Divisive Narratives

Division on the Ballot: What can we learn from Spain?


By Paula Sevilla Núñez, Program Officer, Pathfinders and Raquel Jesse, Program Associate, Pathfinders at the NYU Center on International Cooperation

For the Spanish version, click here

Spain’s electoral fate hangs in the balance as both the rightwing block (the Popular Party and Vox) and the leftwing block (led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the newly formed coalition of leftwing parties, Sumar) failed to secure a governing majority in the country’s snap elections on July 23. This past Sunday’s results defied most predictions of a significant rightward shift.

Photo of people waving Spanish flags during a protest demanding general elections and against Pedro Sanchez’s Government after motion of censure, in Madrid, Spain. The crowd is looking towards the left, with a few people looking towards the right in the bottom corner of the photo.
People wave Spanish flags during a protest demanding general elections and against Pedro Sanchez’s Government after motion of censure, in Madrid, Spain, June 2018. (Marcos del Mazo/Shutterstock)

For those of us seeking to build more peaceful and cohesive societies, it is worth reflecting on the increasingly divisive methods used to pit groups against each other to gain electoral favor. From South Korea’s anti-feminist movements to Sweden’s anti-migrant rhetoric, Spain isn’t the only country grappling with such tactics, but it may hold a way forward.

Following the classic “divide-and-rule” playbook

The divide-and-rule playbook was quite literally unveiled a month before election day on a 20-foot banner on one of the busiest streets in central Madrid. The banner shows a hand adorned with the Spanish flag throwing symbols representing the LGBTQI+ community, feminism, the squatters movement, Catalonian independence, and the 2030 Agenda into a trashcan. Above the image was the message “Decide lo que importa” (Decide what matters).

This image is an attempt to create a backlash against progressive movements and policies by trying to blame activists, migrants, and trans people for society’s problems. Rather than support measures that address the root causes of inequality, they exploit people’s genuine fears about an uncertain future–a sense of precarity shared across class, gender, and race. These messages portray policies benefiting everyone as a zero-sum game (e.g., advances for women are framed as a loss for men, or greening the economy comes at the industrial workers’ expense).

Screenshot of a tweet from the Vox twitter account, with a four panel photo gallery of the 20-foot banner described in the text below.
Screenshot from Vox Twitter account, June 17, 2023

The rise in divisive narratives around the world

Such “culture war” tactics are widespread globally. Mirroring transphobic rhetoric in the US and UK, Vox’s candidate Santiago Abascal stoked fear against a new gender recognition law claiming it jeopardizes children’s safety (echoing tactics used against gay men in the 1980s). The same demonizing strategies used to scapegoat trans people are also used against migrants and ethnic minorities — which for example aided Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s rise to power in Italy.

These tactics are applied across various issues. For example, the transition towards renewable energy is presented as an assault on national industries, imposed by the “elites” in Brussels” In Brazil, such backlash against climate measures under Bolsonaro resulted in higher emissions and further accumulation of wealth in the hands of the super rich.

Campaigns like those supporting Bolsonaro and Trump have demonstrated that sowing division and hate is an easy way to win votes, even from those who stand to lose. In Spain, voters who benefit from recent policies — such as minimum wage hikes, expanded freedoms for marginalized groups, and low energy prices — may still be persuaded to support parties who advocate for regressive policies such as privatizing healthcare and increasing their own salaries.

Fortunately, these divisions have not fully taken hold. For example, despite headlines demonizing migrants in the media, polling indicates that immigration is only a top concern for 2 percent of the public, and studies show very low levels of polarization on key issues like public services and healthcare.

It is not too late for Spain, and there are two particular lessons we can learn from this moment to counter divisive narratives.

1. Leaders must take a stance and call out divisive tactics

Research demonstrates that calling out divisive strategies and explaining their motives can effectively inoculate persuadable people from xenophobic and transphobic messages. It can be as simple as calling out those trying to unfairly demonize migrants for low wages rather than employers.

Moreover, public figures, including in the media, can effectively call out misinformation in the moment — one of the pivotal moments in the electoral campaign was when the Popular Party’s presidential candidate Feijóo was corrected by a journalist on live TV about his false claims that his party had increased the value of pensions while in power.

2. Countering division requires addressing the underlying fear that drives the appeal of reactionary narratives

Policymakers must speak to people’s shared concerns over housing, job security, and the cost-of-living in order to popularize a shared vision of a society that most voters want to live in, regardless of race, gender, and origin. They must also also work with communities that are left behind (whether real or perceived) not just in the implementation of policies,, but in the building of collective movements.

We saw an example of this when Sumar candidate Yolanda Díaz made appeals to the shared frustration of working class struggling to pay rent and paying taxes at higher rates than the richest 1 percent.

A nation that emerged from a fascist dictatorship just half a century ago now finds itself teetering on the edge of embracing the far-right once more. As we seek to build more peaceful and cohesive societies, policymakers must take a firm stance against these strategies and call them out, while addressing the underlying fears that fuel their appeal. By popularizing a shared vision of a society that is inclusive of race, gender, and origin, and working together to uplift all communities, Spain and others can deliver on the promise to “leave no one behind.”