Vox Puts Spanish Politics to the Test

Ultra-conservative upstarts Vox gained 24 seats in the Spanish parliament in a general election held on April 28. Despite it being the third general election in just four years, turnout was high and the centre left Socialists Workers Party, the PSOE, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, gained 123 seats. It was a decent but not decisive victory as the PSOE must now form a coalition government. Vox, despite making inroads, lack the seats and law making experience to drive legislation. But their arrival in parliament is a significant development for Spain as the far right have been in the political wilderness since the death of fascist dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975.

Vox, who scored their first major victory in regional elections in Andalusia in December 2018 by winning 12 seats, are not subtle. Led by Santiago Abascal, they campaigned on the re-conquest of Spain from “enemies” including migrants, feminists, liberals, Muslims, Catalan separatists and headline-grabbing demands such as the expulsion of 52,000 immigrants and the abolition of gender violence laws. By forming a coalition with the conservative Peoples Party and the centre-right Citizen’s party, Vox ousted the PSOE, which held power in southern Spain for 36 years, from the regional parliament amid a flurry of national and international headlines.

Formed in 2013 as an off shoot of the PP, Vox – like other populist far right parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Italy’s Lega – possess an outsized ability to shape discourse and garner media attention. Vox thrives on the idea that a culture war is under way not only in Spain but across the continent. They pit traditional family values against “feminazis” and homosexuals, and they like to equate migrants with criminals and invaders. They avoid mainstream media outlets preferring instead to woo voters with inadvertently camp, quasi-historical social media videos of men on horseback and homophobic tweets.

What Vox lacks in subtlety they also lack in originality. From a Trump style wall around Spanish enclaves in north Africa to keep migrants, especially Muslim migrants, out to the type of aggressive social conservatism afoot in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, there is little to distinguish Vox’s platform from similar far right parties elsewhere in Europe. They are reactionaries against a Europe they see as having abandoned traditional, God-fearing, flag loving family values for liberalism, taxes and foreigners. Those who do not support their conservative vision are branded cowards, traitors and enemies.

Vox’s rise from the radical fringe to serious political party appears to have split the conservative vote in Spain while giving momentum to the public airing of views once deemed incompatible with post-Franco society. Middle ground conservatives faired worst in the general election, with the once ruling but scandal ridden PP losing more than 50% of its seats in the 350 seat parliament – 66 seats from 137. Cowed by Vox’s bombastic rhetoric, they risked losing centrist inclined supporters if they lurched any further to the right.

As the elections showed, most working class voters in Spain cast their ballot for the centre-left. To date Vox has not courted that segment of the vote with either seriousness or success instead polling most of their support with disillusioned middle class PP supporters in central and southern Spain.

The PSOE’s victory underscores how a majority of Spaniards remain politically moderate, pro-social inclusion and pro-Europe, and the PSOE’s winning strategy may well serve as a template for other centre-left parties fighting elections across the Europe Union. Sanchez is now the only social democrat leading a major European country. But Vox’s rise puts Spain in the same camp as other countries grappling with an invigorated far right touting nationalistic and anti-progressive policies and getting airtime as a result.

As Spain’s ideological fissures grow, the country faces a series of challenges that can only be addressed by skilful lawmakers, and Vox have little to no experience of office. Unemployment remains as high as 27% in some provinces, and the country is economically divided with the average wage in the south being just 19,132 euros per year compared to 34,916 euros or more in Madrid and Catalonia. Like other Eurozone countries, Spain is still in anti-austerity mode and Sanchez delivered a nuanced campaign message that acknowledged the difficulties, striking the right note with the electorate while saying nothing that would alarm Brussels or the banks.

Later this month, on May 26, Spain will hold European and municipal elections. The campaign is far from over. Vox’s rally cry of “re-conquest” may have reached the peak of its appeal, but any further gains at the ballot box will mean that Spain will no longer be able to claim that it is one of the few formerly fascist states in Europe able to resist a contemporary surge in the far right.