Populist ‘anti-system’ parties are on the rise right across Europe. A seminar just eighteen days after the Spanish general election is an ideal moment for a reflection on how inequality, austerity and economic distress are feeding to instability there and right across Europe.
The recent period has seen a dramatic rise in vote shares for 'anti-system' parties and politicians, with the election of Trump in the US, the vote for Brexit in the UK, and the rising vote shares for parties of the radical left and populist right across Europe. This has sparked a debate on the causes of these political upheavals, which pit scholars emphasizing economic grievances such as post-crisis austerity against those emphasizing more cultural factors such as national or ethnic claims and opposition to immigration. Spain is a fascinating laboratory for this debate. Its recent political instability has brought not only a collapse of an apparently consolidated party system dominated by two large parties, but also the attempt by the Catalan government to secede from the state. This paper argues that inequality, austerity and economic distress are the main underlying causes of current political instability, and that cultural or ethnic identity concerns alone cannot account for recent events. It concludes that inequality and austerity generally tend to lead to political upheaval, but that anti-system pressures are filtered through local political traditions and institutions in distinctive ways. The rise of the anti-austerity party Podemos, the independence 'process' in Catalonia, and the growth of the far-right Vox are best understood as distinct responses to economic distress.
Jonathan Hopkin is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. He has published widely on European politics and political economy, with a particular focus on political parties, finance and politics, corruption, and inequality, especially in the UK, Spain and Italy. He contributes to several blogs and writes regularly for Foreign Affairs. His current research focuses on the politics of post-crisis Europe, and he is currently writing a book on Anti-System Politics for Oxford University Press, which argues that the wave of populist successes is the logical consequence of governments' abandonment of post-war commitments to growth and social protection.
The Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies runs a series of lectures, seminars and debates in order to disseminate and encourage knowledge of contemporary Spain. It also sponsors the publication of an important series of books on contemporary Spain.
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