Never in the history of its young democracy had Spanish voters been so undecided. For the third time in four years, the country was sent to the polls in a national election. Only three weeks ago, 40% of the electorate had yet to decide which way to vote. By yesterday, though, 75% of the population had made up their minds.
Tensions were running high last week. Insults shot back and forth during the final TV debates. “Are you done lying yet?” one of the politicians said impatiently, “Then it’s my turn now.” Cue much delight on Twitter.
One of the key causes of current disruption, though, was glaringly absent from the highly-staged, high-stakes debates. Vox, a radical Right-wing group founded a mere six years ago, was not eligible to participate because it didn’t have any elected representatives in Madrid. Not any longer. Vox has since claimed 24 seats in Spain’s parliament – the first far-right grouping to win any seats since the death of Franco, in 1975.
For many in Spain, the growing appeal of these populists is alarming. It certainly is for the conservative Popular Party (PP), which was humiliated in the ballot as its number of seats more than halved from 137 in 2016’s vote to 66. It’s a threat too, to the other main party on the Right, Ciudadanos, which entered the Spanish parliament in 2015 with around 14% of the vote. Though it remained steady at 16% yesterday.
But those most alarmed are on the Left, particularly the centre-Left Socialist Party (the PSOE), whose leader, Pedro Sánchez, has been Prime Minister since last summer, and Podemos, the young party to the Left of the Socialists. For them, Vox represents social and political regression in its purest form and will doubtless give them a turbulent time as they try to form a coalition from a fragmented system.
Vox was founded in late 2013 by Santiago Abascal, a former official of the Popular Party and Vox’s current leader. He left the PP because he felt it was abandoning its conservative values and getting too soft on Catalan and Basque secessionism. He now refers to his former party as “the tiny, cowardly Right”.
It didn’t break through until December of last year at which point it won more than 10% of the vote in the regional elections in Andalusia — a region especially affected by unemployment, immigration, and economic stagnation – helping to oust the Left, which had governed since 1982. Its appeal has subsequently been spreading across the country, with Abascal’s rallies drawing large crowds.
Socially extremely conservative, Vox has been carefully tapping in to voter anxieties which are fuelled by culture wars and an acute sense of loss: the loss of a former way of life, of national sovereignty, of their privilege as well as the loss of jobs. Immigration is partly blamed for this. With some 50,000 people crossing the Mediterranean in 2018, Spain has now replaced Italy as the main hub for migrants from Africa. But the Catalan and Basque attempts at secessionism are also seen as agents of unwanted change and a betrayal of Spain.
Vox offers an affirmation of traditional, unapologetic, masculine Spanishness. “The Left will never succeed in making us feel ashamed for that which only merits pride,” said Abascal at a rally last autumn. This is Spanish politics, cowboy-style: Vox’s campaign video shows its leader crossing a plane as a lone ranger on horseback.
Abascal proudly invokes Spain’s unity and Catholicism while calling for drastic measures against immigrants, particularly of a Muslim background. He defends family values and stands up for men against the oppression of “feminazis”. He champions hunters and bullfighting, opposes gay marriage (which has been legal since 2005), and wants to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape.
While the Left accepts the fact that the Spanish state contains various nations, including Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country — a political reality enshrined in Spain’s constitution — Vox calls for a return to centralism. Along with Ciudadanos and the PP, Vox is radically opposed to Catalan claims to self-determination. In fact, it proposes to make pro-independence parties illegal.
It’s partly in reaction to the Catalan bid for independence that Vox has managed to revive patriotism so powerfully. In post-Franco Spain, flag-waving jingoism was long considered in bad taste outside of any context that did not involve the national football squad. But Vox has embraced a full-throated Spanish nationalism, promoting the flag waving and everything else it entails.
It celebrates myths and heroes that could have been lifted directly from Francoist textbooks: the conquest of the Americas, the Catholic “reconquest” of Spain in the 1492 after centuries of Muslim “domination” and El Cid. There are other echoes from more recent history, too. Several prominent Vox candidates have been shown to have an extreme-right past. The party’s number two for Barcelona, for example, is a former candidate for Fuerza Nueva, a violent neofascist group.
The Catalan crisis is definitely a factor in Vox’s rise in a country that was long considered immune to the anti-immigrant, right-wing populism that has emerged in many other countries. But more important is the feeling that the progressive urban political elites have neglected their needs and disparaged their traditions and culture. This disconnect is something we are seeing throughout Europe. And is felt particularly strongly in rural populations. But the Vox message has also found purchase in wealthier, culturally conservative voters; this could be down to the fact that the party twins its conservative nationalist message with more liberal economic proposals (it seeks, for example, to reduce corporate tax rates, and abolish inheritance tax and estate tax altogether).
Vox’s successful rise, and its leaching of voters from the other two parties on the right, unleashed a savage competition between Ciudadanos and the PP – pushing both to the Right. It was a battle, though, that the PP lost.
It falls, then, to the Socialists and Mr Sánchez – who won, but without a majority – to attempt to form a centre-Left coalition with Podemos, possibly with the support of the Catalan and Basque parties. This option, though, isn’t particularly favoured by the financial sector, which is nervous about Podemos’s proposals, which include raising the minimum wage, investing in health care and education, instituting a financial transaction tax, and cracking down on corporate tax evasion. And the separatists are seen as toxic by the centre Right, which will make it difficult for Sánchez to appeal to them for support.
Spain needs a stable government to tackle its many challenges: the economy has been growing at a bit over 2% but unemployment rates in some regions remains over 20%. The educational, judicial, and pension systems need overhauling, and it is desperate for a negotiated solution to the constitutional conundrum of its territorial make-up, which has paralysed the country for several years now.
It’s unlikely any coalition will bring stability; Spain isn’t used to them. And to make things worse, the entire country is going back to the polls on May 26 for regional, municipal, and European elections. This will make it harder for parties to commit to the concessions that coalitions require. Expect further division and disruption, now that the people have spoken.