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Europe’s Populist Fever Reaches Spain 


Santiago Abascal, the national president of VOX, center, applauds during a rally of the fledging far-right party VOX in Madrid, Oct. 7, 2018.

Germany has Alternative for Germany, France has the National Front, Italy has The League and Spain now has VOX, the latest far-right actor to emerge on Europe’s political scene after an unexpectedly strong showing in local elections last month in Andalusia, the Spanish southern region until now considered a Socialist bastion.

Violent protests erupted following the Dec. 2 vote, as leftist leader Pablo Iglesias called for an “anti-fascist mobilization.”

His followers camped out in front of the regional parliament in Seville, threatening to block access to VOX party representatives.

Protesters set cars on fire and vandalized businesses.

But the results were clear and the protests did not change the reality that the populist, anti-establishment fever had arrived in Spain.

Spain's far-right Vox party President Santiago Abascal takes part in a rally during regional elections in Andalusia, in Seville, Spain.
Spain's far-right Vox party President Santiago Abascal takes part in a rally during regional elections in Andalusia, in Seville, Spain.

Seats lost

The Socialist party and its far left ally, Podemos, lost seats and could no longer muster a governing majority in the regional parliament. Support for the mainstream center-right People’s Party and the Citizens party remained static while 11 percent of votes were swept up by VOX, whose support may be crucial to form a new regional government.

“While polls anticipated gains by VOX, these results have exceeded all expectations by wide margins,” said Ignacio Jurado, a political science professor the University of York. VOX, he said, “becomes for the first time a parliamentary force in Spain.”

VOX leader Santiago Abascal, a political upstart whose violent discourses against immigration, feminism and regional separatism have gained him a strong national following, declared he would go on to “throw Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez out of the Moncloa,” the palace that serves as the official residence.

VOX votes in Andalusia rose from 18,500 in the 2015 elections to almost 400,000 last month, and analysts expect the numbers to multiply by similar proportions in other parts of Spain.

A woman watches demonstrators taking part in a protest outside a hotel where the newcomer to Spanish politics, the far-right Vox party holds a rally in Murcia, Spain, Nov. 14, 2018. Vox is reaching out to the neglected, working-class suburbs and rural areas with high unemployment, with polls predicting the Eurosceptic, anti-feminist and staunchly patriotic party on track to enter the country’s parliament in elections due before 2020.
A woman watches demonstrators taking part in a protest outside a hotel where the newcomer to Spanish politics, the far-right Vox party holds a rally in Murcia, Spain, Nov. 14, 2018. Vox is reaching out to the neglected, working-class suburbs and rural areas with high unemployment, with polls predicting the Eurosceptic, anti-feminist and staunchly patriotic party on track to enter the country’s parliament in elections due before 2020.

Unlike other populist movements that are sweeping Europe, Spain’s emerging rightists are not necessarily pushing for an exit from the European Union.

Abascal said he wants to keep Spain in the European Union. He has in the past told VOA he instead seeks to change the bloc from within and is focusing his strategy on winning seats in the European Parliament elections set for May. Previously ignored, Europe’s leaders see this year’s poll as the most decisive ever: a de facto referendum on modern European liberal democracy.

French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party leader Marine Le Pen delivers her comeback speech in Frejus, France, Sept. 16, 2018. The backdrop reads "Nations will save Europe."
French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party leader Marine Le Pen delivers her comeback speech in Frejus, France, Sept. 16, 2018. The backdrop reads "Nations will save Europe."

Far right parties

At a meeting of far right parties in Belgium in December, French National Front leader Marine Le Pen called on like-minded forces to take control of the European parliament. She had earlier sent a message of congratulations to Abascal.

Iglesias’ Podemos party had until now been the main beneficiary of disenchantment with the bipartisan status quo that had prevailed in Spain for the past half century.

Iglesias provided key parliamentary support for Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to form a government earlier this year. But disdain for Spanish national symbols like the monarchy and the flag alienated many of the kingdom’s traditionally minded voters.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, center, shakes hands with the leader of the Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Oct. 11, 2018.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, center, shakes hands with the leader of the Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Oct. 11, 2018.

Abascal says much of his support is driven by growing African immigration, which he blames on what he says are overly permissive government policies.

Analysts say the issue was undoubtedly a factor in Andalusia, which has become a main landing zone for migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from northern Africa.

Voter resentment over the rising number of immigrants was palpable in the run-up to the elections.

“These people are better treated than we are,” said one voter in the town of Jimena de la Frontera, pointing to a hotel that is being used to house migrants.

Migrants gather on the deck of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue vessel after being rescued in the central Mediterranean Sea, Dec. 21, 2018, before disembarking in the port of Crinavis in Spain, Dec. 28, 2018.
Migrants gather on the deck of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescue vessel after being rescued in the central Mediterranean Sea, Dec. 21, 2018, before disembarking in the port of Crinavis in Spain, Dec. 28, 2018.

Her sentiment is providing fertile ground for the populists.

“We will expel anyone who enters our house without permission,” Abascal said before cheering multitudes recently. He pledged to ban the practice of Islam and shut down mosques.

Abascal denies suggestions that his movement bears any resemblance to what Spain saw in the 20th century.

“The stigma attached to the far right over memories of the Franco dictatorship,” Abascal said, “are fading.” Today, he claims, those memories are eclipsed by the seemingly endless corruption scandals plaguing the establishment at large, from the Socialists to the conservative People’s Party.

A controversial bid by Sanchez to exhume Franco’s remains from their resting place in a national mausoleum could be intended to distract public opinion from other issues, Abascal said.

“People want change,” Abascal said. But he says there is no thirst for radical revolutions. “They won’t go the way of Castro Chavismo,” he said, referring to the radical socialist regimes in the former colonies of Cuba and Venezuela, which Iglesias and other Spanish leftists have at times praised.

People wave Spanish flags during a rally by the right wing VOX party in Madrid, Dec. 1, 2018. VOX supporters waved Spanish flags as they gathered in Colon Square to listen to speeches from party leaders.
People wave Spanish flags during a rally by the right wing VOX party in Madrid, Dec. 1, 2018. VOX supporters waved Spanish flags as they gathered in Colon Square to listen to speeches from party leaders.

Wide following

The Andalusian election results last month also indicate that VOX has a wide following, cutting across income groups. While Abascal received 30 percent of the vote in the wealthy province of Almeria, he also drew 14 percent of votes in the city of La Linea, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain.

Feminist leader Lidia Falcon says despite the electoral upset, Abascal’s support is limited. His opposition to a law targeting violence against women recently passed unanimously by Spain’s parliament has alienated women voters, Falcon said.

The number of incidents in which male spouses abused their wives rose dramatically, by almost 18 percent, in 2017, according to a study by Spain’s high court.

Differences over the law against gender violence has been a stumbling block in forming a governing coalition between VOX and the center-rightists in Andalusia.

Analysts doubt Abascal can ever hope to score a majority in Catalonia or his native Basque region, whose autonomous governments he wants to abolish, he says, to streamline bureaucracy and create a more efficiently managed central state.

But his polarizing message is securing the support of Spanish unionists in both regions who have lost confidence in the ability of mainstream parties to contain the separatists.

It may also attract votes in poorer regions like Andalusia, which depends on revenues from the richer industrial north.

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