World Europe

Far-right populism marches across Europe – but not in Iberia. Why not?

patterns of thought

Right-wing extremist parties have seen increasing support across the continent, from France to Finland. But Spain and Portugal have bucked the trend.

Fascists and far right supporters rise their right arm saluting as they remember former Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco on the 39th anniversary of his death, in Madrid on Nov. 23, 2014. Despite the rise of far-right parties across Europe, Spain and Portugal have largely escaped the trend – perhaps in part due to their own dictatorship legacies.
Andres Kudacki/AP/File | Caption
  • Catarina Fernandes Martins
    Correspondent

It's a good time to be a far-right populist in Europe.

Across the continent, radical right parties and politicians are enjoying successes they haven't seen since before the cold war. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' Freedom Party looks set to win the most seats in March elections. In Germany, the upstart Alternativ für Deutschland party is flowering. Even in famously egalitarian Scandinavia, right-wing parties like the Sweden Democrats and the Danish People's Party enjoy major support at the polls.

But then there's the Iberian Peninsula.

Portugal has been deemed “an oasis of stability” in the midst of Europe's far-right populism. In neighboring Spain, there’s no looming far-right presence, either. Ever since the two countries put an end to their right-wing dictatorships – that of António de Oliveira Salazar and Marcelo Caetano in Portugal, and of Francisco Franco in Spain – in the 1970s, and even amid the rising nationalist and far-right sentiments sweeping across Europe today, the Iberian Peninsula has steadfastly remained averse to far-right politics.

Part of the reason why may be the two countries' own histories – their respective experiences with their own far-right dictators and their remoteness from the immigration that is agitating the right wing in much of Europe. But there may also be more broadly applicable lessons within the Iberian political systems, which have proven better able to integrate protest parties than other Western governments. 

Muslim immigration

Far-right parties do exist on the Iberian Peninsula, but their presence – and more significantly, their political power – is negligible. That may be due in part to the lack of concern in Spain and Portugal over one of European populists' main concerns: Muslim immigration.

Both Portuguese and Spanish citizens have responded supportively to the current refugee crisis, welcoming refugees fleeing Mideast violence. A BBC World Service poll found Spain the most welcoming of all countries, with 84 percent of the population agreeing to take in Syrian refugees. While most Europeans place immigration in the top two causes for concern in their countries, a Eurobarometer survey showed Portuguese rank immigration among their lowest concerns.

Similarly, the only Portuguese party that has recently made anti-immigration speeches, the National Renovator Party, gathered only 0.5 percent of the vote in a national election. In Spain, the right is largely grouped within the conservative Popular Party. And while the PP does have a stronger position on some immigration issues, it hasn’t indulged in racist rhetoric.

Even in the recent past, when Islamic terrorists targeted Spain in 2004, killing almost 200 people and injuring some 2,000 more, Islamophobia didn't surge. Some suggest that the country's long and painful history of vicious political violence and the resulting moderating response from the political elite might have helped tamp down far-right reaction then.

“Spaniards have had to deal with terrorist attacks by the [Basque] separatist organization ETA. The Spanish public opinion slowly learned not to descend into a spiral of rhetorical and political violence,"  says Spanish political scientist Miguel Ángel Simón. "The major parties paved the way when they signed the Antiterrorism Pact in December 2000. In it, they agreed not to use terrorism as a political weapon. The same philosophy determined a new agreement against radical Islamist terrorism, after 2004."

The peculiar legacy of the recent brutal fascist dictatorships in Iberia might also help explain these countries’ tolerance for foreigners, says Xavier Casals, a Spanish historian of the far right. “The fascist dictatorships in Portugal had a Catholic base, which promoted an egalitarian worldview, instead of a racist one,” he says. In particular, the Portuguese dictatorship promoted equality between its European population and those who lived in its colonies. That policy may have helped mitigate the sort of distrust of outsiders affecting other European countries today, Mr. Casals says.

Of course, neither Spain nor Portugal has experienced the sort of influx of refugees that Germany and other countries did last year, so there is little evidence how the two countries might in practice tolerate immigrants. Iberia has traditionally exported emigrants far more than it has welcomed foreigners. In the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Portuguese and Spanish moved abroad in search of better lives. In the past five years, record youth unemployment has caused many young people in both countries to follow suit.

“We can’t say what would happen in Portugal if there were refugees camping in Lisbon’s main squares,” says António Costa Pinto, of the University of Lisbon's Institute of Social Sciences.

More voice for 'protest parties'

The absence of far-right parties may not simply be a result of political substance, though. Some argue that it's also a side effect of the political systems of Spain and Portugal, which makes their parliaments more accessible to "protest" parties – and helps temper their rhetoric.

“It’s very hard for a party that gathers 4 percent of the vote to have a seat in the US Congress, but that’s possible in both Portugal and Spain,” says Mr. Costa Pinto. "For years, there wasn’t a single National Front MP in the French parliament despite the fact that this party gathered 16 percent of the vote."

“In the Portuguese and the Spanish parliaments there are radical parties, but because they’re integrated to the system, they don’t sound or act so radical,” Mr. Costa Pinto adds. “No one wants to hear this, but integration is key. Integrating the more radical political parties diminishes their ‘against the elites’ appeal, and bulletproofs the system against electors’ revolts. To integrate the far right might be a risk, but it’s a risk inherent to any democracy.”

Mr. Ángel Simón is less confident about the opportunity cost of this approach.

“It’s not clear whether an integration strategy works better than ostracism. More-open electoral systems favor integration, but increase the risk of normalization. Jean Marie Le Pen [the founder of France's National Front] has always said that the real battle was the battle for the ideas," he says. "Normalization can open the door for this kind of parties to put forward their political agendas."