The emergence of the radical right party Vox was one of the main stories of the 2019 Spanish general election. Rubén Ruiz-Rufino presents an analysis of the link between support for Vox and the use of land in Spanish provinces. He highlights that citizens living in regions with high levels of agriculture appear more likely to express support for Vox than those living in regions where most of the land is not used for agricultural activities. This illustrates how political preferences can be linked to the economic activity of a region.
A key headline in the recent elections held in Spain on 28 April was the victory of the far-right party Vox. Some pre-election polls predicted up to fifty seats for this party although it finally obtained only twenty-four. This result, nonetheless, is important because it is the first time since 1982 that most conservative voters have not coordinated their vote around a single party.
The fragmentation of the party system observed in Spain after 2011 appeared at first to affect only the centre and centre-left side of the electorate. However, the recent elections have shown that, actually, the effect was perhaps also present on the right of the ideological spectrum and those voters were just waiting for a party like Vox to emerge. So, when the conservative PP lost much of its credibility, Vox became salient and received ten percent of the total vote.
But who are the supporters of this new far-right party? Where are they coming from? I propose to answer this question using the exposure to various forms of agriculture practiced in certain provinces in Spain as a key element in the explanation. Looking at whether and how land is used for agricultural purposes can be a useful way to approximate relevant socio-economic conditions faced by some voters for whom the discourse used by Vox can be attractive.
Likewise, the analysis of the agricultural use of the land can be useful for inferring the support for certain traditional values signposted by Vox and endorsed by typical voters in these regions. The main finding from this analysis is that being exposed to agriculture translates into greater support for Vox than living in a region where most of the land is not used for agricultural activities. In particular, this is due to two related explanations.
The first explanation has to do with the exposure to intensive agriculture such as greenhouses. Provinces like Almeria, Huelva, Granada or Murcia in the South and South-East of the country show a share of land occupied by greenhouses above the national mean. Given the labour-intensive activity of greenhouses but also the low salaries and high temporality that characterises its labour market, most of the workers employed in this industry are immigrants (and frequently undocumented) and from a wide range of nationalities.
The co-existence of this precarious and culturally-diverse group of workers with the most reactionary part of the local population is not easy. The probability of observing clashes among groups is high and these provinces have experienced violent episodes driven by xenophobia in the past. One could explain the success of Vox in these areas precisely as a reaction from the more conservative and reactionary groups of the local population to these low-skilled and culturally distinct immigrants.
A key message from Vox during the electoral campaign was precisely the sponsorship of an anti-Muslim agenda promoting the superiority of Christian values and the rejection of multi-culturalism. These are claims that could easily be assumed by local voters directly exposed to the socio-economic dynamics observed in regions with a high concentration of greenhouses.
A second explanation relates to a defence of traditional moral values and, most notably, a strong preference for preserving the unity of the country. Provinces in Spain with large prairies of pasture used to breed livestock also correspond with areas where conservative feelings are higher than in the rest of the country.
Provinces like Caceres, Salamanca, Sevilla and Badajoz are the home of, for example, some of the most famous bull breeds used in bullfighting, a tradition typically associated with conservative voters. Other provinces like Asturias, Avila or Leon are characterised by historically strong conservative sentiments. In fact, survey data shows that citizens in these areas position themselves to the right of the average ideological position of the country. Given the socio-economic composition observed in these rural provinces, some conservative voters may feel attracted by Vox’s messages defending the unity of the nation and the firm defence of traditional family structures.
Support for Vox
I test these explanations using an original dataset which contains the number of hectares used for different type of agriculture at the provincial level. The agricultural data is merged with electoral data from the 2014 European elections, the 2018 Andalusian regional elections, and the 2015, 2016 and 2019 general elections. I create three groups of provinces and I compare them with those provinces where the use of land for agricultural purposes is below the national mean.
The different comparisons are performed using the year 2016 as the reference point. In this year, the PP, the historical conservative party, faced increasing public contestation following a number of corruption scandals. It was also a year that signalled the incapacity of the conservative government to solve the Catalan crisis. This was, perhaps, enough for the more right-wing voters to see the PP as no longer their preferred option.
Figure 1 below shows how the vote for Vox has evolved since 2014 – the first year this party competed in an election – to date in provinces exposed and not exposed to agriculture. Exposure to agriculture implies that a province uses an extension of land which is above the national mean in either intensive agriculture, prairies, irrigation or extensive agriculture. As the two lines in the figure show, the differences between provinces exposed to any form of agriculture and those provinces not exposed to agriculture at all was practically identical up until 2016. The pattern, however, changed in 2019 when a larger increase in support for Vox was observed in agriculturally exposed provinces only.
Figure 1: Support for Vox and levels of exposure to agriculture
Source: Compiled by the author.
The size of the effect reflected in Figure 1 can be estimated. Figure 2 shows the magnitude of the effect observed in the different comparisons performed. Firstly, the “agricultural effect” referred to above is positive and shows that support for Vox is larger in provinces exposed to any form of agriculture than in provinces with no exposure. This general effect can be disaggregated into a “Greenhouse effect” and a “Prairie effect”. These two effects are also positive but the “Greenhouse effect” is larger than the “Prairie effect”.
In substantive terms, support for Vox, as a share of the number of votes for this party over the electoral census, increases by two percentage points in provinces exposed to greenhouse agriculture compared to provinces that were not exposed to agriculture. The “Prairie effect” is also important albeit smaller than the “Greenhouse effect”: Vox obtained a vote share over the electoral census slightly above one percent compared with provinces with no agricultural exposure.
One note of caution. Given that the effect is calculated over the total number of voters as shown in the electoral census, these effects actually mean large numbers of voters. Considering that the district magnitudes of these provinces are relatively small, such differences may, indeed, imply winning a seat in parliament.
Figure 2: Effect of agriculture on support for Vox
Source: Compiled by the author.
This empirical analysis illustrates how political preferences can be linked to the economic activity of a region. In the case of Spain, there seems to be a clear connection between regions exposed to intensive agriculture like greenhouses and regions with large prairies. This exposure explains why there was a surge in support for a far-right party in Spain once the traditional conservative PP party was no longer perceived by most right-wing voters as being a credible party.
Vox is appealing to voters in these agricultural regions through two different mechanisms. First, the party’s anti-Muslim and anti-multiculturalism agenda attracts voters exposed to contexts with large numbers of immigrants working in precarious conditions, as typically observed in the labour markets generated in provinces using intensive forms of agriculture like greenhouses. Vox is also successful among the most conservative voters living in regions with a large extension of prairies that are used to breed livestock. Voters in these provinces have strong feelings about traditional family structures and, especially, strong preferences for preserving the unity of Spain which make them ideal voters to the new Spanish far-right party.
Rubén Ruiz-Rufino – King’s College London
Rubén Ruiz-Rufino is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at King’s College London.