian in-group that needs to be protected against the supposed non-native threat. These parties tend to portray Islam as a fundamentalist religion that does not respect Western values and Muslims are accused of prioritizing their religious principles over constitutional law. While the far right has increased its references to religion in the last years, this does not correspond with a significantly more religious electorate.

Our previous study in ‘Religion, State and Society’ shows that far right parties seem to be the ones that speak about religion the most, and as a result we followed up with a book chapter on the role of religion for Vox. Before the rise of Vox, Spain was one of the Western European countries where we could find among the fewest negative references to Islam and the least positive evaluation of Christianity among political parties. This seems to have changed with the emergence of Vox, and the resulting increased salience of religion has consequences for the national party systems as a whole. In this article, we go beyond the study of religion and the far right, which has drawn considerable attention in the last years, to study the role of religion for left-wing parties, taking Spain as a case in point. After all, left-wing parties have traditionally been the main antagonists of ecclesiastical interests.

We start by analyzing election manifestos and Facebook posts of the Spanish parties around the campaign for the Spanish General Elections of November 2019 using partially computer-based manual content analyses.

Starting with the total share of religious elements in political discourses, Figure 1 (manifesto data) and 2 (Facebook) show that Vox is indeed a religious outlier. It is the Spanish party that refers to religious groups or principles more often. Surprisingly, the PP is the party that mentions religious issues the least, despite having the most religious electoral base (as we will see). At the opposite end, both PSOE and Podemos refer more frequently to religious issues than the center-right in their manifestos, although they barely refer to these issues on social media.

Figure 1.- The salience of religion in party manifestos

Note: Manifesto data. Includes every type of religious elements (references to Islam, Christianity and the Church, secularism and religious freedom). Left-right positions based on CHES data including value and economic dimensions (LRGEN). Y-axis shows the percentage of sentences with a religious reference on the total amount of sentences per election manifesto.

Figure 2.- The salience of religion in Facebook posts

Note: Facebook data. Includes every type of religious elements (references to Islam, Christianity and the Church, secularism and religious freedom). Left-right positions based on CHES data including value and economic dimensions (LRGEN). Y-axis shows the percentage of Posts with a religious reference on the total amount of Posts per party. 

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Figure 3 summarizes the tone of references to Islam or Christianity (to a large scale, the Christianity means the Catholic Church). Our analysis reveals that positive evaluations of Christianity or the Church are absent, with the notable exception of Vox. The negative references towards the Church from left-wing parties appear in a context of secular arguments. Both parties advocate for the abolition of privileges of the Catholic Church in Spain and demand to «recover the assets improperly registered by the Church» (e.g. PSOE manifesto). This indicates that the traditional conflict between the Church and the state still plays a certain role in Spanish politics. In this regard, both parties devote about 67% of their religious statements in their manifesto to secular argument while PP and Ciudadanos do not mention this issue. Vox even questions secular principles by demanding a catholic school education (Facebook, 11/4/2019).

Figure 3.- Tone of religious references to Christianity and Islam

Note: Party references to Christianity (mostly Catholicism and the Church) and Islam, both for election manifestos and Facebook posts. Positive values indicate the percentage of sentences and posts with a positive connotation on the total share of statements, negative values show the percentage of negative evaluation. The size of the circles show the frequency of references to each religious groups.

Anti-Islam discourses have not spread among the left parties in Spain. PSOE even talks rather positively about Muslims in two of its Facebook posts, e.g. by condemning the anti-Muslim attack in Christchurch. By contrast, the center right hardly talks about Islam and if so it rejects Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism. Only Vox talks more frequently about Muslims and even rejects moderate Islam in seven out of its 22 anti-Islam messages during the electoral campaign (e.g. by demanding the «Exclusion of the teaching of Islam in public schools» in its election manifesto).

In sum, religion is a more salient issue for Vox (using anti-Muslim and pro-Christian messages) than it is for the rest of the party system. However, Spanish left-wing parties talk about religion more often than mainstream right-wing parties, which almost never refer to religion in their campaign communication.  Do these differences reflect the religiosity of each party’s electorates?

Party constituencies and the role of religion on voting behaviour

To answer that question, we use data from the post electoral survey fielded by CIS after the Spanish General Elections of November 2019. Figure 4 shows the percentage of religious groups within each party electorate: we distinguish Catholics, non-practicing Catholics, members of other religious groups and non-religious individuals (non-religious, agnostics or atheists). Podemos is the only party for which a majority of voters claims to be non-religious, in line with their secular demands and stances against the privileges of the Catholic Church. As we move to the center-left and center-right, we see a majority of non-practicing Catholics, with PSOE and Ciudadanos having a surprisingly similar distribution of votersThe PP has by far the largest share of practicing Catholics, and overall the largest share of Catholics (combining both practicing and non-practicing). This is particularly interesting given the extreme low salience of religion in both the manifesto and social media communication of PPDespite being the party that talks about religion the most, Vox has a smaller share of Catholics, with a distribution of religious beliefs similar to those of PSOE and Ciudadanos.

Figure 4.- Religiosity of parties’ electorates in Spain

Does this distribution of religious affiliations mean that voters consider religion when deciding what party to vote for? We have seen that religion correlates with ideology, so we need to run multivariate analysis to measure the effect that religion has on vote choice. Figure 5 displays the probability to vote for each of the main Spanish parties once we control for age, gender, ideology, education, income and subjective social class.

We see that the probability to vote for mainstream PP or PSOE is higher among Catholics. On the other hand, the probability to vote for Podemos is particularly high among non-religious people, although PSOE remains the first option among them (and across religious boundaries). Religion does not seem to influence the probability to vote for Vox and Ciudadanos. Again, this analysis already takes into account ideological predispositions, so it aims to isolating the effect of religion on vote.  

Figure 5.- Voting behavior and religious affiliation

Our content analysis has revealed that the left talks about the Catholic Church in a rather negative tone, even more in the case of Podemos. Yet, PSOE has a larger share of Catholic voters, which might be alienated by these negative claims. In order to further understand the role of religion for left-wing parties, we zoom into the probability to vote for PSOE among left or moderate voters only (those who place themselves between 0 and 5 in a 11-points ideological scale). We run a logistic regression for this subset of our sample and find that four variables seem to be crucial in determining the likelihood of left-wing citizens to vote for PSOE instead of for other left-wing parties: age, education, ideology and religion. Age has a positive effect, suggesting that older people are more likely to vote for PSOE. By contrast, more educated or more left-wing citizens are less likely to vote PSOE. Crucially, left-wing Catholics are significantly more likely to vote for PSOE than for any other left-wing party. Whereas Podemos remains a stronger competitor of PSOE among non-religious voters, PSOE is by far the first option of left-wing Catholics (see Figure 3).

Figure 6.- Predictors of PSOE vote among left-wing voters

The enduring influence of religion in Spanish politics

The left (PSOE and Podemos) and the far right (Vox) are the two poles discussing religious issues in the Spanish party system. Podemos and PSOE question the power and existing privileges of the Catholic Church while Vox rejects Islam and sporadically praises Christianity with an anti-secular connotation. This suggests that the traditional religious cleavage has not disappeared –although it might have lost its salience– in Spain. Thus, the struggle for and against Church privileges and religious values remain an axis of conflict between the left and the (new) far right, although not a dominant one. Moreover, with the establishment of Vox, the «new religious cleavage» in Western Europe, consisting of increased references to religious out-groups (Islam) and supposed Christian in-groups, finally arrived in Spain. If this leads to a contagion effect of anti-Islam rhetoric among mainstream parties like in other western European countries remains to be seen.

So far, the PP tends to avoid religious issues despite having the largest share of Catholic voters. Its members did not openly talk about religious values, Church privileges or Islam in their last electoral campaign. While Catholic voters tend to vote mainstream parties (PSOE and PP), Vox might be the religious alternative for conservative religious voters. By appealing to religious values, it may aim at winning religious voters from the center-right mainstream.

Interestingly, our analysis shows that religion also shapes the electoral choices of left-wing voters. PSOE is somewhat less critical of the Catholic Church and seems to be much more attractive for left-wing Catholics. By contrast, Podemos is largely a party for non-religious individuals, and their discourses are aligned with its electorate.


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