Ultra-party Vox were widely recognised as the biggest winners in November’s elections, more than doubling their number of seats in congress since the April vote. The presence of the far right in Spain’s parliament bears witness to the growing and emboldened wave of hard right feeling sweeping the nation. The most obvious explanation as to why Vox have been so successful in recent months is that this far right trend has never really been absent, rather cloaked as an arm of the Partido Popular and latent in the population as a whole in the era since the death of dictator Francisco Franco. But clearly, in recent months factors have conspired to offer the far right a chance to become a manifest force in the political system.
The spark that lit the fuse was Catalonia. Since the independence referendum of October 2017, politics in Spain have been polarising by the day. In the weeks preceding the referendum, Spanish nationalism found new breath. Throughout the country a proliferation of Spanish flags began to drop from windows and balconies, with proudly nationalist businesses commissioning flags of several metres in length to float above highways. In events since the referendum, positions have entrenched yet more on both sides of the Catalonian divide: the imprisonment of several high ranking Catalan politicians involved in organising the referendum; the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in Catalonia, which gave the national government special powers to ‘restore order’; and ongoing protests and civil unrest. In particular, the sentencing of the Catalan politicians over the summer appears to have lit a flame beneath Vox’s political movement, with large numbers drawn to the party on the basis of its hard-line stance.
In addition to this, regular returns to the polls in Spain have sped up the process of two-party system decline, with April and November’s elections representing the death knell for the dominance of the Partido Popular (PP) and PSOE. President Pedro Sanchez’s failed strategy to gain a parliamentary majority by rapidly undermining negotiations with Podemos in a series of spin-doctored moves pushing the nation towards fresh elections, has helped feed reactionary politics further.
His actions in the interim – exhuming the remains of Franco in an attempt to engage the left while adopting an increasingly hard-line position on Catalonia in a bid to mop up centre-ground voters, all the while appointing centrist members to his cabinet and rowing back on proposed labour reforms – did not achieve the desired results. Arguably they fed the flames.
Sanchez calculated that disaffected Cuidadanos voters would drift to the left, dismayed by their party’s willingness since April of this year to go into coalition with the far right in local councils and regional assemblies. In reality, they have delved deeper into the right. Interestingly, support for left and right blocks has stayed broadly consistent – each side winning no less than 42% of vote share. Within the left, support has meandered a little – PSOE lost three seats between April and November and Podemos a handful more, while a new left-wing party started by Podemos’s former Chief Strategist Iñágo Errejón has secured the grand total of three seats. But it is on the Spanish right where the greatest movement can be seen, with the vote for Cuidadanos collapsing in favour of support for PP and Vox.
But it is on the Spanish right where the greatest movement can be seen, with the vote for Cuidadanos collapsing in favour of support for PP and Vox.
Theories abound as to the reasons why the far right was able to mop up so many of the votes of the ostensibly centre-ground neo-con party Cuidadanos. Some suggest it was a protest vote, others believe that Vox successfully target the relatively young vote in sleeper cities. The right in general has been polarising, with Vox leading a hardening of discourse while PP and Cuidadanos have danced to their tune. This has been particularly noticeable in the increasingly aggressive discourse relating to Catalonia, and the lurch to the right in other policy areas. But one key factor is the powerful way in which Vox have capitalised on emotion and belonging, harnessing these ideas to their cause, and positioning themselves as the party of sovereignty and the nation-state.
Their campaigning tactics have been immensely successful in engaging swathes of the population on a profoundly emotional level. These share a Bannon-esque disregard for truth, regarding it as an occasional accessory. They have openly challenged state statistics around violent crime, sexual assault and feminicide, positioning themselves as the voice of reason in the face of ‘feminazi’ hysteria. Their issues of choice include abortion – with emotive pledges to protect ‘the most vulnerable of life – that which is still inside the womb’ – domestic violence, which they deny the existence of, and migration.
Indeed, a discussion of Vox’s rise would not be complete without an analysis of the attitude to migration, and the fundamental role it played in their success. In line with other populist movements, the demonization of the ‘other’ and the strong appeal to perceived values and identity has underpinned their campaign.
They have employed a healthy dose of misinformation and lies about the numbers of migrants in irregular circumstances, wild claims about the propensity of migrant populations towards criminality, and energetically spread popular misconceptions about benefits afforded to migrant groups (including, in what must surely be a breach of data protections and in effect proves nothing, the bizarre occurrence of Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal reading out the surnames of those living in social housing).
Migrants have historically been a scapegoat in times of social and political unrest. Spain, hit hard by the financial crash of 2008, has been reeling socially and politically in succeeding years. Unemployment has been at a steady high, and whilst the nation is beginning to recover precarity is now baked into the labour market. A housing crisis rages, and since 2008 there has been a steady rolling back of public services. Given the context of post-crisis Spain, the populist task of stirring up ‘native’ resentment against migrant populations was a relatively simple one.
The areas in which Vox gained most support attest to their success in this field. They were the most popular party in Murcia, a region in the south-eastern part of Spain whose primary industry includes agriculture and which relies on seasonal migrant workers. Building on previous successes in the regional assembly, Vox gained significant support in Andalucia, another region where migration is prominent. They also swept the board in Ceuta, one of the Spanish occupied territories in Morocco – a place in which the sharp end of Europe’s deadly migration policy is lived out day by day.
Finally, the rise of Vox can be analysed in the context of the wave of growing far right sentiment internationally. From Italy to Brazil, the UK to the US, populist movements across the board are employing a playbook of campaigning tactics to great effect.
There are a number of similarities in these far-right movements, among them leadership from elites self-styled as ‘of the people’.
There are a number of similarities in these far-right movements, among them leadership from elites self-styled as ‘of the people’, whose platforms are largely reactionary and negationist. Where Spain’s populist movement differs, according to journalist Nadia Alabao, is that its focus is on culture wars rather than economic issues. Indeed, according to Miguel Bravo Candela, Vox capitalises on three dominant mentalities in Spain. These include the traditional conservative desire to halt cultural, social and economic change; the mentality that desires radical change and sees the right as the best way of achieving this; and the nationalist who seeks to strengthen territorial unity in the face of increasing separatist movements.
Given the complicated and uncertain political panorama in Spain, the strength of the separatist movement and over a decade of social decline, none of these mentalities will diminish or lose strength overnight. As Alabao asserts, if Vox is able to develop a strong base among the working classes, a group from which it draws relatively little support at present, their rise could be unstoppable. The alliance between PSOE and Podemos is cause for hope – and indeed, without a progressive left, a strong welfare state and rapid improvements in social justice, social divisions will continue to increase. But the presence of Vox in Parliament as the third largest force, and the widespread support they command among the population paint a deeply troubling picture in Spain for the years to come.