Populism and Islamophobia in Spain: from Podemos to Vox

Santiago Abascal, leader of the extreme right Spanish party VOX at an election rally in Casetellon, Spain in October 2019. Photo: Aitor Serra Martin.

Podemos boasts “inclusive populism in terms of minorities and vulnerable groups” in which we include Islam and Arab-Islamic immigration in Spain. In contrast, the links between Islamophobia and the Spanish far-right are more explicit. However, Vox’s electoral success is a response to its marked opposition to the Catalan secessionist movement, rather than other key factors seen in the discourse of the radical right-wing in other European countries, such as immigration, economic decline, and political distrust. The party has also used opposition to feminism, abortion, gay marriage, multiculturalismillegal immigration, and Muslim immigration as campaign slogans.

By Alfonso Corral*

The 2011 Indignados Movement (also known as 15M), which sought to put an end to the crisis of Spain’s two-party system (Socialist Party and Popular Party) and revitalise democracy, was gradually diluted in favour of extreme left-wing populism. In this sense, Podemos has set itself up as the guarantor of these ideals. One only has to read their website to be aware of their ideology: anti-elitism (against banks, large corporations and big fortunes), ecological transition, revolution in the care economy, eradication of structural chauvinism, reversal of Spain’s rural depopulation, improved social rights (decent and stable work, sufficient pensions, affordable housing, quality public health care), and increased public investment in innovation and employment. 

It should be remembered that the first electoral results of Podemos correspond to the European elections of 2014, in the year it was founded, when the party led by Pablo Iglesias was the fourth most popular alternative, securing 8 percent of the vote. Since then, Podemos has made progress in almost all the elections in which it has participated, often in conjunction with other similar parties (it has formed alliances with communist and regionalist groups, for example), to the point of winning mayoral seats and pacts in Spain’s autonomous governments, (Font, Graziano & Tsakatika, 2021). However, its greatest triumph was undoubtedly in 2019 when it became part of the current Spanish government in coalition with the Socialist Party presided over by Pedro Sánchez. 

The gradual entrenchment of Podemos brought with it the confirmation of another socio-political phenomenon: the strengthening of Vox, in other words, extreme right-wing populism. It is true that Vox was founded in 2013, a year earlier than Podemos, but it should be noted that its influence was somewhat marginal during its first five years of life. The turning point for the party led by Santiago Abascal came in the 2018 regional elections in Andalusia, when they managed to gain their very first foothold in a regional parliament. A year later, Abascal’s party established itself in the national parliament in both of the general elections held while in April they won 24 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies (10.3 percent of the votes), in the November rerun they managed to win 52 seats (15.2 percent of the votes). These latest results ratified Vox as the third political force in Spain, behind only the Socialist Party and the Popular Party (Castro Martínez & Mo Groba, 2020; Lava Santos, 2021).  

In the document 100 measures for a living Spain (2018), Vox elucidates what could well be its ideological basis. Its political programme aims to provide solutions to the challenges that most concern Spanish society: “The unity of Spain, the destruction of the middle class, high taxes, the security of our borders, and the curtailment of freedoms.” According to Turnbull-Dugarte (2019), Vox’s electoral success is a response to its marked opposition to the Catalan secessionist movement, rather than other key factors seen in the discourse of the radical right-wing in other European countries, such as immigration, economic decline, and political distrust. However, the party has also used opposition to feminism, abortion, gay marriage, multiculturalism, illegal immigration, and Muslim immigration as campaign slogans. Nevertheless, Abascal’s party exalts a certain ethnic nationalism and an ostensible anti-globalism, hence its Euroscepticism and its rejection of immigration, especially from Arab-Islamic countries, as well as large technological corporations and other global players that interfere in domestic affairs (Ferreira, 2019; Rydgren, 2017; Akkerman, 2018; Zúquete, 2017). And in Spain itself, along with Catalan independence, Vox is self-affirming in its antagonism towards ETA terrorism, communism, and the left in general (Vázquez Barrio, 2021). 

In terms of populism being coupled with Islamophobia, as we have suggested, in the case of Vox this is more apparent than for Podemos. However, Martín Corrales (2004) considers that the Islamophilia of the Spanish left offers a paradox: in their educational and good-natured campaign in favour of tolerance and solidarity with regard to certain causes (Amazigh, Kurdish, Sahrawi and Palestinian peoples, etc.), these parties rarely mention the religion practised by the parties involved. In his opinion, this discursive logic “conceals many ambiguities and more than a few ideological traps.” Indeed, this is where their silence on other controversial issues such as the arrival of illegal immigrants, the management of the unaccompanied minors, Islamism, the issue of headscarves and jihadism comes in. All of this results in a kind of latent Islamophobia, aligned according to Gil-Benumeya (2018) around three main issues: international politics, secularism, and liberal feminism. In any case, Podemos boasts “inclusive populism in terms of minorities and vulnerable groups” (Alonso-Muñoz & Casero-Ripollés, 2021), in which we include Islam and Arab-Islamic immigration in Spain. 

In contrast, the links between Islamophobia and the Spanish far-right are more explicit. To demonstrate this, we need only look back at the findings of one of our studies that explored the production of Vox’s main Twitter account in January 2021, coinciding with the pre-campaign for the Catalan parliamentary elections held in February of that year. Among the 118 tweets and retweets dealing with issues linked to Islam or migration, the hashtag #StopIslamisation (#StopIslamisation) appeared 29 times. This word cloud shows the recurrent use of other terms associated with Islam (mosque, Islamist, fundamentalist…), with migration (menas or unaccompanied migrant minors…), with the negative aspects of immigration (illegal, mafias, invasion, security…), with geography (Catalonia, Spain…), with institutions and ideologies (government, separatism, left…), and finally with populism (neighbourhoods, ours, streets, culprits…). 

Reading some of these tweets is even more revealing. In particular, it is worth looking at these three messages posted by the Vox account between January 11-18, 2021, which link to three news items in the newspapers El MundoLa Razón and ABC. Firstly: “The jihadists arrested in Barcelona arrived in Spain by patera via Almeria and were ready to attack. The government allows potential terrorists to enter our country illegally every day. It shall be held responsible for what happens.” Secondly: “Daesh orders attacks on churches and police in Spain: the infiltration of jihadists in the pateras has increased the risk of attacks. Only VOX has demanded the application of National Security law in the face of the migratory invasion. The rest of the parties opposed it.” Finally: “They introduce Islam into schools in Catalonia. But they don’t let you choose Spanish as a vehicular language [as opposed to Catalan, for teaching purposes]. Let’s be clear, separatism is Hispanophobia and submission to Islam”.

If these samples are not enough, we can also examine one of the videos produced by Vox to attract voters, which first appeared in a retweet to the account of Ignacio Garriga, the Vox candidate in Catalonia. We are talking about a highly accusatory and anti-Islamic document constructed using an Arabic melody, the classic Allahu Akbar, news headlines and stills full of Islamic motifs (veils, beards, nicabs, mosques, imams, djellabas, etc.), arrests, and the August 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. It can be deduced that through this piece they wanted to show that Islam and immigration of Arab-Islamic origin are a problem that must be eradicated in Catalonia. In fact, at the end of the video, they display the image of the billboard that Vox installed in front of the mosque in Palafrugell (Girona), topped with this slogan: “Separatism takes us to the Islamic Republic of Catalonia.” In this campaign, Vox modified the Catalan pro-independence flag, changing the original star for a crescent moon. 

In response to this rhetoric, Twitter temporarily blocked the official Vox account. This happened only one day after the first use of #StopIslamisation, on January 28, 2021. However, it should be remembered that, through these messages, Vox’s influence in Catalonia grew to make it the fourth largest political force in the region. In this respect, it seems timely to prepare for the upcoming national elections. Will Islam and Muslim groups be one of the key issues in the candidates’ debates?

(*) Alfonso Corral is a lecturer at Instituto de Humanismo y Sociedad, Universidad San Jorge (USJ), Spain. He received his Ph.D. in communication at the USJ in 2017. In 2018, he received the Extraordinary Doctorate Prize. He performs his work in the group migrations, interculturality and human development (MIDH). His areas of study are communication and Arab-Islamic World, Islamophobia, media discourses about immigration and immigrant integration. Dr. Corral is currently working on populism and Islamophobia on Twitter.


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