The rise of the Spanish far-right party Vox shines a light into the dark corners of the country's politics

Right-wing populist parties have traditionally fared badly in Spain – largely because such positions have been safely ensconced in mainstream conservatism
(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 26, 2018 Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain's far-right party VOX, gives a speech during a campaign meeting ahead of regional elections in Andalusia, in Granada.  Spain's right party Partido Popular PP and centre-right Ciudadanos concluded an agreement, but they will need votes from the far-right to be invested and rule Andalusia. / AFP / CRISTINA QUICLER

More than four decades ago, following the 1975 death of the dictator General Franco, Spain began the process of restoring parliamentary democracy. Ever since that goal was achieved, the country’s politics have looked markedly different to those of its European neighbours – particularly at the nationalist and populist end of the spectrum. While parties such as France’s Rassemblement National and Italy’s Lega Nord enjoy considerable support, Spaniards have not had much time for the far right.

That changed dramatically last year, however. The starkest illustration came on 2 December, when Andalusia –  the nation's most populous region – elected to its parliament 12 candidates fielded by the anti-Muslim, anti-feminist party Vox. All told, Vox secured 400,000 votes – 10 per cent of the total cast in Andalusia. By way of comparison, it secured just 18,000 votes and no seats in an election held just four years before, finishing behind a little-known animal rights group.

Vox was founded in 2013 after a split from the mainstream conservative Popular Party (PP), which has spent 15 of the last 22 years governing the country. It began 2018 as one of a handful of tiny right-wing groupuscules, but managed to gather momentum throughout the year, eventually holding a 9,000 strong rally in Madrid in October that shocked the Spanish media and political establishment.

The party leader Santiago Abascal’s proudly sexist and xenophobic statements have appalled many Spaniards. Vox’s electoral success, meanwhile, was hailed as a victory by the likes of David Duke, a high-profile US-based white supremacist, and the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Now, Vox occupies the position of kingmaker in Andalusia. The PP and the centre-right party Ciudadanos need Vox’s support in order to remove the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) from power in the province for the first time in 36 years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has chosen to take full advantage of this leverage, threatening to scupper the formation of a government, in protest against what it refers to as “the dictatorship of the politically correct”, including “supremacist feminism and gender totalitarianism”.

Vox’s election campaign, launched in November offered a telling reference to the vexed political history of the Iberian Peninsula. One video featured the party’s top brass riding on horseback, Abascal leading the way, and the slogan, “The Reconquista will begin in Andalusian lands.”

Al Andalus was the last territory to remain in Moorish hands during the centuries-long battle in which Christians finally "reconquered" the territory. For many years, this dual heritage has been embraced as integral to Andalusian culture, as seen in the region's Mudéjar style of architecture and cumin-accented cuisine.

A recent poll by Pew Research Centre also found that 74% of non-Muslim Spaniards said they would happily accept a Muslim as a member of their family – a considerably higher figure than in Germany, the UK, France, Italy and most other European nations.

So, where did Vox’s sudden surge in support come from? Some point to disenchantment with the centre-left PSOE, which has governed Andalusia ever since the return to democracy, racking up numerous allegations of malfeasance along the way. The same problem applies to the PP, which has been mired in corruption trials for years, losing control of the national government in Madrid last year for that very reason.

There are two other key factors. The first is immigration. In 2018, more than 50,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Andalusia – more than double the previous year’s total. In a historically impoverished region, this has proved fertile ground for opportunistic populists. The second is the rise of a more general Spanish nationalism, in response to the Catalan independence crisis. Take a walk around any Andalusian town and you can see a lot more Spanish flags hanging from people’s windows than you used to.

One event from 2018 may offer an even better idea of where Vox’s support has come from, though. In June, the new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, leader of the centre-left PSOE, announced that he would exhume Franco’s remains from their controversial resting place and rebury them elsewhere. The state-funded Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid is a vast site topped with the largest stone cross in the world. “Something that is unimaginable in Germany or Italy – countries that also suffered fascist dictatorships – should also not be imaginable in our country," Sanchez said at the time.

However, the truth is that many Spaniards still admire their former leader and are opposed to the reburial. While most monuments to Franco have been removed, a statue still stands in the Spanish exclave of Melilla in north Africa. Meanwhile, the Franco Foundation enjoys charitable status and receives government funding. Since Franco’s death, Spain has struggled to process its recent history, and Vox’s right-wing politics are more embedded in the country’s society and politics than they might immediately appear.

In fact, the main reason no far-right party has ever done well electorally in Spain until now is because that energy has always been absorbed by the more mainstream PP. The party was founded in 1989 by Manuel Fraga, a former Francoist minister, who went to his grave insisting that the late dictator was the greatest Spaniard of the 20th century. A slow “de-Francoisation” of Spanish society and culture has occurred naturally over time, resulting in what appears to be a typical modern, liberal European society. However, the PP’s mainstream conservatism has long concealed a rump of support for more strident reactionary positions.

Now that Vox has brought these ideas into the open, the test will be whether its success in Andalusia was a one-off, or if it will maintain its momentum into May’s European elections. Either way, Spain’s long-simmering culture wars look set to continue.

Dan Hancox is a journalist and author based in London