On December 12th, the southern autonomous region of Spain, Andalucia, held elections for parliament. Unsurprisingly, the established parties — Partido Popular, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Ciudadanos, and Podemos — were all contenders. But this year, something was different — a new party, just five years old, was in the running. That night, people watched, in horror or in delight, as Vox won 12 seats in Parliament — and with that, a foothold in the Spanish government for the far-right movement.
Vox, a textbook far-right party, mimics other populist, nationalist movements that are sweeping across Europe. However, because of Spain’s unique history of 40 years of the fascist Franco dictatorship, Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, knew he had to be shrewd in how he presented Vox’s message and brand. And so, in a brilliant political maneuver, he convinced supporters that Vox is not far-right. This propaganda strategy allows for greater support among younger generations and the middle class, who otherwise might not vote for a far-right party.
Vox was formed five years ago by disgruntled Partido Popular members (a right-wing party). Its first introduction to the national spotlight was in December when it won 11% of the vote, for a total of 12 seats in Parliament. In doing so, it became the first far-right party to win seats since Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1980s following the Franco dictatorship. Vox’s policies can be summed up in three words: family, God, and country. Vox aims to return to a more traditional past, evident in its proposals to repeal laws protecting women and gender equality, closing down “extremist mosques,” clamping down on immigration, protecting bullfighting and Holy Week celebrations, and centralizing power in the national government. It is based on nationalism, populism, and dogmatic ideology clearly reminiscent of the Franco era. Since forming a coalition with the other two right-wing parties, it has had to drop some of its platform. Nevertheless, the far-right sentiment runs strong in its growing supporters.
Yet, running on a platform like this is difficult in Spain because of its unique history. Right-winged parties are quickly branded as fascist, drawing on rhetoric from the Franco era. This is why Abascal knew he had to sell Vox as a special, but not radical, right-winged party. He does this by arguing that Vox is not right-wing at all.
Abascal has maintained that Vox is not of the extreme right, but of “extreme need.” He points to the Catalonian independence movement, today’s “supremacist feminism and gender totalitarianism,” and Muslim immigration as reasons for Vox’s necessity. While it is true that Vox strays from other far-right movements in that it wants Spain to stay in the European Union and maintains liberal economic policies, this does not mean that it is not far-right. It is based on the slogan “make Spain great again,” a manifestation of the visceral frustration and fear that people feel due to immigration or economic hardship.
At first glance, it may seem surprising that this strategy is working. And yet, it is — supporters deny that they are far-right, saying things such as “people call me fascist, xenophobic and other things…but those who really know me know that I am not like that. I am lesbian and not Catholic. For me, Vox is not far-right.” Most latch onto the idea of immigration to justify their views: One man said, “They come from abroad and have more rights than we do…That is not being racist, that is pure reality.” Vox supporters are heterogenous, but mostly fall into three categories: economically troubled, in places with significant immigration, or upper-middle class. Vox uses the veneer of economic incentives to attract people who otherwise may not be interested in traditionalist values. Moreover, it has taken advantage of the backlash to the Catalonian independence movement to attract young, metropolitan voters. Thus, while the voters may be varied, they all have one thing in common: They claim they are not far-right.
Vox’s strategy of denying its far-right label makes sense, beyond the fact that people generally don’t like admitting to themselves or others that they are racist, sexist, nationalist, etc. This sentiment is common, but what is not common is denying your party’s political leaning altogether. However, because right-winged parties in Spain are readily accused of supporting Franco and fascism, Vox’s political maneuver allows it to practice Franco-like ideology while distancing itself from the name. And this works: Vox is continuing to spread as more and more people are convinced that they have found a party that understands their grievances and has solutions that seem just familiar enough.
The coming months will reveal more of Vox’s impact on Spanish politics and society, as well as how Spain will readjust its ideological labels to encompass this new party. Already, the traditional right-wing parties have moved farther to the right to embrace Vox. This is coupled with growing anti-immigrant and anti-feminist sentiment. At the same time, there is significant pushback from more liberal and moderate sectors — 75% of Spaniards view Vox as an extreme-right party. The battle-lines are being drawn, but not on policy or even concrete ideological demarcations — instead, people are forming factions based on visceral identity politics. As such, people aren’t electing parties; they are electing their visions of what it means to be Spanish. Vox is one very traditional, extreme vision of the Spanish identity, reminicist of the Franco era. Now, we will have to wait until the national elections in May to see whether the majority of Spaniards identify with this vision.
Photo: “Spanish Flag“