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Spain turns Right and harder Right

Populism is in, with Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Iron Lady of Madrid, and the far-Right Vox party increasingly popular

Isa Ferrero
26 March 2022, 8.00am

Supporters of Isabel Díaz Ayuso hold placards outside the party's headquarters during a rally in Madrid, 20 February, 2022

SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Nobody expected the mid-February election in Spain’s northwestern region of Castilla y León to result in the People’s Party’s (PP’s) biggest crisis since its founding in 1989.

The PP, which has ruled Castilla y León for 35 years, had called the election a year ahead of schedule in the hope of winning an outright victory. Instead, it will have to depend on its bitter rival, the hard-Right Vox party, to form a government.

Nationally, the Right now has more support than the Left. In Castilla y León, the PP won 31% of the vote – the same as in the last election in 2019, and 31 seats – two more than last time, in the 81-member regional assembly. It was a narrow victory but still a victory, even though the party fell short of an absolute majority. It was sobering for the PP because Vox received nearly 18% of all votes cast, a number achieved with an unknown candidate in a deeply polarised campaign.

Until now, Vox had offered outside support to PP-led regional administrations. Now it is inside the tent, something PP leader Pablo Casado had been desperate to avoid. Castilla y León is the first time since the death of General Franco in 1975 that the far Right would be back in office in Spain, even if only at a regional level.

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These developments have a simple explanation. The conservative electorate is shifting to the extreme Right. Not only is this destroying social harmony, it is destroying the traditional Right itself. But Vox is not the only threat to Spain’s social and political fabric. There is an ideological movement within the PP itself, one that is very like the populist wave threatening other liberal democracies. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the populist – and popular – president of the Madrid region, represents this movement. Ayuso, one of Spain’s most popular conservative leaders, is being compared with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

A better comparison, however, would be Britain’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson. Ayuso has used a mix of demagoguery, fanaticism and simple calls in the name of freedom to make electoral inroads, not just in conservative neighbourhoods loyal to the PP, but across a broader working-class ‘red belt’ around the Spanish capital. In the process, she has managed to convince a sizeable chunk of the electorate that she is the alternative to Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) government.

Ayuso’s right-wing populism mixes Madrid elitism with Spanish nationalism and a strange concept of freedom. During the May 2021 Madrid regional election, Ayuso campaigned on the slogan “freedom or communism”. During the second wave of the pandemic, she capitalised on COVID restriction fatigue and kept Madrid’s bullfighting ring and hospitality industry open, winning a massive election victory that more than doubled PP seats and bested the campaign overseen by prime minister Sánchez’s head of staff.

That said, it was a strange choice that Ayuso offered – between freedom and communism – because Sánchez’s PSOE basically takes a centrist third-way approach to politics, especially in Madrid. Ayuso’s call for freedom from COVID restrictions, despite warnings from the scientific community, is similar to the Johnson government’s push for “‘herd immunity’, and later, the announcement that Britain would drop restrictions on 24 February, 2022. The frivolity of Ayuso's approach to political messaging and management has caused many to compare her to the science-sceptical US president Janie Orlean, portrayed by Meryl Streep in the apocalyptic black comedy film ‘Don’t Look Up’.

Ayuso's impressive victory in the Madrid elections has caused ructions for the PP just as much as for the national political landscape

Political ructions

Even so, Ayuso's impressive victory in the Madrid elections has caused ructions for the PP just as much as for the national political landscape. It led PP leader Casado to discern Ayuso as his chief rival for leadership of the party and to subsequent attempts to undermine her. Last month, Ayuso accused “the national leadership of my party” of acting against her in a “cruel and unfair way” with false corruption allegations.

Media reports had alleged that Ayuso’s administration had given a massive COVID face masks contract to a company linked to her brother and that a secret investigation had subsequently been launched to ascertain the facts. Even though the PP mayor of Madrid said he had found no evidence of any such investigation into Ayuso and her family, the right-wing media supported Ayuso and started to call for Casado’s resignation. Soon enough, he was forced to step down and Alberto Núñez Feijóo, president of the autonomous northwestern region of Galicia and considered a moderate, ran unopposed in the election for PP leader.

Paradoxically, Ayuso seems to have benefited from the alleged corruption case. On 20 February, just days after she went public with her accusations against the PP’s “national leadership”, more than 3,000 people demonstrated in front of the party’s Madrid headquarters, shouting “Ayuso presidenta” (Ayuso for president) and accusing Casado of being “a coward”. The goal of the protests seemed to be Casado’s resignation as leader, with protestors angrily shouting Trump-style slogans that likened Spanish media to Venezuela and “social-communism” (whatever that means), and to the now-dissolved Basque separatist group ETA. Other protesters shouted “Casado, don’t insist, we are not socialist”. That was a shocking development because Casado had embraced right-wing populism with media support barely three years ago. But the rightward shift is so powerful that Ayuso’s spokesman even compared Casado to Pablo Iglesias, former leader of the left-wing electoral alliance Unidas Podemos.

An energised far-Right

Tragically, the PP’s new moderate era under Feijóo has started with the party accepting Vox as its partner in the Castilla y León government for the very first time. The decision has been criticised by Donald Tusk, leader of the centre-right European Parliament grouping the European People’s Party. Tusk described it as a “sad surprise” and hoped that it was “just an incident or accident, not a trend in Spanish politics”.

But José Antonio Zarzalejos, one of the most respected voices in the right-wing Spanish media, claimed that: “PP voters are switching massively to Vox” and even posits the choice for Spanish voters as one between political extremes – Sánchez on the Left and Vox leader Santiago Abascal on the far Right.

However, that does not factor in Ayuso’s rise within the PP. She has shown herself to be a leader who defends political deal-making with a neo-fascist party such as Vox. Even though Vox has put up inflammatory posters in the Madrid metro, Ayuso continues to champion the coalition agreement in Castilla y León and often copies its discourse. It is not unreasonable to think that Ayuso could position herself as party leader and potential prime minister, as long as she rides the groundswell of public popularity and press support.

Ayuso’s rise, along with that of Spain’s hard Right, underlines a stark truth: the Left’s bad health is energising the Right

Ayuso’s rise, along with that of Spain’s hard Right, underlines a stark truth: the Left’s bad health is energising the Right, which shows a great capacity to mobilise its base and broaden it as well. It is a reminder of the media’s complicity in destroying left-wing and pro-democratic movements, which seek viable solutions to deep-rooted social problems. In the case of Spain, the media has made simply astonishing efforts to destroy the Unidas Podemos alliance, such as in the case of the false report uncovered by Okdiario and circulated by the mainstream media accusing Pablo Iglesias and Podemos of receiving funding from Iran and Venezuela. In a way, it is much like the media drumbeat that surrounded Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party. Public disaffection and anger could be debilitating for prime minister Sánchez’s government.

This is a sad situation, but there is a simple solution: rebuild the political space available to the Left, in order to prevent authoritarian parties from gaining power. At the same time, it is incumbent on the Spanish government to be astute enough to implement social programmes that address public discontent. It is disaffection that feeds the far Right.

At this point, it is not easy to imagine a scenario in which Spanish politics will not be dominated by the PP’s populist Ayuso or Vox’s hard-Right Abascal, or both. But there is a way out and it must be taken.

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