Who votes for the radical populist right in Portugal and Spain?

In 2019, the radical right-wing parties Chega and Vox made headlines, winning representation in the national parliaments of Portugal and Spain. Based on new research, Lea Heyne and Luca Manucci shed light on voters who supported both parties.

Until recently, radical right-wing populist parties were widely seen as marginal players in Portuguese and Spanish politics. This “Iberian exceptionalism” was rooted in the idea that such parties would be unable to break with the stigma associated with the authoritarian regimes of António de Oliveira Salazar and Francisco Franco. The authoritarian experiences of Portugal and Spain have effectively given them a form of “immunity‘against the radical right which did not exist in other European states.

This argument has since collapsed in the face of the rise of Chega, which became the first radical right-wing party to win a seat in the Portuguese parliament in October 2019, and of Vox, which became the third most popular party in the Spanish legislative elections, only held one month later, in November 2019. The emergence of Chega and Vox has enabled the two Iberian countries to now have representation of the radical right-wing populist in their national parliaments for the first time since their transition to democracy in the 1970s.

But who are the citizens who support these two parties? Do they match the classic profile of the radical right-wing populist voters we know in other European countries? If not, what are the distinct characteristics of radical right-wing voters in Portugal and Spain? In a new study, we attempt to answer these questions.

The electorates of Chega and Vox

The demand from radical right-wing populist parties is seen as a reaction to phenomena such as modernization and globalization: citizens who feel neglected, or who think that their social status is threatens through these processes, are often found among those most likely to turn to the radical right.

In addition, voting for radical right-wing populist parties is also seen as an expression of democratic will. dissatisfaction resulting from mistrust of the political elite, dissatisfaction with the way democracy works and disenchantment with traditional parties. Finally, we know that citizens who support radical right-wing populist parties tend to be more likely to get their political information from tabloid newspapers and social media.

In our analysis, we examine the socio-demographic, political, economic and behavioral characteristics of the citizens who vote for Chega and Vox. To do this, we test the effect of different factors on the self-reported probabilities of voting for both parties as well as the effect of these factors on actual voting decisions, as recalled by respondents in the polls.

Previous research has shown that those who vote for Vox tend to be right-wing men who are unhappy with how democracy works. Our study confirms these results, but also highlights an interesting distinction: that Chega and Vox attract young people rather than older citizens, as illustrated in Figure 1. This suggests that supporters of the Iberian populist radical right are not not old people who are nostalgic for the authoritarian regimes of the past, but rather are mainly a new generation of people drawn to the radical right. We also find that Chega and Vox voters tend to be less educated and more religious than average, and Chega voters tend to live in rural areas rather than urban ones.

Figure 1: Impact of socio-demographic factors on the probability of voting for Chega and Vox

To note: The graph shows how different factors affect the general ‘voting probability’ (PTV) of respondents as well as the actual voting choice in previous elections (recall of votes) for Chega and Vox (both self-reported).

In agreement with previous studies, we find that both parties attract citizens who reject mainstream politics, are dissatisfied with how democracy works, and are generally disillusioned with the party system and the political establishment, as shown in Figure 2. Interestingly, however, Vox voters seem generally satisfied with the work of the previous PP (Popular party) in Spain, which implies that many former voters of the PP now sympathize with Vox. This suggests that Vox voters could return to the PP if they are convinced the party is serious about the key issues that interest them, like limiting Catalonia’s autonomy.

Figure 2: Impact of political factors on the probability of voting for Chega and Vox

To note: The graph shows how different factors affect the general ‘voting probability’ (PTV) of respondents as well as the actual voting choice in previous elections (recall of votes) for Chega and Vox (both self-reported).

Next, we examined a common assumption in the literature on radical right-wing populist parties, which claims that the voters of these parties are the so-called “losers from globalization”. The increasingly economically vulnerable, low-skilled manufacturing workers are said to feel marginalized and impoverished, and their resentment is said to be captured by the radical right-wing populist parties. Beyond economic motivations, the “losers of globalization” would also oppose processes of social change such as multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and feminism, which they perceive as a threat. These citizens therefore vote for radical right-wing populist parties because they are attracted by demands to oppose “progressive elites” and to defend traditional values.

The results of our analysis are ambivalent, as shown in Figure 3. On the one hand, we find ample evidence that the voters of Chega and Vox perceive themselves as losers from “cultural globalization” – they strongly oppose globalization, migration and feminism, and feel that the economy is malfunctioning. On the other hand, we cannot say that they are economically vulnerable. On the contrary, Vox voters even tend to have higher income and more assets than voters in other parties, while Chega voters have average income and asset levels. Therefore, support for the two parties is not motivated by the economically “left behind” or “disenchanted” working class.

Figure 3: Impact of factors associated with globalization on the probability of voting for Chega and Vox

To note: The graph shows how different factors affect the general ‘voting probability’ (PTV) of respondents as well as the actual voting choice in previous elections (recall of votes) for Chega and Vox (both self-reported).

Another factor we are investigating is the “media regime” of Chega and Vox voters. In line with our expectations, we find that voters from both parties tend to use Facebook and (in Vox’s case) internet forums as a source of political information. They are also more likely to read tabloids rather than other newspapers, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Impact of political information sources on the probability of voting for Chega and Vox

To note: The graph shows how different factors affect the general ‘voting probability’ (PTV) of respondents as well as the actual voting choice in previous elections (recall of votes) for Chega and Vox (both self-reported).

Finally, we look at the country-specific issues that were particularly salient at the time of the 2019 elections and find that they help to understand the electoral breakthrough of the radical populist right, as shown in Figure 5. In Spain, as already shown through previous studies, citizens who reject Catalan autonomy and support a centralized state are significantly more likely to vote for Vox. In Portugal, citizens who support a privatized health system and a reduction in public services are more likely to vote for Chega, although to a lesser extent than with the Catalan question in Spain.

Figure 5: Impact of political opinions on the probability of voting for Chega and Vox

To note: The graph shows how different policies affect respondents’ overall ‘voting probability’ (PTV) as well as actual voting choice in previous elections (recall of votes) for Chega and Vox (both self-reported).

What do these findings tell us about the future of Portuguese and Spanish politics? Are radical right-wing populist parties like Chega and Vox here to stay? On the one hand, there is evidence that the electorates of both parties follow models that are consistent with the existing literature on radical right-wing populist parties. This suggests that Portugal and Spain could follow the path of many other European countries, where radical right-wing populist parties have become a stable part of the political landscape.

On the other hand, our research also highlights the importance of country-specific topics for the electoral performance of these parties. Unlike Vox, who has exploited the issue of national unity in Spain, Chega has yet to find a salient and polarized topic around which he can build substantial support. This is one of the main reasons why the party remains electorally weaker than its Spanish counterpart.

These observations underscore that while Iberian exceptionalism is undoubtedly over, it is far from certain that the radical right-wing populist parties will emerge as important political actors after their initial breakthrough. Chega is only likely to prosper if the public debate revolves around very important cultural issues, rather than socio-economic ones. For Vox, in the meantime, there remains the possibility that the voters will return to the PP, especially if the latter takes a decisive position on Catalonia.

There are two key elements that are crucial in this regard. First, the visibility that the mainstream media decide to grant to the radical right will have a major impact on their profile. Second, the strategic choices of other right-wing parties will shape the opportunities for each of the two parties to carve out a place for themselves within the Portuguese and Spanish party systems. We now know that there is a potential electorate for radical right-wing parties in Portugal and Spain – it remains to be seen whether this will translate into further successes for Chega and Vox in the years to come.

For more information, see the accompanying Authors’ Document at Policy research exchange


Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: Vox Spain (Public domain)