Has the time come for animal rights politics in Spain?

Growing support for the Pacma party could reflect greater awareness about plight of fauna

J. J. Gálvez
Animal rights activists rally in Madrid on Saturday.
Animal rights activists rally in Madrid on Saturday.EFE

Spain's burgeoning animal rights movement staged an impressive display of force on Saturday, when thousands of people filled Madrid’s Puerta del Sol central square to demand an end to all fiestas that goad or kill bulls.

The demonstrators were also celebrating their recent victory over the so-called Toro de la Vega, a controversial bull run held for centuries in the woodlands outside the town of Tordesillas, and which, yeilding to mounting public pressure and hostile international media coverage, the regional government of Castilla y León has banned this year.

They’ve been very successful at becoming a protest force. Everybody thinks about them when they want to address an animal rights issue

Pablo Simón, Carlos III University

“The past is Tordesillas. The future belongs to all of you who defend animals rights!” said Silvia Barquero, president of the animal rights party Pacma, addressing the crowd.

She then laid out her party's next set of goals following the Tordesillas victory: “To end the becerradas (informal bullfights with calves), to end the toros de fuego (attaching fireworks to a bull’s horns) and the toros ensogados (choking them with a noose around their necks): that is our next mission.”

A decade-long slogan

Back in 2008, when Pacma leaders ran in their first national elections, they aired a campaign video showing disturbing images (a pig with a slit throat, blood-spewing bulls) that sought to bring home one simple message: “No to animal abuse.”

That slogan has not changed in nearly a decade.

“They’re what political scientists call a single-issue party,” explains Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán, who teaches at Madrid’s Autónoma University, adding that such parties address a minority public that is already “highly sensitized” to the issue at hand.

Pacma activists protesting the Sanfermines in Pamplona.
Pacma activists protesting the Sanfermines in Pamplona.Getty Images

“During the process of politizing the issue, they’ve also managed to attract more voters,” says Martínez-Bascuñán of Pacma, which has seen support at the polls soar and is now the largest party in Spain without representation in parliament.

The June 26 election confirmed the party's growing support. Despite a nearly four-point drop in voter turnout, Pacma managed to attract an additional 60,000 votes compared to the election of December 20, 2015.

More specifically, Pacma obtained 286,702 votes, representing 1.19% of all ballots; this is a far cry from the 44,795 (0.17%) it secured in 2008 and 102,144 (0.42%) in 2011.

So what is fueling this growth? Has the time finally come for animal rights parties to establish a presence in Congress?

Unfair voting system

Spain's regionally focused voting system is holding Pacma back: it was left out of parliament despite obtaining more votes than Bildu, the radical Basque party born out of the ashes of Batasuna, ETA’s former political wing. Existing legislation means that some parties have to earn many more votes than others to secure a single seat in Congress.

Instead, the system favors regional groups like the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which earned five deputies with its 285,000 votes. By contrast, Pacma got practically the same number of votes across Spain, but no congressional presence. Had all its supporters been concentrated into a single voting district, Pacma would have obtained four deputies.

We will not sell out on our principles

Pacma leaders

Animal rights parties have done better elsewhere in Europe: in Portugal there is one representative in the national parliament, in Germany they even managed to send a deputy to the European Parliament, while in the Netherlands they have two seats in Congress, two in the Senate and one in the European Parliament, besides holding office in around 50 local and provincial governments.

“We’re running 20 years behind our neighboring countries. But we’ve made a lot of progress. People used to look at us like we were oddballs, but not anymore,” says Pacma president Silvia Barquero, who credits the awareness campaigns carried out for years by animal rights groups.

Barquero notes how vegetarians and vegans have also become socially acceptable in Spain. “In the past, it was unusual for restaurants to offer these options on their menus,” she says. Likewise, people increasingly read the labeling on food products to learn about their origin, and try to adopt a pet rather than buy one.

Protesters at Toro de la Vega 2015.
Protesters at Toro de la Vega 2015.Carlos Rosillo (Atlas)

“An animal protection attitude has taken hold,” says Barquero.

The latest Attitudes of Europeans towards Animal Welfare Eurobarometer report, released in March of this year, confirms this trend. The study points out that 94% of Spaniards consider it “very important” or “important” to ensure the welfare of farm animals, and 71% would like more information about the way they are treated.

By comparison, these figures were 71% and 61% in 2006. The report also showcases that 86% of Spaniards want greater protection for pets, even though the Penal Code has already introduced tougher punishment for animal abuse in recent years.

A protest vote

So is there a link between this greater public awareness and Pacma’s strong performance at the polls? Baquero says yes, but adds another factor to the equation: the multiplicity of awareness campaigns. Her party has enlisted actors and TV show hosts to head Pacma’s messages, and her party has led the battle against the Toro de la Vega. After several years of clashes between hunters and activists, the regional government of Castilla y León finally banned the event in May.

“They’ve been very successful at becoming a protest force. Everybody thinks about them when they want to address an animal rights issue,” notes Pablo Simón, who teaches political science at Madrid's Carlos III University.

We’re running 20 years behind our neighboring countries. But we’ve made a lot of progress

Silvia Barquero, Pacma president

But Simón also posits that some of Pacma’s support at the polls has to do with the fact that many citizens are tired of traditional parties and are voting for minority groups as a form of protest.

Pacma has become so relevant on the political stage that Podemos, the anti-austerity party, talked to them earlier this year to see whether they wanted to join its leftist alliance to run in the June 26 elections. Pacma declined on the grounds that Podemos has not taken a clear stand against bullfighting.

“We will not sell out on our principles,” said party leaders at the time.

Martínez-Bascuñán ties this decision to Pacma’s nature: “They are aware that they are never going to achieve large majorities,” she says, and that is why they cannot “betray” their voters.

“We know that we are a tool that creates pressure. And we are happy to fulfil that role so that other parties will include animal rights issues in their political agendas,” concludes Barquero.

English version by Susana Urra.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS