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Spain with a Spine by Alberto M. Fernandez

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Spain with a Spine

VOX leader Santiago Abascal at a rally in Vistalegre in 2018.

Photo: Courtesy of Contando Estrelas / CCA-SA 2.0 Generic.

[Editorial note: the following article, originally published in 2019, offers a solid introduction to VOX, the growing party on the Right in Spain. We will be publishing exclusive interviews with some of its major players in the next few months.]

Next Sunday [November 10, 2019], Spain goes to the polls for its second general election in seven months. This is required because the governing Socialists (PSOE), who came first in the April 2019 vote, have been unable to put together a viable coalition government.  Expectations are that the Socialists will again finish first and that the centrist Partido Popular (PP), which ruled Spain from 2011 to 2018, will bounce back from disastrous results in April to secure second place.

Spain’s politics have become increasingly fractious and splintered over the past decade and the big two parties will be followed in the voting by three relatively new parties. Podemos is a populist party of the far-left, initially inspired—and perhaps even funded since its beginning in 2014—by the so-called “Bolivarian” regime in Venezuela of President Nicolas Maduro. Ciudadanos is a centrist party, which originated in Catalonia in 2006 before going nationwide in 2013 and is sometimes also described as either center-left or center-right. Closely allied with France’s Macron, Ciudadanos has both right and left wing tendencies and policies uneasily jostling for primacy. Many expect a possible pact between the Socialists and Ciudadanos if the results are right after the next election.

Spain’s fifth party, and also a very new one, is VOX, almost always referred to in the mainstream media, even in Spain, as “the far-right VOX party in Spain.” That is when VOX is not being called an ‘ultra’ or ‘fascist’ party, the epithet “facha” being very popular among the Spanish left as an adjective describing anything that is not sufficiently progressive, including the PP, Ciudadanos, and VOX.

Ironically, the political groupings that would seem to most resemble the definition of a classical nationalist, supremacist party in Spain are elsewhere. These are the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties who openly espouse an extreme political agenda, seek to violate Spain’s democratic constitution, practice ethnic politics of an exclusionary sort, and have even had violent auxiliaries such as the Catalan Comitès de Defensa de la República. But, as if the situation was not confusing enough in Spain, those regional nationalist/separatist parties tend to be natural allies of the Spanish Left.

VOX began in December 2013 as an offshoot from the Partido Popular, criticizing the PP’s seeming shift to the left.  Like other well-established European parties of the traditional right, the UK’s Conservatives and the German Christian Democrats, the PP seemed to abandon social and cultural issues usually associated with right-wing parties and moved towards an almost complete continuation of the agenda of socialist PSOE they had replaced in power.  The VOX dissidents of 2013-2014 criticized the PP’s passivity in dealing with Catalan separatists and Basque terrorism and its supine inaction in the face of an aggressive leftist ideological agenda imposed by PSOE.

In addition to those items, the November 2013 resignation letter of future VOX leader Santiago Abascal from the PP—where he had labored for twenty years—mentioned corruption, tax policy and abortion. Many Spanish political pundits have described the PP as having “two souls,” something like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: a supposed far-right tendency (sometimes identified with former Prime Minister Aznar) and a ‘moderate’ tendency (identified with former Prime Minister Rajoy). It is the policies and personalities of the latter that led to the birth of VOX.

“Very few Spaniards have the courage to say loudly that they are on the Right.”

Scholar Maria Elvira Roca Barea has noted the odd dynamic of Spanish politics after 40 years of the Franco dictatorship where there is a built-in systemic bias towards the Left: “Here the Right does not win elections; they are lost by the Left. Very few Spaniards have the courage to say loudly that they are on the Right. They are Centrists.” This reality explains both the drift of the PP towards the Left and the automatic dismissal of the right-wing VOX party as “far-right.”

Many in the Partido Popular were happy to see Abascal go. And indeed initial results seemed to indicate that these right-wing malcontents had little popular support. In the early years, VOX’s best electoral result was just 1.57% of the vote in the 2014 elections for the EU Parliament, where it just missed qualifying. In every following election, from 2014 to 2016—municipal, autonomous region, general—VOX’s vote actually decreased. In the 2016 general elections, it received 0.20 % of the vote, a measly 46,000 votes. In contrast, Rajoy’s dominant “moderate tendency” of the Partido Popular received almost 8 million votes and 123 seats. Both Podemos and Ciudadanos had almost immediate political success.  For VOX, it would take five years.

It was the Spanish political crisis of the summer of 2018, the combination of a seemingly weak and incompetent PP led by Rajoy, the fall of his government due to an alliance between the Left and separatist parties, and the impunity of Catalan separatism that would bring VOX back from political irrelevance. The time was right for a Spanish party that unashamedly embraced patriotism, national unity, and a hard line against the coup-plotting (golpista) separatist parties and, indeed, against the whole rotten edifice of autonomous region politics.  One sympathetic analyst noted that such an emergence was bound to happen eventually in Spain when the spectrum of political choice ranged from the “social democratic center (PP and Ciudadanos) to the Bolivarian Far-Left.”

That momentous emergence arrived in December 2018 when VOX won 11% of the vote and 12 seats in Andalusian regional elections, a result that led to the end of 36 uninterrupted years of Socialist rule in Spain’s largest autonomous region. VOX had launched its campaign with a successful focus on youth and social media. An early example was a much commented on amateur video of the (now) 43-year-old Santiago Abascal and his colleagues on horseback (horses borrowed from the pro-VOX bullfighter Morante de la Puebla) promising the “reconquest” (in Spanish, Reconquista) of Andalusia from the Socialists, set to the soundtrack of the Lord of the Rings.

The politically successful VOX is such a new beast—less than a year old—that its full story is yet to be written, particularly in English. There are several good books in Spanish that allow the party to speak for itself. Abascal’s 2015 Hay Un Camino a la Derecha (There is Path to the Right) was an early example. La España Viva: conversaciones con doce dirigentes de VOX is a later one, launched in 2018 on the anniversary of the battle of Lepanto, featuring interviews with 12 party leaders.

Still another volume, España vertebrada (Spain with a Spine), a book-length interview of Abascal by gadfly journalist and novelist Fernando Sánchez Dragó, was published days before the April 2019 Spanish general elections. Sánchez Dragó is a former communist who has moved steadily to the right and the book suffers at times from being too much about Sánchez Dragó and not enough about Abascal, but it is still illuminating. Among the, at times, wild ruminations of the interviewer, Abascal comes across as a modest and sober paladin of common sense conservatism.

Amidst the chatter, his love for Spain comes across, epitomized in Abascal’s love for the small Basque municipality, Amurrio, where he was raised and where his father and grandfather were local politicians, and his passion for the Sierra Salvada mountain range near Amurrio. This seems far more the conservatism of a patriot rather than that of a nationalist. The Spanish Left makes much of some congruencies between VOX and other European parties of the so-called populist right, such as a hardcore position against unrestricted immigration but for Abascal the party’s redlines, the core issues on which there can be no compromise, are few: the defense of the unity of Spain, freedom of expression and conscience, the right to choose the education of your children, and the right to life.

VOX has not shied away from controversy; they have courted it.

VOX has not shied away from controversy; they have courted it. There is a long tradition by the Spanish Left of using the specter of the dictator Franco to silence honest debate and cow opponents. One way of doing this has been through the controversial 2007 “law of historical memory” that has sought to remove symbols of Francoism. A proposed 2017 revision of the law would go much further and criminalize freedom of expression and politicize research. VOX’s young leaders, coming from the generation after Franco and having no ties with that era, have pushed back vociferously against the Marxist manipulation of history, pointing out that the ultimate goal of the Left is not so much the long dead Franco but to undermine Spanish unity, the monarchy, and its 1978 constitution.

In April 2019, shortly after España vertebrada was published, Spain went to the polls and while some on the Left crowed that VOX did less well than expected, it still went from 0.2% (46,000 votes) in 2016 to 10.3% (2.6 million votes) in less than three years. VOX’s success at the municipal and autonomous regional level allow the three parties of the center-right to reclaim both the city and autonomous region of Madrid from the Left.

Polling for the November 2019 election is inconsistent to say the least, with some early opinion polls showing VOX losing half of its 24 seats while later polling showing a a potential doubling of seats for Abascal’s party, a result that would have alarm bells sounding—again—in Europe about right-wing populism. VOX has already seized on hints from Cuidadanos and PP that they would be willing to pact with the Socialists to make the larger point that there is only one clear, distinctive, and implacable voice on the Spanish Right. Whatever these electoral results will be, Spanish voters will have, for the first time in years, a real alternative.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.


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