Far Right Surges in Spain After Four Decades in the Shadows

Cameron Flynn graduated with a B.A. in Romance languages and literature and minor in history from the University of Michigan in 2018. Passionate about education and multilingualism, he has been working since graduation as a teacher at an Ann Arbor area Spanish-immersion preschool. In the fall of 2019, he will begin a PhD. program in Romance languages and literature at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on the prison institution in literature and society in former Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies.

Source: Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

Voters across Spain headed to the polls on the 28th of April to elect a new national legislature. Though the third such occurrence in four years, these elections saw a nearly ten percent increase in voter turnout, and the highest since 1996. Since the last elections, Spain has seen the Catalan independence crisis intensify, and the results of the Brexit vote call into question the future of Europe. Spanish voters felt a greater degree of uncertainty and many turned to previously marginalized ideologies to address the issues facing the country. Most notably, Vox, a far-right ultra-nationalist party, secured over ten percent of the popular vote and 24 out of 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies. While far from a new ideology, the far right is experiencing a renaissance in Spain, and Vox represents its most successful foray into national politics in decades.

Since the end of the fascist Franco dictatorship and the ratification of a democratic constitution in 1978, Spanish politics have been dominated by the center-right People’s Party (PP) and the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). In the last decade, two new parties, the left-wing populist United We Can (Unidos Podemos) and the centrist, pro-EU Citizens Party (Ciudadanos), managed to secure seats in the Congress of Deputies, creating a multi-party system. What was absent in Spain, yet present elsewhere across the continent, was the eurosceptic far right.

Established in 2014 by nationalist defectors of the PP, Vox is perhaps most noteworthy for its distinctly international name. “Vox” -- the latin word for “voice” -- implies an identification with Roman heritage. It has been common among far-right groups in Europe to evoke classical and medieval symbolism and terminology as a means of advocating for cultural roots over cultural change (the Lega Nord party of Italy continues to use a logo depicting a medieval warrior bearing the Lion of St. Mark, a symbol of the Venetian Republic). Ironically, historical use of Latin is no more a distinctly Spanish phenomenon as it is French, Italian, or German. In fact, the evocation of classicism serves more to highlight the history and culture that Spain shares with its fellow EU member nations than anything uniquely Spanish.

Despite its existence for over half a decade, Vox only recently secured its first significant political victory. The party gained 12 out of 109 seats in the Andalusia regional parliamentary elections in December of 2018. While 12 seats may seem insignificant, it allowed Vox to play the role of kingmaker, as a coalition of PP and Citizens was forced to make an agreement with the new party in order to govern in a majority. Vox’s success on the regional level invigorated both its supporters and leadership, which set its sights on the national legislature in Madrid this spring.

Several eurosceptic parties across Europe have enjoyed moderate success on their respective national stages since the beginning of the global financial crisis ten years ago. Why, then, are Spanish ultra-nationalists only now seeing political gains? In sociological terms, two events of the past year have called upon Spaniards to consider how they define their national identity.

Firstly, the national government, led by PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez, debated this past September the transferal of the late fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s remains from the monumental Valley of the Fallen to the less conspicuous El Pardo estate in north Madrid. The exhumation was subsequently approved citing the difficulty of national healing while the dictator’s body remained in a place of such solemnity and veneration. This move was the most recent invocation of the 2007 Historical Memory Law, arguably the most consequential and controversial piece of legislation in Spain since democratization. The law has sought to remove or re-contextualize monuments and other physical symbols of the Franco era. The exhumation of Franco’s remains, set for the 10th of June, has been cited by many, particularly on the right, as an abuse of the power granted by the law and an unnecessary reopening of old national wounds. Vox saw the issue as an opportunity to mobilize voters in support of its nationalist agenda, accusing Sánchez and PSOE of attempting to divide the country.

Spain has also found itself embroiled in questions of national identity as a result of the refugee crisis. A vessel named Aquarius Dignitus, operated by Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditeranée, has for several years been conducting search and rescue missions for migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and granting them safe passage to the EU, via Italy or Malta. After the election of a populist and nationalist government in Italy in March of 2018, the Aquarius was denied the right to dock in Italy. Seeing an opportunity to fulfill its promises of humanitarian action, the PSOE-led government in Spain allowed the boat carrying 629 migrants to land in Valencia. A media frenzy ensued and questions as to whether or not Spain would become the new port of choice for African migrants abounded. Vox capitalized on the story, claiming that the migrants’ arrival threatened the jobs and livelihoods of Spanish workers.

A poll conducted only weeks before the election by the Spanish Center for Sociological Research (CIS) showed the party on track to gain 29-37 out of 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies. This would have allowed it in the most benign of circumstances to become a thorn in the government's side. The best outcome for the party, however, would have seen it once again playing the role of kingmaker, leaving its nationalist and eurosceptic mark on the Spanish government’s agenda for years to come.

Luckily for opponents of Vox, the ‘worst-case scenario’ was avoided, as the party under-performed national polls, securing only 24 seats in the legislature. It should be noted, however, that this is 24 more seats than it had before, and represents the first official delegation of right-wing nationalism in Spain in over four decades.

Pedro Sanchéz’s PSOE won the night, having surged to 123 seats and securing the greatest popular support. The centrist, pro-European Citizens party also saw considerable gains in the Congress. Not all, however, had reason to celebrate. Having lost 71 seats and down nearly 17 percentage points from the previous elections, the center-right People’s Party (PP) was thrust into chaos and leader Pablo Casado tasked with picking up the pieces of what was only four years prior the majority party in Spain. The rise of Vox as an alternative right-wing option for voters was in no small part to blame for the fall of the PP.

Spaniards returned to the polls on May 26th, this time to elect their representatives to the European Parliament. Having secured 6.2% of the popular vote and 3 of Spain’s 54 seats in Brussels, Vox joins an enlarged and emboldened delegation of far-right voices in the Parliament. While pro-european parties were able to retain their majority, the growth of the nationalist right (Nigel Farage’s Brexit party and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National both saw notable gains) cannot be ignored.

In the coming months, Vox will capitalize on its newfound status and focus its attention on immigration, the Catalan independence crisis, and whatever else it perceives as threats to Spanish sovereignty. As the only major eurosceptic party in the country, Vox positions itself as both a generalized petition against the EU and a battle cry for unabashed nationalism, a combination unavailable to Spanish voters until now. With the above-mentioned issues far from resolved, it remains unlikely for the foreseeable future that the presence of the Vox and the far right in Spain will diminish.

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