On 2 December, a radical right party – Vox – gained representation in the regional parliament of Andalusia: the first time such a party had won seats in a Spanish regional assembly since the country’s transition to democracy. But to what extent can this result be explained by immigration rates in Andalusia? Using demographic data, Dimiter Toshkov illustrates that the relative size of the non-Western foreign-born population at the municipal level in Andalusia is positively, and rather strongly, related to the share of votes cast for Vox, suggesting immigration might be responsible to a considerable extent for the party’s success.

Andalusia, the most populous Spanish autonomous community, held elections for its Parliament on 2 December. Normally, the election of the regional assembly based in Seville would not make international headlines. But this time was different. The electoral results attracted attention worldwide, primarily for one reason: the representation in parliament gained by a young radical right party, Vox.

Vox got close to 400,000 votes, 11% of all, which secured the party 12 of the 109 seats in the Parliament. It is not the absolute size of support for Vox that is so remarkable – in fact, only 6% of registered voters chose the party. It is the fact that Vox is the first radical right party to win seats in Spanish regional or national assemblies since the fall of the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco in 1975.

Vox is a relatively new party, established in 2013. It ran a campaign based on anti-migration, anti-Islam, and pro-centralisation messages. There is disagreement over whether the party should be classified as radical right, extreme right, populist right or something else. But whatever the label, the combination of xenophobic, nationalist, socially conservative, and economically right-wing stances firmly places Vox outside the range of positions that have had political representation in Spain for a long time.

The causes of the rise of Vox, as well as its prospects, will keep political scientists and commentators busy for years to come. In this post, I will examine only one factor that is possibly related to its popular support: immigration. My focus is not on anti-immigration attitudes – it would be quite trivial to show that anti-immigration attitudes increase support for an anti-immigration party. What I examine is the possible effect of the presence of immigration: the share of people born abroad that live in different local communities in the region.

Spanish newspapers quickly picked up the fact that some of the Andalusian municipalities with the highest vote shares for Vox were home to large shares of immigrants. But we would want to see some more systematic evidence before we jump to the conclusion that there is a link between immigration presence and voting for the radical right. Figure 1 below shows the share of foreign-born citizens from all citizens registered in a municipality plotted against the share of votes cast for Vox from all valid votes, for each of the 778 municipalities in Andalusia. Each dot shows a single municipality, and the size of the dots is proportional to population size.

Figure 1: Support for Vox in the 2018 Andalusian election and share of municipal population born abroad

Note: Electoral data from Junta de Andalucía; demographic data from Instituto de Estadística y Cartografía de Andalucía.

The figure reveals a positive association between immigration presence and the Vox vote. Note that the values of the foreign-born population shares, represented on the x-axis, are logged. This means that an increase of 0.69 units on the graph corresponds to doubling the foreign-born population share. The log transformation is useful to ‘unpack’ the small differences in immigration shares between municipalities with relatively low absolute levels of immigration presence. And it helps to induce (an almost) linear relationship with the Vox vote shares.

The linear regression line on the plot indicates the direction and strength of the relationship. On average, a doubling of the foreign-born population share is associated with a 1.3 percentage point higher vote share for Vox. This does not seem like a lot, but moving from the set of municipalities with around 1% of foreigners to those with around a 16% foreign-born population doubles the average Vox vote share from around 5% to around 10%.

As a reminder, these are averages and, as is visible from the figure, there is considerable residual variation remaining. (The bivariate correlation coefficient is 0.42, which although not huge in size, is very unlikely to arise by chance alone). There are remaining non-linearities, as we can see from the comparison between the linear regression line, in black, and the more flexible loess (Local Polynomial Regression) line, in red. The Vox vote is not sensitive to immigration presence until the share of foreign-born residents reaches around 1% of the municipal population; and once the share grows more than 30%, the effect becomes stronger than before.

The figure above is suggestive, but you would be right to be sceptical: after all, a large number of the foreigners living in Andalusia are Brits and Germans enjoying the climate and spending their pensions in the local towns and villages: hardly the type targeted by the anti-immigration rhetoric of populist right-wingers. Fortunately, we have detailed demographic data split by country of birth, so we can remove Brits, Germans, and other West Europeans from the foreign-born population counts (we keep East and South Europeans in). And when we do that, the relationship between immigration presence and the radical right vote grows even stronger.

Figure 2 below clearly shows this: the regression line is now steeper. The average effect of doubling the foreign-born non-Western population grows to a 1.8 percentage point increase. The correlation coefficient swells to 0.46, which means that almost half of the variation in the vote for Vox can be accounted for by the share of non-Western citizens registered in the municipality. This is significant.

Figure 2: Support for Vox in the 2018 Andalusian election and share of municipal population born abroad (excluding those from Western Europe)

Note: Electoral data from Junta de Andalucía; demographic data from Instituto de Estadística y Cartografía de Andalucía.

But correlation, however strong, does not necessarily imply causation, so the question of whether immigration presence causes the rise of the radical right still stands. We can pretty much rule out chance as the source of the observed correlation because it is too strong to be purely random noise. It is also implausible that xenophobe right-wingers attract foreigners, so reversed causality is also unlikely. Still, it could be that some common factors simultaneously affect the likelihood that foreigners will settle in a place and the probability that the population of that place will support the radical right. Economic conditions are one such set of factors.

However, if we focus on unemployment levels, there is no evidence that this takes away the effect of immigration presence. In fact, neither the level of unemployment in a municipality (plotted below) nor the change in the unemployment level between 2010 and 2017 are related positively and systematically to the Vox vote share. It is still possible that common, confounding variables exist, but the onus is on the sceptic to find one that can account for the link between immigration presence and the Vox vote.

Figure 3: Support for Vox in the 2018 Andalusian election and unemployment rate

Note: Electoral data from Junta de Andalucía; economic data from Instituto de Estadística y Cartografía de Andalucía.

We should be careful not to conclude that contact with immigrants makes people more xenophobic and more likely to support the radical right. The aggregate level relationship shown above is entirely consistent with a story in which direct contact between immigrants and locals decreases anti-immigration attitudes. In fact, there is a sizable academic literature that shows such positive effects of contact. But for such effects, contact needs to be direct and sustained. Few locals will experience that.

Most people will only feel the presence of immigrants indirectly or through fleeting interactions, which can increase feelings of threat and competition, and these negative effects can be proportional to the relative size of the immigrant community. The plot below shows some tentative evidence for the different effects of direct contact and indirect threat. The relationship between immigration presence and the Vox vote share is significantly weaker for very small municipalities (with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants), where the positive force of direct contact with immigrants counteracts the indirect threat of immigration presence.

Figure 4: Support for Vox in the 2018 Andalusian election, share of municipal population born abroad, and population size of municipalities

Note: Electoral data from Junta de Andalucía; demographic data from Instituto de Estadística y Cartografía de Andalucía.

To sum up, the available empirical evidence suggests that the relative size of the non-Western foreign-born population at the municipal level is positively, and rather strongly, related to the share of votes cast for Vox, the first Spanish radical right party to get in parliament since the end of Franco’s regime. Immigration might be responsible to a considerable extent for the resurgence of the radical right in Andalusia.

This ties in well with evidence from other countries that suggests links between the presence of immigrants (in particular East Europeans), Euroscepticism and voting for right populist parties at elections for the European Parliament. So far, relatively strong support for immigration and the lack of right-wing populism had cast Spain as an exception to the pattern in most other European states. This seems to be no longer the case, but only time will tell whether the success of Vox will be sustained and scaled to the national level.

It is relevant for the discussion of the long absence and sudden reappearance of the radical right in Spain that the distribution of the foreign-born population across Andalusia has changed little since 2010. In fact, 2010 immigration shares are just as predictive of the 2018 Vox vote shares as are the 2017 immigration shares analysed above. It could be that changing economic conditions suddenly triggered the political relevance of immigration presence, but this is unlikely in light of the lack of a relationship with (changes in) unemployment levels. Alternatively, it could be that immigration had been generating grievances among the local population for years, but these grievances had not had a political outlet, in the form of an openly anti-immigration party, until now.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Dimiter ToshkovLeiden University and European University Institute
Dimiter Toshkov is Associate Professor at the Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University, The Netherlands. He is currently a Jean Monnet Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS), European University Institute, Florence. He is on Twitter @DToshkov

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