The Worrying Rise of Spain’s Far Right

In today's general election, Spain’s far right Vox party is set to enter Congress for the first time. And it’s already building alliances with the mainstream center-right.

Leader of far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal, takes part in the Vox closing rally on April 26, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

Discussions of Europe’s rising national-populism in recent years often took Spain as something of an exception. It was asked how come this was the only major country in continental Europe where no far-right force had managed to enter parliament. In other liberal democracies, notwithstanding the deep antifascism inherited from 1945, so-called “post-fascist” forces had managed to elect MPs and conceal or prettify the ideology that once bled the old continent dry. Yet Spain seemed different.

Up until 2018, this country had no equivalent to hard- or far-right forces like France’s Front National, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid, Italy’s Lega, or UKIP in the United Kingdom. Yet this apparent anomaly also masked something going on under the surface, which finally became apparent with the Andalusian election last December. In the vote in Spain’s biggest region, the far-right Vox party achieved institutional representation for the first time, helping lift to power a coalition of the mainstream center-right.

With a snap general election to be held today, Vox looks bound to go one step further and elect MPs to the national parliament. More than that, after April 28 it hopes to influence the government itself. Its backing could be decisive in the formation of a right-wing coalition at the national level, uniting the conservative Partido Popular (PP) with the liberal right as embodied by Ciudadanos. Four decades since the end of the Franco regime, Vox’s breakthrough spells dark days for Spanish democracy.

Exception Within the Exception

We might then ask: was there ever a Spanish exception at all? Well, yes, but not in the way that Europe liked to think. There was, indeed, no explicitly organized far-right presence in the Spanish parliament, outside the PP. This owed both to distinct elements of Spain’s history, and to recent conditions which postponed the arrival of a national-populist alternative to the traditional conservative party.

The historical difference owed to the tolerance of what Spaniards call the “ultraright” during the turn to democracy that followed Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. Spain underwent an ordered transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy, in which that regime’s fascist and national-Catholic elements were reintegrated as an accepted part of the new conservative right. They remained part of the regular functioning of the state administration, the judiciary, the police and the army.

Where democratic constitutions like Italy’s — born of the wartime resistance against Nazism and the Mussolini regime — glowed with antifascist spirit, this was absent in the Spanish case. Rather, philo-fascist forces remained a normal part of Spanish politics, most of all represented by the Alianza Popular. This party, the forefather of today’s conservative Partido Popular, was indeed founded by seven Francoite ministers. For forty years the far right could feel comfortable within conservative ranks, without having to differentiate itself.

The second key factor in delaying the emergence of a national-populist force in Spain were the developments on the other end of the political spectrum. The 15M anti-austerity mobilizations from 2011 onward paved the way for the creation of a populist force on the Left — Podemos — which directed Spaniards’ grievances toward more progressive outlets.

The breaking of the old two-party system (as represented by the conservative Partido Popular, PP, and the center-left PSOE) also held off the emergence of a more reactionary force to direct the malaise of the losers of globalization. This “buffer” has however now been broken, thanks to the normalization of Podemos as an institutional party and, most importantly, the nationalist polarization that has developed since the disputed October 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia. The rise of Vox’s national-populism is impossible to understand except in light of the Catalan declaration of independence and the ultranationalist reaction elsewhere in Spain.

What Is Vox?

Vox was created in 2013 after its present leader Santiago Abascal grew disillusioned with the Partido Popular. He had been left without any post in that party after the dissolution of a foundation that had had created by Esperanza Aguirre — PP president of the Madrid region — precisely in order to give him a job. In the same month that this foundation was closed, Vox was registered as a party name. Vox thus emerged in response to a former conservative’s need to find a new home, and up until the December 2018 regional elections in Andalusia it was unable to achieve parliamentary representation.

Vox shares the same fundamental precepts as the other comparable formations in surrounding European countries. It is a nativist and ultranationalist force, deeply opposed to immigration and promoting a strongly Islamophobic message. In economic terms, it is much closer to the ultra-neoliberal doctrines of Jair Bolsonaro and US libertarians than to the protectionist measures promised by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (ex-Front National).

Indeed, if that party’s base cuts across left-right ideological divides, this is not the case of Vox, which instead supports fiscal measures that favor the wealthiest and punish public services. Vox does not seek the vote of people disenchanted with the Left in depressed areas, along the lines of what Le Pen has managed to do. Rather, its only nod to cutting across the ideological divide lies in its identitarian appeal. Spanish nationalism is especially rooted in the old working class, especially in the interior regions and the south, and among those who feel under attack by the nationalisms in the regions on the periphery — the Basque Country and Catalonia.

This identitarianism is Vox’s most fundamental value. Its success owes above all to a Spanish ultranationalist message, deployed in reaction to the Catalan nationalists that proclaimed independence in October 2017. Its antagonism against the Catalans is based on a romantic patriotism of Francoite hues; it calls for the systematic repression of the pro-independence parties and all politicians who participated in the independence declaration. This punitive populism goes hand-in-hand with its involvement as a party to the sedition case against pro-independence leaders, which is currently being heard by Spain’s Supreme Court.

Vox cannot, then, be understood simply by transplanting the traits of other European national-populisms onto the Spanish context. Rather, its emergence results from Spain’s own specific social and national realities. Doubtless, its rise has been encouraged by an international situation in which sovereigntist and anti-immigrant movements are on the advance — helping to legitimize Vox itself. Yet it could not have taken root without the disputed independence process in Catalunya, and the reaction against it that it represents.

The National-Populist International

Vox’s breakthrough promised something that European post-fascism had previously lacked — the missing Spanish link in the effort to implode the European Union from within. Indeed, the party’s success in the Andalusian regional elections in December put it on the radar of Steve Bannon and his illiberal think tank “The Movement,” which seeks to create a far-right international inspired by Alexander Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory.

Vox’s most important international contacts operated by way of Rafael Bardají, a member of its national council and in the 2000s a prominent foreign-affairs advisor for conservative (PP) prime minister José María Aznar. A neoliberal hawk, Bardají enjoys close relations with Donald Trump’s administration, inherited from his Aznar-era contacts with GOP figures close to George W. Bush. He is also part of various Zionist organizations directly linked to past Israeli leaders like Ehud Barak.

Paradoxically, however, the Spanish far-right party’s success would soon cool its contacts with — and interest in — Bannon’s own “Movement.” As soon as it became able to look forward to a breakthrough at May’s European elections (which were planned already before this week’s Spanish general election was called), it no longer needed Bannon’s strategy or contacts to make institutional breakthroughs.

Vox’s distance from Bannon also owes to its conservative origins, and only weak anti-European stance. Indeed, in various interviews and statements Vox leader Santiago Abascal has insisted that his contacts with Bannon were limited to the argument that Spanish opposition to Catalan separatism should also be translated into European terms. Vox did not participate in the recent summit organized by Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, which welcomed other national-populist formations like Alternative für Deutschland, the Danish People’s Party, and the Finns party.

The fundamental obstacles to Vox being drawn into a national-populist international are the same ones that hamper any coordinated action among such formations. Indeed, ultranationalists have a hard time developing a common policy at the international level, as the call for sovereignty for one country clashes with its neighbors’ own claims. This is especially true as concerns the sharing out of migrants among EU countries on the basis of quotas. Southern European countries like Spain and Italy (the main receivers of migrants arriving from Africa) consider such a move fundamental, but it is sharply rejected by possible far-right allies in countries like France, Poland, or Hungary, who are unwilling to take in migrants.

A Danger to Democracy

No one doubts that in today’s general election Vox will indeed succeed in electing MPs to the Congress of Deputies. The various pollsters forecast that it will secure between twenty and fifty seats. This would be a breakthrough similar to those enjoyed by Podemos and Ciudadanos in the elections three years ago, in which they jumped from no representation to seventy-one and thirty seats, respectively.

Vox’s seat numbers would not, however, be such a problem if it were not for the fact that its arguments and its role have been totally accepted by the more established parties of the Right. Both the PP and Ciudadanos have based their campaign on the need to join forces with the far-right party in order to create a coalition that can unseat Pedro Sánchez’s social-democratic PSOE from government.

Vox’s numbers could indeed help the Right achieve a majority sufficient to taking over the government. It may not only exert direct influence over the new administration, but even join the executive itself, if it achieves sufficient sway in the incoming Spanish parliament.

This would place center-stage the reactionary measures that Vox has highlighted during this election campaign. Inspired by Trump, the far-right party has proposed the building of a wall around Spain’s North African enclaves Ceuta and Melilla — to be paid for by Morocco, or the EU’s Frontex border agency — and the expulsion of 52,000 “illegal” immigrants from Spain. Vox has repeated this latter figure with some frequency, albeit without ever clarifying where it comes from.

Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal has gone so far as to demand citizens’ right to keep weapons in their own homes. Moreover, one of his flagship proposals is the outright banning of all parties who call for the independence of Spain’s regions. One Vox leader, Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, has called for a similar ban on all formations that do not reject Marxism.

This goes together with Vox’s male supremacism. Culturally, it is a copy of the misogynist anti-feminist movement led by Trump. Indeed, the sexist reaction explained by Susan Faludi in her book Backlash is vital to the Spanish far-right imaginary. The party’s discourse is built around a constant attack on all measures designed to protect women, which they consider “gender ideology,” and an assault on the entirety of Spain’s powerful feminist movement, which has been an imposing force in public life since the millions-strong mobilization on International Women’s Day 2018.

Vox’s rise is bound to put democrats on edge, not least given the inclusion on its electoral lists of former members of fascist and neo-Nazi organizations. Indeed, some of them have direct links with the terrorist organizations active in the reaction against Spain’s post-Franco democratic transition. Such is the case of leading Vox member Jorge Arturo Cutillas, once part of a philo-Nazi party called Fatherland and Freedom. He had direct ties to Leon Degrelle, founder of Belgium’s Rexist party in the 1930s and then an SS man. Vox also includes former leaders of the Nazi organization CEDADE, dissolved in 1993 after British Labour MP James Glynn Ford exposed the extent of its ties across Europe.

Today preparing to enter parliament, Vox has already realized a long-unfulfilled desire of the post-Franco far right. It has brought together in a single force — acceptable to the established right-wing parties — all the neo-Nazi, Falangist, Francoite, and traditionalist formations that had so clamorously failed to make any breakthrough over the last forty years of Spanish democracy. A party of national-Catholic colors with an aggressive online strategy, its Trumpian discourse communicating hatred through fake news has succeeded in shifting the wider public debate, drawing the established right-wing parties closer to national-populism. Its presence in Spanish politics is already a reality. After today’s vote, we will just be measuring how much its success costs for the rest of us.