democraciaAbierta

Reconquering Europe? VOX and the extreme right in Spain

The upcoming elections in Spain on the 28th of April will see VOX as the new political protagonist joining the reactionary wave taking over Europe and the world. What is happening with European liberal democracy? Español.

Francesc Badia Sergio Calderón Harker
27 March 2019
Mass demonstration organised by VOX "for Spanish unity", Madrid, Spain, December 1, 2018. PA Images (Photo by: Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto/Sipa USA). All rights reserved.

In a moment of feeble creativity, VOX, the new referent for the extreme right in Spain, thought of promoting a new image of political leadership by reproducing a scene that seems as though it was taken out from the Lord of the Rings epic saga. Picture this: Santiago Abascal mounting a horse across the desert plains of the Castillian territory with Howard Shore’s music resonating in the background.

It is almost too easy to make fun of the video in which VOX promises to ‘Reconquer Spain’. For the organization, this discourse draws on the Spanish Middle Ages, specifically the battle to expel Arab communities residing in the Iberian peninsula from the 8th century onwards culminating in the conquest of Granada, which also led to expulsion of Jews from Spain.

However, despite appealing to such a dark moment in the country’s history, on December 2, 2018, Abascal’s party burst into Andalusia’s parliamentary regional elections with 10,97% of votes and twelve seats. This is a great electoral leap for VOX if we take into account that in 2015 the party only obtained 0.45% of the vote and not a single seat in the regional parliament.

This unexpected result significantly altered Spain’s political situation. Coupled with the equally surprising vote of no confidence against president Rajoy after his party condemned him of massive corruption; the “Catalan autumn”; and the exhaustion of PSOE’s (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) Pedro Sanchez’s brief term in office, VOX presents itself as a key protagonist for the upcoming elections on the 28th of April. If we look at recent polls, published by EL PAÍS and El Periódico de Catalunya, the party (extra-parliamentary up to this point) could be decisive in forming a new majority in the parliament.

The irruption of a new political actor from the extreme right is unprecedented in democratic Spain and poses many questions. The risks that the April elections will enable the formation of a right-wing coalition government with the participation of Abascal’s party are now becoming evident.

The risks that the April elections will enable the formation of a right-wing coalition government with the participation of Abascal’s party are now becoming evident.

What will be the word of the day on the 29th of April? Will the ‘Reconquer epic’ conquer the minds of the Spanish people? Will we assist to the infiltration of our democracy by antidemocratic forces?

VOX’s irruption

What enabled VOX’s irruption? For several years now right-wing reactionaries, defined as the ‘alt-right’ by Anglo-Saxon commentators, have been becoming important political actors throughout the world.

At the same time as Donald Trump stumbled towards the White House hand in hand with Steve Bannon and Mike Pence, two of the architects behind one of the most xenophobic, misogynist, racist and elitist governments of recent decades, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, AfD (Alternative for Germany) and UKIP (UK Independence Party) had already made a name for themselves in Europe. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, closest to pro-fascist positions, only confirmed that the phenomenon is present amongst the American continent’s southern democracies as well.

VOX ("Voice" in Latin) was founded in December 2013 by Santiago Abascal, a politician from the Basque Country, member of the Partido Popular (PP) since the age of 18. After breaking with the PP, Abascal has been presenting his political project to the European, autonomic, municipal and state elections, without any notable triumph... until now.

But like many similar parties, VOX is nothing more than a split of the most radical sectors of the PP and the traditional right. The party is born out of opportunism in the face of the wear and tear of the hegemonic right after many decades alternating power with the social democrats. For this reason, VOX should not be placed in an original ideological position: after all, it picks up values that were already found in the right. What it wants is to take them to the extreme which the Spanish right came from.

In his search for essentially retrograde values, Abascal has positioned himself harshly against abortion ("Abortion is bad and must be fought"), feminism in general ("feminism wants to oppress [men]"), migrated persons ("that any kind of social aid to immigration be prohibited" or "migratory veto to Muslim countries"), and always admits to be armed with a Smith & Wesson revolver ("At the beginning to protect my father from ETA; now, my children"). Deep down, nothing very original about the hard right.

Abascal has recently criticised the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos, who he sees as "moderates" and "cowards".

Among the 100 proposals presented in October 2018, the following stand out: the dissolution of autonomous regions, and therefore, the re-centralization of the Spanish State; the overthrow of the Law of Historical Memory and of the Law of Gender Violence; the deportation of migrants in an irregular situation; and the "suppression of subsidized radical feminist organizations". To these they add incentives to privatise pension plans, as well as education and public land.

These proposals appeal to the more conservative background of many Spaniards. Since the country's democratic transition, these were relegated to the background of unconfessed desires because they were generally considered to be politically incorrect.

They are proposals that are framed within what has come to be called "cultural warfare" (as Steve Bannon calls it), but they also include a political-economic dimension that is worth emphasising. At the beginning of the year eldiario.es collected some of VOX's economic proposals, assuring that "they are focused on underpinning the privileges of those who have higher incomes and property". A very old and popular agenda among the wealthy, those who aspire to be and those who think that economic inequality is a matter of deserving and merit, assuming the ethics of Christian resignation.

The ‘Reconquest’

For VOX, the "reconquest" is not only a simple cultural struggle for the recovery of anti-democratic values. Above all, it entails reactionary purposes that seek to increase the profits of the economic oligarchies whilst continuing to foster the neoliberal model. This aims at reducing the State to its minimum expression, advocating the elimination of taxes and the dismantling or privatization of all public services.

Even so, Abascal's party knows that vindicating its proposals in economic matters is not as "popular" as agitating the discourse of racism and reactionary misogyny. According to Moha Gerehou, journalist and anti-racist activist, racist discourse "has been legitimized, it has been seen to translate into votes. And there are different parties that are legitimizing this discourse allowing, at the same time, that there is part of the population that is legitimized to put this discourse into practice.”

The "reconquest" is not only a simple cultural struggle for the recovery of anti-democratic values. Above all, it entails reactionary purposes that seek to increase the profits of the economic oligarchies whilst continuing to foster the neoliberal model.

Despite not being comfortable with VOX’s inflammatory rhetorics, Ciudadanos and the PP did not have much trouble reaching an agreement with the Abascal group in Andalusia. Deep down they share values and agenda, and perhaps only diverge in the accent rather than in the essence of their political ideas. Hence the importance of appealing to emotionality and exaggeration to gain followers, distinguish itself in the hardness with which their ideas are applied but not so much in the ideas themselves.

The irruption of VOX in politics would have two immediate effects. First, it suggests the consolidation of international reactionism. While in some contexts it walks the fine line between authoritarianism and democracy (Bolsonaro, Trump, Duterte, Erdogan, Salvini), in others it simply strengthens its economic (and political) ties with the large economic and financial interests (Duque, Macri, Piñeira).

Secondly, at the national level, VOX opens up the possibility of a new political cycle in Spain, where, until now, there has never been a coalition government. The fragmentation of the right between PP of the traditional right, VOX towards the extreme right and Ciudadanos towards the centre, would not suppose, in reality, a significant change. Nevertheless, it would mean the possibility that a weakened traditional right could manage to govern, whilst compromising on both sides of its political spectrum and thus forming a new 'Andalusian' pact.

The problem here is that between the centre that tends towards 'moderation' and the extreme that tends towards radicality, radicality always wins.

What democracy?

For this reason, no matter how marginal its participation in the congress of deputies, or in the government itself, VOX has already begun its reconquest. Their entry into the political institutions represents a clear danger of eroding the values of tolerance, respect, dialogue, and social justice. The irruption of the extreme right in European governments and the whole western world forces us to reflect on what is failing in the democratic system. Why do more and more people agree with ideas that seek to destroy it from within?

"It is not just a question of defeating the ultra-right", said Bustinduy, "it is a question of building a horizon of certainty and security that responds to Europe's existential challenges".

Pablo Bustinduy, outgoing Podemos parliamentarian, assured in his last intervention that "behind Brexit, behind the rise of the xenophobic and macho ultra-right, is the crisis of a social model that has abandoned the defence of living conditions in Europe, and what a coincidence that the supposed patriots never question the financial powers that are emptying democracy.”

"It is not just a question of defeating the ultra-right", said Bustinduy, "it is a question of building a horizon of certainty and security that responds to Europe's existential challenges". But this well-intentioned discourse of the left should also make us reflect.

Liberal democrats and the left in particular should ponder on what they have been doing wrong, so that an ideology seeking to reconstruct a past that meant the ruin of Europe and the world is gaining so many followers. When the "reconquest" discourse is beating the defence of diversity and democratic values, something is profoundly failing even if we do not know how to see it.

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