On October 8, 2018, a clean-cut man stood before a crowd of 10,000 in an arena in Madrid, and began a passionate speech about the need to defend Spanish unity. The crowd lapped it up, continuing to cheer and whistle throughout. Behind the man loomed three giant lime-green letters: VOX.
The respectable-looking orator, wearing an open-collar blue shirt and a brown jacket, was Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s first far-right party of note since General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.
Although the event at the Palacio Vistalegre arena was the biggest one yet for Vox — which opposes immigration, Islam and same-sex marriage — the party did not seem like much of a threat at the time (it had never polled more than 1.5 percent in elections).
But in early 2019, just a few months after Abascal’s speech, everything has changed.
The first sign of a significant shift came in early December, during elections in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. Vox scooped 11 percent of the vote, which equated to 12 seats in the 109-seat regional parliament. No one predicted it. Not only did the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) lose control over the regional parliament for the first time ever, but Vox became kingmaker; two parties, the conservative People’s Party (PP) and centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, would depend on Vox to form a regional government in Andalusia. In return for its support, Vox demanded that thousands of undocumented migrants be expelled from the region, and that laws on gender equality and domestic violence be rolled back. The party’s demands were largely rejected, but Vox did win concessions on issues including education and “family values” (traditional Catholic values, as interpreted by the socially ultraconservative party). And so an unprecedented right-wing administration propped up by Vox was inaugurated in Andalusia.
Until recently, Spain seemed mysteriously impervious to the right-wing populist wave sweeping Europe and beyond, in a kind of inversion of the meaning of the Franco-era tourism slogan: “Spain is different.” Last year, the leader of the devoutly unionist PP was ousted as prime minister and replaced by the PSOE’s Pedro Sanchez, which also seemed to buck the Europe-wide trend. But now the right-wing populist wave has well and truly reached the country. Vox now has its sights set on the national stage, where, according to some polls, it could win above 10 percent of the vote if a general election were held today.
While there are clear parallels between Vox’s rise and rightist movements elsewhere, there is a key difference in Spain. Vox’s biggest issue since it launched in January 2014 is that of Spanish unity, and combating the threat to that unity posed by secessionists. Since the Catalan independence crisis that erupted in 2017, Vox has been relentless on the issue.
“Vox was formed because certain questions in the country needed to be answered, such as the defence of the unity of Spain,” Vox spokesman Manuel Mariscal told me back in June. In Andalusia, although more Vox voters say they chose the party because of its stance on immigration, 34 percent did so because it was a “defender of the unity of Spain,” an issue the Andalusian regional parliament will not be able to affect.
Vox may be on the extreme end of the political spectrum, but there is a widespread strength of feeling against secessionist movements in Spain — a majority of Spaniards oppose any concessions to Catalonia. Even so, Vox’s campaign for Spanish unity — with countless flag-filled protests and attempts to hijack the trial of Catalan independence leaders — isn’t really about unity. Instead of trying to rally Catalans, Basques and other regional communities around a vision of a pluralistic, united Spain, the far-right party wants to impose a narrow conception of Spanish identity on a multitude of cultures and identities. In its videos eulogizing a Spanish-macho archetype, or social media posts venerating Spain’s imperial era, Vox’s message is deliberately divisive rather than genuinely about unity.
The current situation in Spain, a country long resistant to explicitly far-right parties, shows how a secessionist crisis can fuel right-wing populism, even where it previously didn’t seem to have a foothold. Although this isn’t a typical feature in the current wave of populism spreading internationally, there are similarities elsewhere. In Europe, issues of national unity have long been preyed upon by right-wing populists, particularly in the Balkans. In Canada, although much of the steam has gone out of Quebec’s independence movement, the nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec won the regional elections in October 2018, and could provoke concerns over national unity ahead of federal elections in October 2019.
The sudden rise of the far-right in Spain serves as a cautionary tale to other countries with issues of national unity. How did Vox rise from ridiculed obscurity to kingmaker in just a few months?
The Catalan factor
On October 1, 2017, the Catalan regional government held an independence referendum without Madrid’s approval, and then declared independence, in what was seen as a largely symbolic move. Spain’s national government, run by PP, forced regional elections after imposing direct rule, but this did not solve the crisis; Catalans again elected a majority of independence-supporting parties to the regional parliament. And so the stalemate continued.
The Spanish government attracted international criticism for its heavy-handedness during the crisis — police beat up would-be voters, arrested independence leaders, and the Catalan president fled Spain in exile. Yet many ardent Spanish unionists felt the PP-led government didn’t go far enough. PP has a long history of appealing to hard-right unionists, ever since its formation after the dictatorship, when many ex-Francoists filled the party’s ranks.
“PP has had this capacity to appear like a more centrist party for centrist voters, and more extreme-right for more extreme-right voters,” says Javier Astudillo Ruiz, professor of political sciences at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Basically, Astudillo says, the far-right never got anywhere before in post-democracy Spain because PP always successfully attracted a broad base of voters from the centre to the hard-right: “They didn’t leave any gap.”
Yet since PP’s government collapsed in May 2018 over a massive corruption scandal, support for the party has drained away. Ciudadanos, which purports to be a liberal party, initially swept up much of this support, in part by taking an extremely tough stance on the Catalan issue. Astudillo believes that this doesn’t make Ciudadanos a populist party: “In terms of economics, they are quite orthodox. They don’t have any of what you’d call economic populism,” he says. “The only big point that Ciudadanos has in terms of right-wing populism is the issue of national unity, which they push to win votes.”
While Astudillo and other political scientists tend to agree that Vox is the only far-right party in Spain, right-wing populist rhetoric over the Catalan issue is now very much a part of the mainstream. Apart from Ciudadanos, PP has, since losing power, swung harder to the right over separatism, promising to impose direct rule on Catalonia once more if elected, and ban separatist parties altogether.
This hasn’t stopped Vox’s rise — it may have even fuelled it. More than half of the Vox voters in Andalusia were ex-PP voters, a symptom of loss of trust over PP’s corruption and perceived failure over Catalonia.
“[Vox] emerged in 2014 to defend a type of politics that wasn’t being covered by PP,” says Vox’s Mariscal. He adds that Vox’s policies are “aimed at ending the system of autonomous communities, not only because of the division [they create], but because of the big waste economically.” Spain has a semi-federal system with 17 so-called autonomous regions; around 30 percent of Spaniards support abolishing them and creating a centralized system.
The separatist issue isn’t the only one fuelling Vox’s rise. As in other countries in Europe where populists such as France’s National Rally, Italy’s xenophobic Lega and Hungary’s nationalist government have gained ground, immigration is proving to be a key topic. More than 40 percent of Vox voters in Andalusia said that immigration was the biggest issue for them, and areas with higher numbers of foreigners turned out a bigger vote share for Vox.
Historically, though, immigration has rarely been at the top of the agenda for Spain’s right. “Factors in other countries that explain the appearance of right-wing populist parties, such as the topic of immigration and criticism of the EU… haven’t carried the same weight [in Spain],” says Astudillo. This can partly be explained by the fact that migration to Spain hasn’t been on the same scale as in other European countries, although migrant arrivals in Spain have increased in the last year. Many immigrants are also from Latin America, and so mostly Spanish speakers; even Vox describes such immigrants as easier to integrate.
Although Vox often dog-whistles over Islam, Islamophobia has also played only a small role in Spanish politics in contrast to other countries. Even the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which killed 193 and were orchestrated by al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists, failed to provoke much of an anti-Islam response from the right, in part because many in PP — which was running the country at the time — were convinced that the attack was staged instead by Basque terrorist group ETA. “There are still those today who say it was a conspiracy — who still haven’t accepted it,” says Astudillo, who adds that Islamic extremism remains a taboo subject for PP because the party has always seen separatists as the real terrorist threat to Spain.
A matter of territory?
Backlashes to secessionist movements are often provoked by a feeling that “it is our land,” according to James Ker-Lindsay, a professor at the London School of Economics who specializes in the Balkans, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.
“There’s a tremendously symbolic attachment that everyone has to ‘the country’, whether wittingly or not. We learn at a very young age what the map of our country looks like; we draw it in schools,” Ker-Lindsay says. “So suddenly taking off a part of that is a fundamental challenge to our world view… It’s something that obviously means a lot to nationalists and to the far-right. But it’s something that they find can resonate with ordinary people [too].”
Ker-Lindsay points out that this issue is often more about territory than genuine national unity. For example, Serbia’s claim on Kosovo has nothing to do with embracing Kosovar Albanians living there as part of a united Serbian nation: “It’s more about: ‘We can’t give it up — it’s our sacred territory.’”
The matter of territory is often the key to understanding how a secessionist challenge can resonate so strongly. If a country’s territorial integrity is seen as being threatened — whether by secessionists or immigrants — the far-right can prosper.
Ker-Lindsay believes it’s often the centre-left that offers effective solutions over challenges to national unity. “They seem the ones most willing to embrace a civic notion of identity and say: ‘Look, this is why we need to keep the country together,’” he says.
However, in Spain, where the government is currently led by the centre-left PSOE, it’s the right that has dominated on the separatist issue, while PSOE has largely gone along with the hardline response to the challenge. Sanchez, the prime minister, has opened dialogue with the separatist Catalan government, and attempted olive-branch gestures such as renaming Barcelona airport to honour a former Catalan president exiled during the Franco dictatorship. But he has his work cut out for him.
Since Sanchez’s PSOE defeated PP in the vote of no confidence last year, his government has remained in deadlock as it struggles to get its budget passed. The budget’s approval depends on backing from small Catalan nationalist parties in the Spanish parliament. And so far, the Catalans are playing hardball.
A national election isn’t officially due until 2020, but if the government cannot command a majority behind its budget, Sanchez may feel forced to call early elections to break the impasse, with the far-right Vox poised to win its first seats in the national parliament. And even if Sanchez gets the budget passed, Vox will ramp up its fury over the government dealing with separatists.
Either way, one thing seems clear. Right-wing populism isn’t going anywhere in Spain.