Spain’s far-right makes election gains using anti-Muslim sentiment

Vox party distorted era of Muslim rule to sway voters, scholars and activists say

Spanish far-right VOX party leader and candidate for prime minister Santiago Abascal delivers a speech during an election night rally in Madrid after Spain held general elections on April 28, 2019. Spain's socialists won snap elections but without the necessary majority to govern in a fragmented political landscape marked by the far-right's dramatic eruption in parliament. / AFP / OSCAR DEL POZO

Spain's far-right nationalist party Vox gained a significant foothold in general elections on Sunday and will enter parliament with 24 of the 350 seats.

The rise of Vox, from winning 0.2 per cent of votes to more than 10 per cent in three years, has shocked Spain and split the right-wing vote.

Vox first gained popularity for their hardline approach to the Catalan independence bid, tapping into growing nationalist sentiment, and with their provocative rhetoric against “supremacist feminism” and “illegal immigration”, which they consider threats to traditional Spanish values.

Also central to their gains was a stoking of anti-Muslim sentiment through the manipulation of history, often pegged to calls for a new “Reconquista” and nationalist iconography.

Reconquista refers to the long campaign Iberian Christians fought against Moorish rule, which lasted almost eight centuries and led to the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

Last year, Vox leader Santiago Abascal released a video of himself alongside dozens of men on horseback riding across an open plain with the slogan, “The Reconquista will begin in Andalusian lands”.

Earlier this month, he launched Vox’s electoral campaign in the village of Covadonga, where it is claimed the first Christian victory against the then Muslim rulers took place.

Vox’s use of the term Reconquista in reference to Al-Andalus is itself debatable, said Hicham Oulad Mhammed, a community activist in Madrid, as the term did not start appearing in books until the 18th century.

“At every rally, every meeting they’ve had, they always go back in time and misrepresent Al-Andalus as a bunch of people that came from Africa, occupied us for eight centuries, and thank God we managed to kick them out,” he said.

Such rhetoric reduces the complexity of the Iberian Peninsula’s past, and is a false representation of history, he said.

The language used by the party’s leadership is rife with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Mr Abascal has called for “an insurmountable wall” to be built in Spain’s North African enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla to stop the “invasion of illegal immigration”.

The party’s second in command, Javier Ortega Smith, is under investigation for alleged hate speech at a rally in Valencia last September where he claimed Muslims were “enemies”.

“They’re using scare tactics, the politics of fear, of division,” Mr Oulad Mhammed said.

Dr Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero, senior research fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, said the increase in hate speech in Spain can be explained by the polarisation brought about by rising populism.

The kinds of comments Vox makes and the symbols they use, Dr Aguilera-Carnerero adds, indicate that, “they want to build up a concept of Spain in which Muslims have no place”.

For Aurora Ali of the Madrid-based Muslim Association for Human Rights, much of this anti-Muslim sentiment can be attributed to propaganda for political gain.

“Islamophobia sells, and Islamophobia gives votes because they create this atmosphere of ‘othering’ and make us foreigners, although we were always here.”

Moreover, in a country with four million Muslims, Ms Ali said Vox’s manipulation of Spain’s past negates its Muslim history.

Supporters of Spain's far-right party VOX wait for the announcement of the results in Spain's general election in Madrid, Spain, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Susana Vera  TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Founded in 2013 after splintering from the conservative Popular Party, Vox’s breakthrough came in the regional Andalusian parliamentary elections in December, where they won 10 per cent of the vote and helped prop up a right-wing coalition that ended 36 years of socialist rule in southern Spain.

Dr Aguilera-Carnerero said Vox’s ascension to the political mainstream revived the far-right nationalist ideology that had remained latent since the country’s transition to democracy, waiting on the fringes for political representation.

Its use of social media has also aided its rise: a study of political posts in Spain between December and January revealed 10 per cent contained far-right content.

The study by Alto Analytics discovered just 862 users were responsible for generating 2.6m far-right political posts, 1.5m of them from the Vox community.

However, despite being unabashedly Islamophobic in public, in private Vox has been willing to overlook these views where funding is concerned.

In January, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) had financed 80 per cent of Vox's campaign for the 2014 European elections.

The exiled NCRI is controlled by the militant Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which was previously listed as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the US.

A spokesperson for the NCRI told El Pais that while they knew Vox was a new party, they were not aware it was a far-right party.

The fear of losing voters to the far-right saw both the conservative Popular Party and the centre-right Ciudadanos party shift their rhetoric further towards Vox throughout the election campaign.

It may now take weeks, perhaps months, of negotiations before a government is assembled, and much uncertainty remains over how the entrance of an anti-Muslim voice in the Spanish parliament will play out.