Disruption. Chaos. Destruction. Such apocalyptic language is common among European far-right parties, which strategically employ emotionally-resonant discourse to animate supporters and attack enemies. Yet, while the far right typically reserves its harshest criticism for immigrants and elites, the Spanish far-right party Vox frequently uses these words to condemn an unusual target—the territorial configuration of the state. For Vox, the high degree of decentralization that characterizes the Spanish “state of the autonomies” (estado de las autonomías) represents a historic mistake that must be rectified.
Modern Spain as a “State of the Autonomies”
While technically a unitary state, Spain is composed of 17 autonomous communities (comunidades autónomas) and two autonomous cities (ciudades autónomas), each of which exercises a degree of self-rule. The contours of the current estado de las autonomías emerged following the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s. The Constitution of 1978 did not mandate a particular territorial configuration for the state. Instead, it explicitly affirmed “the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which [the Spanish nation] is composed” and established a process through which such autonomy could be granted.
Although attempts have been made to harmonize the scope of autonomy enjoyed by the communities, the extent of decentralization remains asymmetric. Most autonomous communities have exclusive authority over areas such as agriculture, education, and regional transportation, while some also have significant control over healthcare, public broadcasting, pensions, and policing. Furthermore, all autonomous communities are governed by regional institutions, including a directly-elected legislature, a president, and a court system.
Vox’s Vision for a Centralized “State of Law”
While the estado de las autonomías has served as a defining feature of democratic Spain for four decades, Vox views the current state of affairs as a threat to the unity of the Spanish nation and the sovereignty of the Spanish state. Not merely a minor concern, Vox’s opposition to decentralization features prominently in its official statements. It is the first item mentioned in the party’s 2018 program, 100 Measures for the Living Spain, and its 2021 program, Agenda Spain. In fact, Vox even mentions the issue in its pandemic response plan, Let’s Protect Spain, in which it argues for rescinding regional autonomy on the basis that it weakens national solidarity and makes the state’s response to the pandemic more difficult.
Linking decentralization to questions of national unity and sovereignty, the party proposes the re-centralization of political decision-making power in the national government, while maintaining an unspecified level of “administrative decentralization.” As a first step, Vox seeks to return to Madrid authority over education, healthcare, security, and justice. It also urges the disbanding of regional police forces and the immediate suspension of autonomy for Catalonia and other regions that appear to use their devolved powers to undermine the state—which would be legally permissible under Article 155 of the Constitution. These steps serve as a precursor for the party’s ultimate goal of transforming the estado de las autonomías into an “estado de derecho unitario” (“unitary state of law”) embodied by “one single government and one single parliament for all of Spain.”
Decentralization and the European Far-Right
Vox’s opposition to regional autonomy is noteworthy in comparison to the stances taken by other European far-right parties. The figure below displays Vox’s position on decentralization in comparison to 16 other far-right parties in EU-15 states (relevant far-right parties were identified using the PopuList). Measurement of parties’ support for or opposition to decentralization came from the 2019 Chapel Hill Expert Survey, which places parties on a scale ranging from complete support for decentralization (0) to complete opposition to decentralization (10).
While the considerable variation between parties suggests that the far right does not hold a common stance on the issue of decentralization, Vox stands out for its extreme position on this question. Vox’s score of 9.86 indicates almost absolute opposition to decentralization—by contrast, most parties gravitate toward the center of the scale with an average score of 5.7.
Far-Right Party Opposition to Decentralization
Re-Centralization as an Expression of Vox’s Far-Right Ideology
Despite its relatively unique interest in this issue, Vox’s position on decentralization is deeply rooted in the far-right ideology it shares with other parties. Most importantly, Vox’s opposition to regional autonomy is an expression of its nationalism—particularly its belief that the unity of the Spanish nation is under attack and must be defended. The party views the estado de las autonomías as a source of division and a wellspring of regional separatism that threatens Spain’s national unity and territorial integrity. The most common reference point in this line of argument is the Catalan independence movement, which became a full-fledged national crisis following the region’s October 2017 self-determination referendum and subsequent declaration of independence.
Yet, the party’s nationalist rationale for opposing the estado de las autonomías also references less sensational aspects of the autonomy regime. For example, Vox is particularly concerned about the status of the Spanish language, especially in the autonomous communities where regional languages have co-official status. The party did not mince words in describing the increasing prevalence of regional languages in public life as a form of “apartheid” that serves to deepen divisions between Spaniards. For Vox, the notion that languages other than Spanish would be regularly used in school, in the media, and in regional government administration is anathema to the very concept of a single, united Spanish nation.
In opposing the decentralized structure of the Spanish state, Vox also manifests the far right’s illiberal tendencies. The second of the party’s 100 Measures for the Living Spain calls for banning political parties and civil society organizations that appear to threaten the “territorial unity of the nation and its sovereignty.” In later points, the party further calls for the suppression of independent associations affiliated with movements the party opposes, such as feminist groups. Furthermore, the party’s reification of the nation leads it to propose restrictions on freedom of speech, particularly regarding “offenses and insults” against symbols of the nation, including the flag and the monarchy. Thus, Vox’s opposition to decentralization is concerned not merely with reordering the territorial configuration of the state, but silencing all those who do not share its vision of a strong Spanish state in defense of a united Spanish nation.
In practical terms, Vox’s plan to re-centralize the state is more aspiration than reality. Even were the party to gain the political power necessary to dismantle the estado de las autonomías, such a radical reconfiguration of the state would likely require significant constitutional revision and would be fiercely opposed by most other political forces. Nevertheless, the centrality of this issue in Vox’s political program speaks to how the party views its own nationalism and the most pressing threats to it. Tapping into concerns about regional division and separatism—while presenting itself as the only defender of Spanish unity and territorial integrity—has fueled the party’s political surge over the past five years, allowing it to become the first nationally-competitive far-right party in the Spanish parliament since the return of democracy. This success suggests that the party will have no incentive in the short term to abandon its commitment to reconstruct a centralized Spanish state and revive a unified Spanish nation.
Joseph Cerrone is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at The George Washington University. His research focuses on far-right politics in southern Europe, with an emphasis on how elite discourse influences public perceptions of immigrants and ethnic minorities. He holds an M.A. in Political Science from The George Washington University and a B.A. in International Relations and Spanish from Saint Joseph’s University.
Photo: Edited by John Chrobak using “Blank Spain Map (Autonomous Communities)” by Az88 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; and “Macarena Olona en Sevilla 28.02.2022 51911422526” by Vox España