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Nearly five decades after Franco’s death, the far right might make a comeback in Madrid

Categories: Spain, Politics, The Bridge

Santiago Abascal, President of Vox, in 2019. Flickr [1] (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By May 4, the far-right party Vox [2] might have a seat at the table to govern the region of the capital of Spain. Vox, whose rhetoric is chauvinistic, Eurosceptic and xenophobic, has been gaining ground in Spain since 2018. Now, nearly five decades after Franco’s death, the far right could return to power in Spain.

Vox has become an unavoidable political force in Spain. Today, the party represents 15 per cent of the Parliament. Several regional governments depend on its support. They could join the conservatives in a coalition government in the region of Madrid, which would be hugely symbolic.

Since 2019, the region of Madrid has been governed by the conservative Partido Popular [3] (PP) and the undefinable Ciudadanos [4] (originally social-democrat, later turned centre-right, always unionist). Yet, Ciudadanos has been dissolving slowly like a sugar cube since late 2019 and Madrid’s regional premier Isabel Díaz-Ayuso (PP) called a snap election [5] for May 4 and expelled Ciudadanos from her cabinet. She is confident her party, the PP, will swallow Ciudadanos’ votes. However, Vox is likely to retain its vote share, and the PP will eventually need Vox's support to form a government. Vox may then likely be part of the new coalition governing Madrid.

Vox's first success was the regional elections in Andalusia in December 2018, where they obtained 11 per cent of the votes. One year later, in Spain’s general elections of November 2019, Vox rocketed to third place with 3.6 million votes and 52 deputies in parliament.

Vox, a reaction to Catalonia's independence movement?

Virtually inexistent two years earlier, extreme right populism was suddenly surfing the wave of widespread frustration with the political situation in Catalonia, where the separatist sentiment grew notably in the 2010s. In an unofficial plebiscite in October 2017, two million Catalans expressed their desire to create an independent state; the leaders of the secessionist campaign are either in prison for sedition or have fled the country.

Many Spaniards outside Catalonia thought that the Spanish central government had been ineffective and/or excessively lenient with the Catalan authorities, particularly before the plebiscite. The criticism was directed towards the two main parties and their leaders, Mariano Rajoy (PP) and Pedro Sánchez (PSOE), prime ministers before and after June 2018. Vox emerged out of frustration with the way these parties handled it and some people found refuge in Vox’s chauvinism.

While Catalonia sometimes appears connected to Spain by a cat’s whisker, recentralisation appears to be gaining momentum elsewhere in the country. According to the official Centre for Sociological Research [6], in December 2018, three in ten Spaniards wanted an entirely centralized system or one where regions had less power than they have now. Vox is capitalising on that position muscularly. In Catalonia, too, some anti-independence voters have sided with Vox, as well. In the Catalan elections [7] of February 2021, Vox obtained 7.7 per cent of the vote and became the fourth largest party in the Catalan parliament.

An ideology of nostalgia, nativism and xenophobia

While the situation in Catalonia might be the trigger for Vox's appearance, the party's platform is much wider. The party is a melting pot that combines nostalgia for Spain’s imaginary past glory, rejection of feminism and so-called “woke” culture, Euroscepticism, a negative attitude towards migration, and love for bullfighting. Vox’s socio-economic policy is purposefully vague, with a heavy dose of nativism (“Spaniards first”) and neoliberal support for small government.

To this day, influential voices on the right-hand side of Spanish politics speak about the roughly eight centuries (711-1492) of coexistence of Moorish and Christian kingdoms as a “reconquest” of the former’s lands by the latter. During the campaigns of 2019, Vox and PP competed in the use of that word “Reconquista” in their campaign events [8] in Asturias, in the north, and Andalusia, in the south, the two territories where the reconquest supposedly began and ended, respectively.

Vox refrains from endorsing Francoism [9] explicitly, but party leaders refer to Franco as “the General,” never “the Dictator,” and they oppose all attempts of memorialization, because, they say, historical memory goes against the spirit of reconciliation after Franco. With Hitler and Mussolini's support, Franco staged a coup against a democratic government in 1936, and led an authoritarian regime until 1975. Half a million people died in the Civil War [10] between 1936 and 1939; 200,000 of them were executed in the rearguard.

While Vox spokespersons insist that Spaniards should not talk about the Civil War and Francoism anymore, they rant against leftist politicians of the 1930s. They enjoy slandering the “13 Roses [11],” a group of young communist and socialist women executed by firing squad in Madrid soon after the Civil War ended in 1939. In October 2020, Vox leader Santiago Abascal expressed [12] in the Spanish parliament that the left-leaning coalition of PSOE and United Podemos was the worst government Spain had had in 80 years, which meant that in his mind this democratically elected government was worse than Franco’s dictatorship.

Up until relatively recently, alongside Portugal, Spain remained one of the few places in Europe where the far right had not managed to find its place in electoral politics. After Portugal’s presidential election [13] last January, there is no Iberian exception anymore.

The far right is the new old piece on Spain’s political chessboard. And it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. Vox could be part of the government of the Region of Madrid in a matter of weeks. Even if it does not join the executive, Madrid’s political future is likely to depend on them.

Koldo Casla is a lecturer at the School of Law and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, UK. He is currently writing a book on Spanish politics.