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Both Sides Must Revise Their Red Lines—or Risk War
Spain’s immunity to the right-wing populist fever sweeping Europe is often touted as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak European political landscape. “Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the far right in Spain stays on the fringe,” NPR noted in 2017. Recent developments, however, cast doubt on Spain’s capacity to keep populism at bay. In last December’s Andalusian regional elections, Vox, a far-right party and until that point the laughingstock of Spanish politicians, garnered some 400,000 votes, or 10.9 percent of the vote, enough to earn the party twelve seats in the Andalusian parliament. As the international news media reported, this was the first time a far-right party had won at the ballot box in Spain since the return of democracy in 1977. El País, Spain’s paper of record, captured the shock of the nation when it concluded that “the hard right is no longer a ghost that walks by every time Spaniards go to the polls.”
Founded only in 2014, Vox is the creation of Santiago Abascal, a 42-year-old former parliamentarian from the Basque Country who credits his entry into politics, as well as his political conservatism, to the hazing that his family endured at the hands of ETA, the Basque terrorist organization. Baptized by the American press as the “Trump of Spain,” Abascal is famous for his publicity stunts, nationalist fervor, and anti-Islamic rhetoric. In June of 2016, Vox unfurled a 200-square-meter Spanish flag over the Rock of Gibraltar, part of the British territory on Spain’s southern tip, in a bid to fuel Spanish nationalist sentiment. A Vox political ad during the Andalusian elections featured Abascal, an avid horseman, riding through the countryside of Andalusia to the theme music from the Lord of the Rings films. The ad was part of a campaign that Abascal cast as a reconquest of Andalusia from Muslim immigrants, a historical reference to Catholic Spain’s conquest of Andalusia from the Moors in the fifteenth century.
Vox’s manifesto includes the anti-immigrant and xenophobic fare typical of European far-right parties: it calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants, the erection of walls (in this case, around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Africa), and the banning of mosque-building and of teaching Islam in state schools. But the manifesto also reflects some distinctly Spanish domestic issues—advocating Spain’s return to fully centralized government (a reaction to the separatist crisis in Catalonia) and seeking the revocation of the 2007 Law of Historical Memory, which extended reparations to the victims of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. In a not-so-hidden attack on political correctness, the manifesto promotes state protection for hunting and bullfighting. Curiously, the only explicitly economic component of the manifesto is a call for lower taxes.
A post-election poll by the conservative paper El Mundo showed that in the next general elections Vox could get as many as 45 deputies in Spain’s 350-seat parliament, enough to become a key player in national politics. But the party would still face an uphill struggle to establish itself as a political force along the lines of Italy’s Five Star Movement, France’s National Rally, or even the United Kingdom Independence Party. This struggle goes beyond having to overcome Spain’s long history with authoritarianism under the Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939–75). Vox’s success in Andalusia is rooted in an unusual set of circumstances unlikely to be re-created in other regions; the party’s nationalist agenda is toxic in the separatist-minded and electorally significant regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country; and the populist energy in Spain is located on the left rather than on the right.
For all that has been made of Vox’s performance in the Andalusian elections, it is not the political earthquake that many claim it to be. For one thing, it is not as if the far right in Spain became extinct with Franco’s passing. In the post-Franco democracy, the extreme right has been hiding in plain sight as part of the conservative Popular Party, or PP, which in the post-Franco era has served as an umbrella for all the factions of the Spanish right, from mainstream conservatives to neofascists. Little wonder that many of Vox’s leaders, including Abascal, are former PP officials, and that there is significant overlap between Vox’s agenda and that of the PP. Most notable is the reluctance by both parties to unambiguously reject Spain’s fascist past. Just last June, the PP stood alone among the major political parties in opposing the exhumation and removal of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s one-sided Civil War memorial.
For all that has been made of Vox’s performance in the Andalusian elections, it is not the political earthquake that many claim it to be.
Vox is also far from having seized control of Andalusia. The Spanish Socialist Party, or PSOE, remains the largest party in the Andalusian parliament, with 33 seats, down from the 47 seats the party won in 2015. Indeed, four parties won more votes than Vox: the PSOE, the PP, the populist-leftist Podemos, and the centrist Ciudadanos. And while Vox’s entry into the coalition governing Andalusia does suggest a newly conservative direction for a region known as a bastion of Spanish socialism, it is not a wholesale radicalization. The final accord that the PP and Ciudadanos signed with Vox to form the ruling government includes none of the more extreme demands that the latter had raised during the electoral campaign, such as rescinding laws promoting gender equality or those protecting women against domestic violence and the LGBT community against discrimination. Other radical demands, including repealing the Law of Historical Memory and protecting Andalusia from “Islamic threat,” were given only lip service in the text of the agreement.
More importantly, Vox’s anti-immigration message, which is actually new for a right-wing party in Spain, found resonance in Andalusia for a very specific reason. As the southernmost region of the country, Andalusia has been the point of contact for illegal immigration to Spain from northern Africa, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Although Madrid and Brussels have provided some help to the region to alleviate the crisis, Andalusia, which has one of Europe’s highest rates of unemployment and is one of Spain’s poorest regions, has ultimately been left to shoulder responsibility for it. Last year alone, some 50,000 immigrants entered Spain illegally, more than triple the number from previous years, and more than the number that entered all of Italy and Greece.
Vox capitalized not only on the region’s immigration-related anxiety but on its voters’ fatigue with the PSOE, the party that ruled Andalusia uninterruptedly for nearly 40 years. A long trail of corruption scandals involving the Andalusian branch of the PSOE exacerbated this fatigue. In particular, the ongoing corruption investigations of two former presidents of the Andalusian government, Manuel Chavez and José Antonio Griñán, who together ruled Andalusia for more than two decades, boosted Vox’s argument that it was time to end the Socialists’ oligarchical control of the region and sowed considerable disillusionment among left-wing voters. This helps explain the record low turnout in the elections: 46.4 percent of 6.5 million eligible voters (some five points lower than in the 2015 elections).
Vox’s success in Andalusia will be hard to re-create elsewhere, and not only because of the peculiarities of the region’s politics. Politicians from across the ideological spectrum are working feverishly to prevent Vox from infiltrating their regions. This effort is centered on depicting any compromise with Vox as unacceptable. A case in point is Manuel Valls, the former French prime minister who is now running as an independent to be Barcelona’s next mayor. (Valls holds dual Spanish and French citizenship.) Seeking to enhance his appeal among Catalan voters, Valls said in a radio interview, “There’s no room for an agreement with Vox.”
Vox also faces a more crowded political landscape outside of Andalusia. In regions that have long and entrenched histories of separatist-nationalism (which Andalusia does not), such as the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia, powerful regional-nationalist parties dominate local politics. This makes it harder for Vox to enter the political fray and inhibits the party’s growth given the electoral weight of the separatist regions in national elections. Catalonia is home to Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and its historic economic engine. And on the national stage, a mixture of historical and structural factors makes it unlikely that Vox’s right-wing populism will land with the same force that similar agendas have elsewhere in Europe.
Because of the legacy of the Franco regime, a regime notorious for imposing upon the Spanish territory a homogenous cultural identity, Vox is limited in its capacity to use nationalist themes and symbols, such as the Spanish flag, to mobilize voters. The bashing of the European Union, a staple of right-wing populist movements in Europe, has no resonance in Spain given the positive memory that ordinary Spaniards have about the constructive role that the organization played in the consolidation of democracy in the post-Franco era. This positive view explains why Vox’s program does not call for Spain’s withdrawal from the EU. Last but not least, Spain’s populist energy comes from the left rather than the right. Upstart leftist parties, such as Podemos (We Can), which grew out of the economic crisis that erupted in 2011, are the ones bashing the establishment, questioning the value of globalization, and calling for draining the swamp.
At the same time, the politics of nationalist separatism are uniquely important in Spain, especially since the eruption of the Catalan separatist crisis. Not surprisingly, national integration, rather than the wobbly economy, is expected to dominate the general elections. So far, Vox has failed to propose a solution to the Catalan crisis, other than to abolish Spain’s system of regional autonomy and to ban parties and movements that espouse a separatist agenda. Such extreme measures would require altering the Spanish Constitution, which opened the way for the creation of 17 autonomous regions after Franco’s death.
The obstacles that Vox’s right-wing populist agenda faces do not mean that its emergence will not be felt nationally. Vox is shaking up the Spanish right at a time when the right can least afford it. Although the PP governs Andalusia for the first time, its control over voters there and elsewhere has never been more tenuous. Ciudadanos was already challenging the party from the leftmost flank of the right—especially in Catalonia, Ciudadanos’ home base, where support for the PP has collapsed following the crackdown on Catalan separatists by PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and Vox is now challenging the PP from the right. So far, the PP has sought to co-opt Ciudadanos voters while isolating Vox by painting it as extreme. But if Vox succeeds in gaining a national footing, as Ciudadanos has done, it could push the PP farther to the right on such issues as immigration and Catalan independence.
All of this upheaval on the right would seem to improve the chances that the Socialists will remain in power in Madrid. As he contemplates calling for new elections later this year, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is using Vox as a foil to unify the left. Indeed, Sánchez’s response to Vox suggests that he intends to position himself as Spain’s best defense against a rising right: “The results in Andalusia strengthen our commitment to defending democracy and the constitution in the face of fear,” he told reporters. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Vox poses no problems for the left. For the first time in the democratic period, a sitting Socialist prime minister will go into a general election without controlling Andalusia, the nation’s biggest basket of votes. Clearly, no political party is immune to Vox’s threat.
Vox’s biggest impact, however, is to further fracture the political landscape. If Vox succeeds in going national, it will join the PSOE, the PP, Ciudadanos, and Podemos in seeking to govern the nation. This picture is a radically different one from just a few years ago, when the PSOE and the PP were the sole national contenders, virtually guaranteeing continuous political stability. More political fragmentation means more political gridlock, especially at election time. In 2016, for example, Spain was without a government in Madrid for close to a year, because no single party won enough seats in the national parliament to form a government. With Vox in the mix, the prospects for more political stalemate and turmoil have exponentially increased.