Gerard Huerta is a member of Friends of Europe’s peace, security and defence programme, where he focuses on EU and NATO security policies and hybrid warfare. He holds an MA in Political Strategy and Communication from the University of Kent
Spain has received much praise in recent years for resisting the surge of right-wing populist parties that has swept Europe. However, this could change if Vox wins seats in the upcoming Spanish elections. It would be the first time a far-right party sits in the nation’s parliament since the re-establishment of Spanish democracy.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez reluctantly called for elections in February after failing to secure support from his coalition to approve a new national budget.
The biggest winner? It might just be Vox, a populist right-wing party that rejects Catalan sovereignty, migration and women’s rights. The party has also managed to win 12 seats in last December’s Andalusian regional election, despite predictions to the contrary.
Founded in 2013, Vox prides itself on opposing gay marriage and feminism. Santiago Abascal, the party’s leader, has denounced the country’s law against gender violence as unfair towards those men who are standing behind bars for what he deems small offences. In 2018, women across Spain took to the streets after a court sentenced a group of five men, accused of raping a girl during a festival, for lesser counts of sexual abuse. Vox has not yet condemned this ruling.
Abascal’s party is also strongly against so-called “uncontrolled” migration and party leaders do not hide their Islamophobia. The party has even evoked the “Reconquista”, an 800 year period of medieval conflict between Catholics and Muslims for control of the Iberian Peninsula, to rally supporters against Spain’s Muslim population. The last leader who was this vocal about the “Reconquista” was the dictator, Francisco Franco; he used this narrative to commandeer support for the persecution of communists.
Vox has positioned itself as the loudest and most controversial voice against Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders
So far, this is the typical right-wing populist playbook being used over and over in the West. However, it only provides part of the picture behind the rise of Vox. The major factor behind the rise of Vox can be traced back to October 2017, when the Catalan government held a referendum on self-determination and subsequently declared independence.
The trial of the Catalan pro-independence leaders has taken the election’s debate hostage. Vox has positioned itself as the loudest and most controversial voice against Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders. They have made suspending the Catalan government, banning pro-independence parties and scrapping the country’s autonomous communities system a central part of their platform.
The party has even found a loophole in the country’s legal system, which will allow it to take part in the Catalan trial. Vox has used this platform to interrogate independence leaders and demonstrate their willingness to go that extra mile when it comes to taking down so-called “putschists”.
It is worth remembering that the Andalusian regional election was the first vote since the Catalan declaration of independence. Vox’s victory in that contest seems to indicate that Spaniards are toughening their stance on the Catalan issue and growing tired of how the country’s two major parties – the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) - have handled this crisis.
Pablo Casado has been shifting PP to the right since he took the party’s leadership. Casado has distanced himself from the way in which PP has handled the Catalan crisis by merely promising that under his rule, Catalonia will not secede. He even once threatened Puigdemont with the assertion that if he continued with their independence pursuits, he could face the same fate as Lluis Companys, a 1930s Catalan leader who was executed by Franco.
On the other side of the mainstream debate, Ciudadanos, a member of the ALDE party coalition, has promised to bring back Madrid’s direct rule over Catalonia and to make Spanish the region’s vehicular language, in both classrooms and workplaces.
Both parties are currently governing Andalusia together with the support of Vox, an outcome that could potentially repeat itself if PSOE fails to form a government. They all share a similar electorate. Spain’s Center for Sociological Research (CIS) notes that almost 50% of Vox’s potential voters voted for PP and Ciudadanos in 2016. Data from the same institution also show that Vox’s average voters are men between the ages of 25 and 44 who have completed their secondary education.
It is no surprise then that both PP and Ciudadanos have a more right-wing narrative at the national level as they hope to retain voters impatient with the Catalan situation.
However, re-gaining the hearts of these voters will prove difficult. Abascal’s party is adroitly using social media. It has more followers on Instagram than its rivals and it extensively uses WhatsApp groups to organise locally. Even on the eve of the Andalusian elections, a surprise Vox victory was foreshadowed by the fact that it was the most searched party on Google.
What seems clear is that European mainstream politicians are failing to stop right-wing populists
Santiago Abascal also makes the most of the party’s media presence. In the past few months, Abascal has capitalised on several interviews, to great success, by attacking the establishment and defending views that would have, until recently, gone unchallenged by Spanish mainstream media. Fortunately, it is worth mentioning that he is the candidate with lowest approval ratings, according to CIS.
Spanish electoral law dictates that parties must receive air time proportional to its current representation in parliament, of which Vox has none. This means that Vox will have limited exposure on TV and radio ads during the campaign trail. No problem. Abascal has used this disadvantage to his benefit by accusing the media and the political establishment of trying to silence him.
It is not all gloom and doom, though. Polls suggest that the Socialists are likely to win the election and get a first go at forming a majority. To achieve this, they will have to find support in Catalan parties once again. Another option could see Sanchez reaching a deal with Ciudadanos. He will have to find a way to stick to left-leaning economic policies without feeding Vox’s narrative about mainstream politicians being ready to trade in Spanish sovereignty.
What seems clear is that European mainstream politicians are failing to stop right-wing populists.
Reaching deals with them threatens to normalise their discourse. Putting Vox in a box will only strengthen claims of victimhood. In Spain, the handling of the Catalan issue is destined to determine the far-right’s potency in the foreseeable future.
IMAGE CREDIT: Acto de Vox en Vistalegre/Wikimedia Commons