'Politics of fear': Madrid's migrant voters mobilise to fight the rise of the far-right

A street seller carrying Spanish flags walks past a poster of the far-right VOX party. [Getty]
7 min read
20 May, 2021

On 4 May, Fátima El Haddaoui cast her first-ever ballot in the Madrid regional elections. Despite living in the Spanish capital for 27 years, the Moroccan-born Spaniard had not participated in any election for the city's regional government.

"I have never voted, this has been my first time, but it won't be my last," she vowed.

The atmosphere in the Spanish capital had been tense throughout the weeks of campaigning, with polls predicting a very close run-off between the city's right and left-wing parties, painting a possible scenario in which the migrant vote could decide the election.

That was not to be, and sitting president of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, from the conservative People's Party (PP), stormed to victory gaining 44% of votes, more than doubling her party's seat count from the previous election.

Ayuso amassed more seats than her three left-wing opponents combined and fell just four seats short of an absolute majority in the regional assembly.

"I have never voted, this has been my first time, but it won't be my last"

Spain's migrant electorate

El Haddaoui is one of the more than 500,000 nationalised migrants now eligible to vote in Madrid. 

Despite the demographic making up almost 10% of the electorate in the capital, voters like El Haddaoui often fail to participate in the political process and are overlooked by many parties and politicians.

The Spanish capital is home to over one million foreign migrants, yet only around half of them are eligible voters, as foreign residents must obtain Spanish nationality in order to participate in regional and national elections.

"The migrant vote is already a reality and it'll become increasingly relevant. However, it's an issue that is not on the political agenda nor in the public debate here," says Santiago Pérez-Nievas, lecturer in political science at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

In Spain, the migrant electorate does not hold the same political relevance that similar demographics enjoy in countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This irrelevance is reflected in lower political engagement among nationalised migrants.

"On the one hand, migrant voters aren't very politically visible, and on the other hand they're not very politically mobilised," Pérez-Nievas says.

Latin Americans make up the majority of the nationalised migrant electorate in Madrid, as they are eligible for dual nationality after two years of residency in Spain. In contrast, migrants from most other backgrounds - including Arabic, African, and Asian - must spend 10 years in Spain as well as renounce their original nationality in order to acquire their Spanish one.

According to Pérez-Nievas, flaws in the nationalisation process are to blame for the migrant community's limited democratic weight.

"It's a question of democratic quality. There is a part of the population whose access to their political rights is restricted. Moreover, a section of the migrant community still has very considerable barriers to access full citizenship," he says.

Stigma against the migrant population

Many of these stigmatised views have been spearheaded by the far-right party Vox, which holds a hardline approach towards issues of migration. In recent years Vox has become an increasingly strong presence in Spanish politics, and in 2019 became the third most-voted party in the general elections securing 52 seats in the national congress.

At this month's election in Madrid, Vox gained 9% of the vote and 13 seats in the regional assembly, just one more than in the 2019 regional election.

"They know which neighbourhoods they have to go to to play out their politics of fear and spread the message of 'the immigrant who comes here to steal'"

Vox brought issues of migration into the limelight throughout their campaign for Madrid's presidency, often targeting what are known in Spain as menas - unaccompanied foreign minors - and even putting up a misleading campaign poster with false claims about government subsidies the minors receive.  

According to José Rama, lecturer at the Autonomous University of Madrid and author of Vox: The Rise of the Spanish Radical Right, the far-right party put more of an emphasis on issues of migration for their Madrid election campaign.

"There was a clear commitment from Vox to use that fearmongering as a way to attract voters, Vox plays that field very well. They know which neighbourhoods they have to go to to play out their politics of fear and spread the message of 'the immigrant who comes here to steal'".

This approach has worked for Vox, to a degree, as the far-right party saw its share of votes increase in traditionally working-class districts in southern Madrid with a historically strong left-wing vote.

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"Vox's agenda in Madrid is very clear, they promote politics of fear, talk about the danger of migrants and offer specific policies on migrants. Vox is going to try to condition many policies in Madrid that have to do with government subsidies, migrant integration, and cultural policies," Rama explains.

Grassroots mobilisation

In order to redress this, grassroots organisations such as Poder Migrante worked to mobilise migrant voters in the snap election with the hope of invigorating one of the capital's forgotten electorates and counteracting Vox's attacks towards migrant communities.

"The far-right uses migration to prop up its discourse of racism, fascism and exclusion," says Natalia Munevar, a dual Colombian-Spanish national and member of Poder Migrante.

Munevar believes a PP government will pose a threat to the capital's migrant community.

"The far-right uses migration to prop up its discourse of racism, fascism and exclusion"

"In regards to migration, there is no radical difference between the PP and Vox, their policies are very similar… They will follow the same dynamics of persecution, racism, and exclusion, which they have always maintained. I don't know how else they could sink us, how they could exclude us more."

"The left-wing parties, which would be the ones to defend us, never really stand by our side… They don't do it because they are not migrants and have no idea what we have to put up with as migrants," says Munevar.

However, these recent elections saw a slight shift in representation and candidate diversity. Left-wing Podemos included Senegalese-born Serigne Mbaye on their list, who Vox had vowed to deport,  fellow left-wing Más Madrid featured Manuela Bergerot of Argentinian origin on their ballot, while the Socialist Party had Hana Jalloul, whose father is Lebanese, as their number two.

The Socialists launched a campaign urging voters to halt the far-right, featuring a video of Jalloul addressing voters in Arabic and posters with the word 'vote' in Arabic, Chinese, French, and English. Más Madrid also distributed leaflets in Arabic and Chinese.

Socialist campaign poster in Arabic, Chinese, English, and Spanish for candidates Hana Jalloul (L) and Angel Gabilondo (R). [TNA]


Nonetheless, El Haddaoui believes these acts to be mainly performative, claiming they lack long term viability.

"The left takes two people of migrant origin… They use them in rallies to go out to make an appeal but then in the moment of truth they are not given the tools to be able to do something for the migrant society," she says.

Despite still remaining politically sidelined, the migrant community in Madrid is slowly mobilising its electorate and carving out space for itself within the capital's political sphere as the community's political relevance becomes increasingly clear.

Pérez-Nievas states changes must be brought about at an institutional level and warns that the road towards greater integration and political recognition is a long and tumultuous one.

"We have to make it easier for them to have access to political rights, because they are a relevant population, a population that in many cases can find itself in more vulnerable situations. That's all the more reason to recognise that they can have a specific political weight, and that is what is going to make the parties respond to their requests, but there is still a long way to go," he says.

Inigo Alexander is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Spain, Latin America and social justice. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Local, NACLA, among others

Follow him on Twitter: @Inigo_Alexander