In Spain, the far-right were also-rans, effectively discredited and shunned in mainstream circles and government affairs since the end of the Francoist period in the mid-1970s. Those days are long gone.
Vox, which promotes itself as the “patriotic alternative,” burst onto the national scene late last year in the elections in the southern region of Andalucía, sending shockwaves through Spanish politics. In the wake of this political upheaval came the general election in April, where the ultranationalist party received just over 10% of votes and won 24 seats in the 350-seat Parliament. That election resulted in no clear majority, and plunged the country into another round of voting. In the Nov. 10 election, Vox more than doubled its previous results. Now 52 seats strong, Vox has become the third largest political force in the country.
Rise is primarily tethered to the Catalan question
What does Vox stand for? And what explains this seismic shift in the Spanish political landscape? Vox shares many ideological traits with other right-wing populist parties in Europe that have gained traction in Austria, Italy, Germany or France — nationalism, anti-immigration, and Islamophobia — but the situation in Spain has its own peculiarities. Whereas most European far-right parties flourished in the wake of the financial crisis or the influx of refugees, Vox’s rapid rise is primarily tethered to the Catalan question. Seizing on growing agitation with regard to these political developments, Vox proposes to abolish regional autonomy and parliaments. This hard-line centralism has resonated strongly among voters after the separatist push in Catalonia and ongoing deadlock and instability in the region. Vox has anointed itself the true savior of the country’s unity.
While reining in Catalonia is a core element in Vox’s political platform, its anti-migrant rhetoric is also unambiguous. They champion the idea of “Españoles primero” (Spaniards first), and spread falsehoods about a government bent on prioritizing migrants and discriminating against Spanish nationals. Their leaders traffic in familiar conspiracy theories. For instance, Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, likes to attribute Spain’s woes to the Hungarian Jewish philanthropist George Soros. On Twitter he accused Soros of bankrolling illegal mass immigration (mirroring the myth propagated by populist leaders in Europe and by President Trump in the U.S.). Moreover, Vox points a finger at Soros as a driving force behind Catalan separatism.
Fixation with Muslim immigrants
The arrival of Muslim immigrants in the country is portrayed by Vox as an invasion. This fixation with Muslim immigrants dredges up age-old prejudices, which Vox resurrects for its own warped purposes. The party understands its political quest as a “reconquista” (reconquest), and in an act suffused with symbolism kicked off its April election campaign in Covadonga, in the northern region of Asturias, where the Christian King Don Pelayo defeated Muslim troops in the year 722. “We will not ask for forgiveness for our symbols, even if others are ashamed of them,” Abascal declared on that occasion. Vox’s populist politics call for an emboldened, unapologetic embrace of Spanish and Catholic identity. This identity is also under threat, they claim, due to “gender ideology” and “the dictatorship of progressive politics.”
While some of the elements noted above echo the Franco regime’s (1939-1975) National-Catholic precepts, Vox is neither openly nostalgic about the Franco dictatorship nor cut-and-dried fascist. Also taking its cues from other far-right parties in Europe, Vox is gaining popular support thanks to a strategic face lift that renounces or downplays some of its less socially acceptable ideas. For example, signs of explicit antisemitism and Holocaust denial are monitored closely and addressed by the party’s leadership. For the April elections Vox nominated as a congressional candidate Fernando Paz, a journalist and right-wing historian who questioned the scope of the Shoah. After this became public, Vox backed down and replaced the candidate.
Vox also supports the state of Israel, and here as well the Spanish party falls in line with others in this new wave of European far-right parties (the German AfD, for instance, recently brought forward a motion calling for a complete ban of the Palestinian-led BDS movement, the campaign promoting a boycott of Israel). They see Israel as an ethno-national project to follow, hyping Israel as an implacable stronghold of civilization against the Islamic world.
An aura of legitimacy
Many Spaniards thought that the Franco regime’s demise had immunized the country against the scourge of the far right. This was wishful thinking. Vox can now flex its power in the Parliament, and the party’s positions are being granted an aura of legitimacy. Given the elections outcome, with the win of Socialists, the party will likely have no say in the next government’s formation. Vox, however, already has leverage in influencing policies in Madrid and Andalucía, where the party’s votes were instrumental for the formation of new conservative regional governments led by the center-right People’s Party and Ciudadanos (Citizens). The ball is now in the conservatives’ hands. Will they continue to sugarcoat Vox’s noxious ideas to obtain their support? What price will Spanish society pay for this Faustian bargain?
Alejandro Baer, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology and the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.
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