Vox’s bombastic rhetoric and toxic policies pose a serious threat to Spanish democracy — but not as existential a threat as many presume it to be. Joining a mainstream conservative government could normalize the party, for example. Even if this is wishful thinking, it helps to keep things in perspective. Vox entered the Spanish Parliament in 2019 and it first entered a regional government in 2022, in a coalition led by the Popular Party. These are important breakthroughs, especially because Spain previously had no far-right representation in the national legislature. But they testify to the inexperience of the party, which would occupy a junior position in a coalition.
There’s a wider point. Vox’s emergence — however eye-catching — did not signal any significant shift for the Spanish right and politics in Spain. Contrary to common wisdom, the far right did not disappear with Franco’s death. During the democratic transition, from 1977 to 1982, it coalesced around Alianza Popular, a neo-Francoist party that won 16 parliamentary seats in the 1977 elections. Its ultra-Catholic and right-wing founders were known as the Magnificent Seven, because all seven were former Franco ministers, including Manuel Fraga, Franco’s information and tourism minister who, as a member of parliament, helped draft Spain’s 1978 Constitution.
In the late 1980s, with the creation of the Popular Party, the far right folded itself into the new party and went on to influence future conservative governments — including pushing a humanities curriculum during José María Aznar’s administration that whitewashed conservatives’ role in the rise of the Franco dictatorship and encouraging the unsuccessful attempt by Mariano Rajoy to curb abortion rights. Lately, encouraged by the surge of right-wing, populist parties all over the world, Spain’s far right decided that it is safe to come out of hiding. But it was there all along.
Most important, Spanish democracy is strong enough to withstand the involvement of a far-right party in a conservative government. Although no longer the exception in Europe when it comes to the far right, Spain remains different for another important reason: It is remarkably free of the dreaded political pathology known as democratic backsliding, or the erosion of democratic norms. The absence of such problems in Spain is reflected in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report, which ranks Spanish democracy among the most developed in the world. This is particularly striking given that Spain meets the two conditions most commonly found in backsliding countries: a short history as a democracy and extreme polarization. Yet Spanish democracy, served by steady leadership, social and economic advances and a lively multiparty political culture, has held firm.
It is not impervious to threats, of course. A big unknown is what role separatism will play in the next government and, indeed, in the country’s future. All of the nation’s political forces exploit separatism for political gain. In recent years the right, including the Popular Party, has won elections by railing against the separatists, even at the expense of collapsing in Catalonia and the Basque Country, home to Spain’s leading separatist movements. The left in turn uses Vox as a boogeyman to raise the ghosts of Franco, especially in the separatist regions, in the hope of energizing its supporters. For their part, the separatists play the right against the left to advance their narrow objectives, while unfairly depicting Madrid as an oppressor to bolster their claims of victimization.