Confucius: Standing at the Crossroads of PP and VOX

Fernando Casal Bértoa, Anna Silander

6 mins - 21 de Junio de 2023, 14:00

As is well known, the Partido Popular (PP), the clear winner of the most recent regional and municipal elections, will have to make pacts with Vox in dozens of municipalities and in at least four autonomous communities: Aragón, Extremadura, Murcia, and the Valencian Community.

Knowing this, the incumbent president Pedro Sánchez, in what some have perceived more as suicide than a political gamble, decided to dissolve Parliament in the hope of seeing how the negotiations between PP and Vox to form regional and local governments will mobilise left-wing voters and may even demobilise the moderate centre-right voter. There is no doubt that the PP is asking itself the same question. Thus, it is important to know what has happened in other cases in which a centre-right party was forced to govern, either in coalition or with a simple parliamentary majority, with a radical right-wing populist party.

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A recent study presented at the University of Nottingham, which includes more than 45 cases, precisely examines this issue: how participation, either as a coalition partner or simply by providing parliamentary support, or not even in government, may or may not moderate the discourse of such radical right-wing populist parties? Bearing in mind that the conclusions of this study have an immediate application to the Spanish case, we can then endeavour to predict what might happen in those regions and municipalities where the PP will have to govern with the support of Vox. 

Although it is possible that the PP will be able to count on the abstention of the opposition in some municipalities and regions, as has already been confirmed to be the case in Cantabria, in most it will have to govern with the explicit or implicit support of Vox. The implications for the PP are clear: the formation of government coalitions with Vox will give ammunition to the left in the face of the next general elections. Although the so-called ‘anti-fascist alert’ does not seem to have worked either in Castilla-León, where the PP can govern in most provincial capitals, or in Andalusia or Madrid, where the PP has managed to win absolute majorities despite having governed with the support of Vox.

Contrary to early scientific work analysing how government involvement affects the discourse of radical right populist parties, which seemed to indicate a moderating effect, more recent studies show that this is not the case. In fact, as the case of the True Finns, who were part of the coalition government in Finland between 2015 and 2017, demonstrates, their nationalist and anti-immigration discourse were not moderated. Indeed, their governmental experience allowed them to learn certain tactics in communication in order to be able to continue pushing these issues in a more acceptable, less controversial way.

This contrasts with the effects observed in cases where radical right-wing populist parties simply engaged in parliamentary support for the governing party. Just as demonstrated by the Danish People’s Party, which has even lent its seats to the liberal centre-right bloc on several occasions since the beginning of the century, the discourse of these parties not only became more radical than when in opposition, but even infected the main governing party, the Liberal Party, in terms of tightening migration and asylum-seeking policies.

However, leaving Vox in opposition, like in Cantabria, is not something that suits the PP very well. Thus, as the aforementioned study also reveals, it is in this role that radical right-wing populist parties feel most comfortable, as it allows them to maintain their position as an anti-elitist and natural protest party. Moreover, it is in these cases that Vox’s nationalist and authoritarian discourse will be radicalised, leading the party to make significant electoral gains, as has happened in Murcia, where the PP has only managed to win back the voters of a drifting Ciudadanos.

In short, and taking into account the European experiences of other radical right-wing populist parties, the best option for Vox is, where the PP can govern with other partners, to remain in opposition. This will allow it to continue developing its populist discourse, taking advantage of the PP’s mistakes, and continuing to make its case for becoming the main alternative to the PSOE. If this is not possible, then becoming part of a coalition government is Vox’s best option, as it will not only be able to benefit from the spoils of power (e.g. funding, patronage, media visibility), but Vox will also be able to affect greater progress towards political achievements that favour Vox itself, while simultaneously distancing itself from PP government policies that it does not like. What it must never do, as has been seen in Madrid and Andalusia, is to remain half-hearted. This is also, as we have seen, the worst option, given its polarising nature, for the functioning of the democratic system in Spain.

Quite the opposite for the PP, for which the option of simple parliamentary support seems to be the most convenient, given that it not only allows it to counter the left’s ‘anti-extreme right’ discourse but also to benefit from Vox’s radicalisation, in order to present itself as a moderate right-wing party and responsible government. To the question of whether or not PP should govern with Vox or refuse its support, the answer is very simple: always the former, especially when the alternative is to remain in opposition. In these circumstances, not reaching a government agreement with Vox will be seen as a betrayal that can only benefit Santiago Abascal’s party.

In summary, and despite the image that may be given abroad, the lesser of two evils for PP and Vox is that of a coalition government. Only in this way will they be able to resolve and unite in the face of the July elections, the real crossroads in which they currently find themselves. As the great Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote: “the person who chases two rabbits catches neither”.

Se puede leer el artículo original en español en El País

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