Spain’s Radical Right Is Here to Stay—but Did It Ever Leave?

Spain’s Radical Right Is Here to Stay—but Did It Ever Leave?

Spain’s Radical Right Is Here to Stay—but Did It Ever Leave?

The truth is, Spain was never really an outlier in Europe, its radical right is not really new, and its situation is hard to compare to right-wing populism in other parts of the continent.


“We have come here to call out those who are responsible for Spain’s disunion and downfall—and to engage them in combat.” Santiago Abascal’s call to arms was meant to reassure some 10,000 flag-waving supporters who had gathered at an old bullring in Madrid on October 7. Less than two years earlier, that old bullring, Vistalegre, had welcomed the Citizen Assembly of Podemos, the left-wing, anti-austerity party helmed by Pablo Iglesias. But this time it hosted Vox, Spain’s newest right-wing party.

In a rousing, half-hour speech, Abascal, the 42-year-old leader of the party, spoke of traitors and heroes, of enemies and defenders, of national decline and the impending resurgence of what he called la España viva (“the Spain that’s alive”). “Our fatherland has suffered too many insults and humiliations,” he continued. “But the left will never succeed in making us feel ashamed for that which only merits pride.” Abascal decried the “dictatorship of political correctness” that supposedly censures regular Spaniards’ love of hunting, bullfighting, and religious processions. He disparaged the “gender ideology” that “criminalizes” all men. He railed against abortion, immigrants, and Catalans who favor independence. But in a political climate where Italy was approving the first of what are expected to be a number of hard-line immigration measures, it looked as though one particular issue was resonating with his audience. Abascal vigorously defended Spanish sovereignty, which, he said, had been “trampled on by the European oligarchy.” Make no mistake, he added, “We love Europe.” In fact, he said, invoking a touchstone of conservative Spanish history, “we have more right than anyone to call ourselves European. After all, we saved Europe from the Muslim onslaught during our 700-year Reconquest!” The implication was clear: Yesterday’s Muslim invaders are today’s Middle Eastern and North African refugees and vulnerable migrants.

On December 2, Vox stunned pollsters, public opinion, and the political establishment alike by winning more than 10 percent of the vote in the regional elections in Andalusia. For 40 years, Andalusia had been a Socialist Party stronghold; on January 9, the Popular Party (Partido Popular, or PP) and Ciudadanos (Citizens) reached an agreement with Vox that will deliver the region to a right-wing coalition of the PP and Ciudadanos. Until the October rally, few onlookers had given Vox much thought. Like Podemos, the party had been founded to compete for the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. Unlike Podemos, Vox failed to make much of a splash, only just edging out a single-issue animal-rights party with 1.5 percent of the vote and no parliamentarians. It quickly became the laughingstock of liberal public opinion and seemed to give credence to the idea that Spain had somehow been immune from the far-right populist wave that has been flooding Europe. But the October rally, which was the largest far-right gathering the country had seen since its transition to democracy in the late 1970s, quickly changed that perception.

“Vox is not a passing scare,” the journalist Steven Forti wrote in his post-election analysis for the magazine Contexto. “If it won 11 percent of the vote in Andalusia, where the left has historically had an ample majority, we can only imagine how many votes it will be able to win in Valencia, Murcia, or Madrid.” Vox has been slowly gaining steam since the October 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia. That same month, the party’s youth branch produced a video—notably, in English—of a young girl proclaiming her love for Spain and decrying “a few crazy politicians” in Catalonia, comparing them to Nazis and the push for independence to “the darkest days in Europe’s history.” The video quickly made the rounds across the country and abroad. Last April, the party announced that Steve Bannon would come on as an adviser, helping its leaders counter “[Catalan] separatist propaganda.” Following the Andalusian elections, Bannon has reportedly invited Vox to join The Movement, his organization that will support far-right populist parties across Europe in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in May. The stunning electoral results last month may portend even more devastating results for the left: Since December, Vox has been polling nationally at between 8 and 13 percent, giving Spain’s three right-wing parties a potential parliamentary majority in the national elections, which may come as early as this year.

For many Americans, Brexit crystallized the rise of far-right populist leaders and xenophobic politics across Europe. From the UK to Poland, from Italy to Germany, far-right leaders embraced blood-and-soil nationalism, with one leader, Frauke Petry of Germany’s AfD party, telling supporters that the police “must use firearms if necessary” to “prevent illegal border crossings.” Spain long seemed immune to Europe’s right-wing populist wave. In the United States, it became the go-to country for journalists looking for a silver lining. Beginning in 2016, data analyses from The New York Times, the BBC, and other outlets showed colorful maps that answered questions such as “How Far Is Europe Swinging to the Right?” They left Spain entirely blank, implying that no far right existed in the country. In March 2017, NPR proclaimed, “Unlike Elsewhere in Europe, the Far Right in Spain Stays on the Fringe.” Not much later, Foreign Affairs dubbed Spain an “exception” in its resistance to right-wing populism. Last summer, Slate made much of Spain’s ability to ignore far-right overtures, even as Bannon graced the country with his attention. Well into November, one would hear questions like “How has Spain managed to avoid far-right populism?” in meetings at renowned think tanks in Washington.

The Andalusian elections tell us that Spain is no longer an outlier in Europe. But was it ever? Is Spain’s radical right really new, or has it been around all along, hidden in plain sight? And how comparable is Spain to Germany or France, Poland or Hungary, anyway? The truth is, Spain was never really an outlier in Europe; its radical right is not really new; and its situation is hard to compare to those where the far right has surged. For one, Spain’s far right has only recently begun to openly demonize immigrants. Even today, its most naked acts of aggression are directed less toward external than internal targets—namely, the pro-independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country. For another, Spanish democracy is young. Ruled by a right-wing fascist dictatorship from 1939 until 1975, the country’s democratic transition was negotiated between the opposition and the regime of Francisco Franco, whose stakeholders were allowed to preserve their positions of power and wealth. In fact, Spain’s main conservative party, the PP, as well as its predecessor, Alianza Popular, were both founded by Manuel Fraga, one of the most important ministers during the Franco regime. After its founding in 1989, it would take the PP more than a decade to formally—and grudgingly—condemn the Franco regime. Even today, the Spanish right still resists any attempt to come to terms with the country’s as well as its own fascist past.

That resistance, as well as the country’s institutionalized acquiescence in it, is described in painful yet extraordinary detail in The Silence of Others, a documentary directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar that premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. The film, which is now in its eighth week in theaters in Spain, will be released in North America this spring, and was just shortlisted for an Academy Award. The documentary follows a group of citizens who for years have been seeking justice for crimes committed during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime. Some of the members of the group were tortured; others witnessed their parents being taken away to be executed. Not able to bring cases to trial in Spain, they have turned to an Argentine judge, who is still investigating these cases. In between stories of personal struggle and the inner workings of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, the film zooms out to examine the traces of the dictatorship in everyday life in Spain, from street names and statues to the criminal code. It puzzles, rightly, over the fact that, while glorifying Nazism is prohibited by law in Germany, extolling Franco is perfectly legal in Spain. At one point, the film shows the director of the Francisco Franco Foundation bemoaning how so many politicians in Spain have washed their image clean of their previous support for the Franco regime. He is, unfortunately, not wrong.

Though many newspapers following the Andalusian elections were emblazoned with versions of the headline “The Far-Right Bursts onto the Scene in Spain,” the question should be not “Where did this far-right party come from?” but rather “How did this far-right party break loose from the PP?” According to Antonio Maestre, a journalist for the progressive monthly La Marea, what happened in Andalusia was a shift, not a birth. “Spain’s far right has simply changed the way it expresses itself,” he said. “After Franco’s death, it was absorbed into Alianza Popular and the PP, from which it has now detached itself. But until recently, the PP satisfied its needs. Yet every measure Vox proposes comes from the PP’s playbook. It’s the PP without a bridle.” In fact, Abascal, Vox’s leader, came up through the ranks of the PP in his native Basque Country—a region that itself has long had a militant pro-independence movement that has targeted conservative politicians. “Abascal belongs to the more nostalgic wing of the PP,” Carmen Moraga, a reporter who has covered the right for the online daily, told us. It was “a sector uncomfortable with what it saw as the party’s move toward the center, away from Spain’s patriotic touchstones.”

Like many figures in the history of conservatism, Abascal has made his mark by dressing down not just the left but the right as well. He’s taken special aim at his former political home, the PP, which he now disparagingly refers to as la derechita cobarde (“the small, cowardly right”). “Even the PP thinks that speaking to [France’s far-right] National Front [renamed last year National Rally] threatens freedom and democracy,” he said, ridiculing the PP for criticizing Vox “at the same time that it reaches an agreement with the Communist Party of China.” Abascal has mocked what he calls the PP’s lack of courage and conviction in the face of illegal immigration, the left, and the Catalan “coup.” In just a couple of years, he has spun through the Rolodex of right-wing talk shows in Spain, where little criticism of the PP, even from the right, is ever aired.

The PP, meanwhile, has been determined to fight fire with fire. When veteran party leader Mariano Rajoy was ousted as prime minister last summer, he handed over the PP leadership to Pablo Casado, a 37-year-old conservative hard-liner who has developed a taste for historical revisionism, claiming, erroneously, that Napoleon, Manuel Pavía, and Miguel Primo de Rivera all rose to power “unarmed” (the latter two carried out military coups in Spain in, respectively, the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Casado has also not shied from dipping his pen in the deep well of Spanish reactionary thought, tweeting during the PP’s national convention in Madrid in July: “As Donoso Cortés said, ‘We have to be united, not in order to be together but rather to make something together.’” Juan Donoso Cortés was a 19th-century Spanish diplomat, political philosopher, and writer who has been an intellectual lodestar for the right, from the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to the Nouvelle Droite in France, for over a century. For those at the party congress, Casado’s reference was as much a cry for party unity as it was a dog whistle to the most extreme sectors of the Spanish conservative movement. His statement on Columbus Day last fall, by contrast, was intelligible to historians and laypeople alike: Spain’s conquest of the Americas, he said, was “the greatest feat in the history of humanity.” “What other country,” he said, “can claim to have discovered a new world?” The phrase might as well have been lifted straight from one of Franco’s speeches.

The PP is not the only party to have tried to counter the rise of Vox by pandering to its own extremists. Ciudadanos, a neoliberal party founded in Catalonia that made the leap to national politics in 2014, has undergone a similar rightward shift. Like Vox and the PP, its change of direction was prompted by the crisis over Catalonia, which came to a head with the referendum in October 2017. Seeing an opportunity for electoral gain, Ciudadanos managed to outflank the PP on the right by relentlessly railing against the Catalan “coup,” declaring any negotiated solution to the crisis anathema, and calling for severe punishment of pro-independence politicians. The PP has since followed suit. Not to be outdone, Vox has managed to take its anti-independence stance a step further: The party is demanding a radical recentralization of the country, advocating for the abolition of its quasi-federal structure, enshrined in the 1978 Constitution, which divides Spain up into 17 “autonomous regions,” among which are Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Andalusia. Meanwhile, nine Catalan politicians have been in prison awaiting trial on charges of “sedition” and “rebellion”; six others, including former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, have fled into exile elsewhere in Europe. None of this has brought the Catalan crisis any closer to a solution—quite the contrary. Pro-independence sentiment continues to run high. According to a recent poll, some 47 percent of Catalans currently favor independence, while 43 percent would prefer to remain part of Spain.

Spain’s territorial crisis has led to what many see as an alarming erosion of the country’s democratic culture. Although Casado has stopped short of questioning Spain’s constitutional makeup, he was among the most brazen critics of Catalan pro-independence aspirations even before being elected party leader. As the PP’s spokesperson, he routinely privileged national unity over civil liberties, including the right to protest and free speech. “Resisting authority is a form of violence because it is illegal,” he said in an interview about Catalonia last year, ignoring the fact that the Catalan independence movement has overwhelmingly employed peaceful tactics. On the other hand, he added, it’s not possible to speak of violence committed by the state’s security forces—which, during the referendum, charged polling places with nightsticks and shot into crowds with rubber bullets—since their actions merely serve “to restore legality.”

Casado, like Abascal and Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, has called for a prohibition of all Catalan parties that favor independence. This measure would not be without precedent: Basque political parties associated with the militant pro-independence organization ETA were outlawed in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet when the tables turned last October and the European Parliament passed a resolution that called on Spain to be less tolerant of fascist nostalgia, the PP and Vox became indignant. At the rally in Vistalegre, Abascal called attempts to curb public glorification of Francoism “an attack on freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and academic freedom.” In November, the PP said, absurdly, that it would only vote to make fascist organizations illegal in Spain if the same prohibition applied to “Communist and populist” parties—a veiled reference to Podemos.

For Moraga, the journalist who covers the right, the rise of Vox was such a surprise because politicians and journalists had failed to consider the idea that something like it could ever jell in Spain. The perception that the far right didn’t exist in the country had become so internalized that it blinded many to anxieties over national identity, which have been actively and tacitly deepened by the central government’s policies toward Spain’s internal nations. Unlike Canada, for example, Spain only has one official language in its entire territory; Basque, Catalan, Galician, and Valencian are co-official only in their respective autonomous regions. Nor does there exist a government-funded second-language program for schoolchildren or citizens living in the rest of Spain to study another of the country’s languages. Liberalization of these policies would’ve likely done more to stem the rise of Spanish nationalism than the quasi-federal status quo.

To understand anxieties over national identity, Maestre points to the uniqueness of the Vox electorate. “Vox has nothing to do with the National Front in France or the Lega in Italy, despite wanting to be part of the same international alliance,” Maestre said. While far-right populists elsewhere have made inroads into constituencies that traditionally voted labor, post-election analyses indicate that, at most, only 15 percent of Vox’s Andalusian support comes from traditional left-leaning voters. In other words, Maestre said, “Spain’s far right is an elite phenomenon, geared toward privileged groups that have always found a home in Spain’s traditional conservative parties.”

Vox’s platform itself is the subject of much debate, as much for its extremism as for its haziness. “I’d venture that the majority of Vox’s voters are unfamiliar with its economic program,” Guillermo Fernández, a researcher of the European far right at the Complutense University of Madrid, told us. “In fact, Abascal’s economic proposals are ultra-neoliberal—a far cry from the social or statist focus we see in a party like Le Pen’s.” The nearly half a million people who voted for Vox in Andalusia also don’t necessarily agree with the party’s positions on gay marriage or abortion. But one issue does seem to rise above the rest. According to a post-election poll, some 42 percent of Vox’s voters chose the party for its hard-line position on immigration. Fernández continued, “What Vox has managed to tap into among Andalusians is not the fear of an increase in poverty or precariousness. It’s the fear of a decrease in Spanishness.” This points to something very different from the standard “immigrants are taking our jobs” line that one hears in the United States. For Vox, mass immigration, especially from Africa, threatens something else: Spanishness itself.

This targeted approach—bringing one issue sharply into focus while the rest fall away—hasn’t come about by happenstance. José Luis Villacañas, a philosopher at Complutense, sees it as a deliberate strategy. “Vox is the result of careful electoral engineering,” he told us. “It’s designed to maximize the turnout of disenchanted right-wing voters who might otherwise stay home.” Part of that strategy has involved copying other far-right leaders. “Abascal has lifted some phrases directly from Trump, Le Pen, or [the Netherlands’ anti-immigrant Geert] Wilders,” Fernández said. “The copy-and-pasting is sometimes surprising. The expression ‘we’re faced with a choice of civilization,’ for example, Abascal cribbed from Marine Le Pen’s 2017 campaign. In the Spanish context it sounds a bit awkward.” Vox’s electoral slogan is “Hacer España grande otra vez” (“To Make Spain Great Again”). That said, “Vox is custom-made for Spain. It doesn’t simply copy the French, American, or Italian far-right,” Villacañas told us, stressing this point: “For one, the Spanish right, even Vox, can’t actually afford to be against the European Union.” Today, only 15 percent of Spaniards hold a negative view of the EU.

The rise of Vox has understandably gained the party and its voters much attention. But the Andalusian election was also peculiar for another reason: It saw the lowest voter turnout in the region in 28 years. “It’s the only thing the polls leading up to the election got right,” Moraga, the journalist, said. Moraga recounted to us her conversations with some friends over dinner in the days following the election. Though her friends had voted in the past for the Socialist Party and, then, for Podemos, that day they decided to stay home, she said. Her friends explained that they were fed up with the Socialists making promise after promise but disappointing when the time came to solve some of Andalusia’s most basic problems. The Socialist Party, they said, had become “self-satisfied,” and the parties of the left, they noted, “were always fighting with each other” instead of being united.

Though the three-party agreement has made possible a right-wing coalition government in Andalusia, it’s less clear whether such a coalition will work elsewhere in Spain. On December 2, Marine Le Pen tweeted to “warmly” congratulate her “friends” of Vox even before the final results were in. Yet when, in the hours following the election, PP and Ciudadanos immediately declared victory and a willingness to reach a deal with Vox, their pro-EU allies elsewhere across the continent—from Angela Merkel’s CDU in Germany to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche in France—bristled at the possibility of bringing a far-right party into the fold. Manuel Valls, the former presidential hopeful in France who is now running for the mayorship of Barcelona (born in Barcelona to a Spanish father, he holds dual citizenship) with the support of Ciudadanos, rejected Vox’s “far-right populism,” going so far as to link the party to fascism. Even in the conservative PP, some moderates are grumbling. Celia Villalobos, former mayor of Málaga and PP minister in the early 2000s, has criticized the new PP leader Casado for bringing far-right extremists into the party. Those extremists, today, are practically indistinguishable from Vox members. In fact, in exchange for Vox’s support in Andalusia, the PP and Ciudadanos committed to a set of measures that include school choice, a de facto annulment of the estate tax, the strict enforcement of immigration laws, and support for bullfighting, hunting, and the fight against “the threat of Muslim fundamentalism.”

Over the past 18 months or so, the push for Catalan independence has shifted public debate in Spain sharply to the right. Spanish nationalism had always been around, but, by and large, it had remained, under the auspices of the PP, mostly dormant and deployed in a calculated way to get votes. But now three parties compete for ownership over Spanish nationalism, placing a premium on its most extreme version. Fernández sees a silver lining for the left. “With the crazy competition in which the PP and Ciudadanos are trying to outflank each other on the right, their more moderate supporters may consider switching to the Socialist Party,” Fernández told us. More importantly, he said, the right-wing response to Spain’s territorial and economic crises is a dead-end street. “Whatever the psychological rewards the right may offer Spaniards who feel wounded in their national pride, it offers no solutions for the vast majority of Spain’s problems—including the only problem the far right seems interested in at this point: the country’s territorial makeup.”

How to draw Spain’s regional boundaries has been a question that many thought the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had resolved. But for Villacañas, the philosopher, it’s the territorial crisis that is now hamstringing Spanish politics. “The urgency to create the Catalan Republic, on one side, and to defend Spain’s unity, on the other, has pointed the country’s entire political map toward confrontation rather than toward consensus of any kind,” he told us. “On both sides, there are parties that seek only further escalation.” The consequences for those caught in the middle of the nationalism debate, such as Podemos, are dire. “Of course, Podemos hasn’t prompted the rise of the far right,” Fernández said. “Still, the party should ask itself why, almost five years after its creation and with 70 seats in the Spanish parliament, it hasn’t been able to offer a viable proposal to mitigate the effects of widespread insecurity around political identity. I attribute it to a lack of ideas, pure and simple.”

That lack of ideas has resulted in a narrowing of the political playing field, leaving the left with little room for maneuver. “The Spanish left needs the progressive voters in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, and Valencia in order to build a majority,” Villacañas explained. “But if those voters shift their interest toward building their own states, Spain will be handed over to the right. The more the Socialists and Podemos depend on those regions, in other words, the more votes they lose in the rest of Spain.” Yet the political stakes could not be higher, Villacañas added. “It’s become increasingly clear that the Catalan problem will not be solved by democratic means. Even the pro-independence movement can see that,” he said. “This plays into the hands of those parties that are not afraid to go the extreme route: the PP, Citizens, and Vox. It may not yet be too late to defuse the escalation, but time is ticking away fast.”

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