February 22, 2024

Far Right May Emerge as King in Spanish Election

If Spain’s national elections on Sunday go as most pollsters and analysts suggest, mainstream conservatives may come out on top but need allies on the political fringes to rule, bringing the first hard-right party to power since Franco’s dictatorship.

The possible rise of that hard-right party, Vox, with its ultra-nationalist spirit haunted by the ghost of Franco, would bring Spain into the growing ranks of European nations where mainstream conservative parties partner with previously taboo forces out of electoral necessity. It is an important sign for a politically changing continent, and a pregnant moment for a country that has long grappled with the legacy of its dictatorship.

Even before Spaniards cast a single ballot, it raised questions about where the country’s political heart really lies – whether the past and the transition to democracy just four decades ago made Spain a moderate, inclusive and largely central country, or whether it could turn to extremes again.

Spain’s establishment, centrist parties – the conservative Popular Party and the Socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – have dominated the country’s politics for a long time, and most voters appear to be turning away from the extremes towards the center, according to experts.

But neither of Spain’s mainstream parties has enough support to govern on their own. The Popular Party, although tipped to come out on top on Sunday, is not expected to win a majority in Parliament with 350 seats, leaving a coalition in dire need. The right-hand Vox is probably its partner.

The paradox is that even as Vox seems poised to reach the height of its power since its founding a decade ago, its support may be waning, as its stances against abortion rights, climate change policies and LGBTQ rights scare many voters away.

The notion that the country is becoming more extremist is a “mirage,” said Sergio del Molino, a Spanish author and commentator who has written extensively about Spain and its transformations.

The election, he said, showed the political fragmentation of the larger establishment parties, which was fueled by the radical events of the 2008 financial crisis and the early exit in Catalonia in 2017. Alliances have now been formed, even sometimes with parties on the political fringes, a necessity.

He pointed to a “gap” between the country’s political leadership, which needed to seek electoral support in the extremes to govern, and “a Spanish society that wants to return to the center again.”

José Ignacio Torreblanca, Spanish expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the messy process of coalition building in Spain’s relatively new era of the former two-party system gave fringe parties more leverage and visibility than their actual support.

“This is not a blue and red country at all,” he said.

Others were less certain. Paula Suárez, 29, a doctor and left-wing candidate for local office in Barcelona with the Sumar coalition, said the polarization in the country was entrenched. “It has to do with the civil war — it’s a legacy. Half of Spain is left wing and half right wing,” she said, calling Vox Franco a descendant.

But those who see Spain as largely central use the same historical reference point for their argument. The Spanish electorate’s traditional rejection of extremes, some experts said, was rooted precisely in its memory of the deadly polarization of the Franco era.

Later, through the shared trauma of decades of murders by Basque terrorists trying to break away from Spain, the two major establishment parties, the Popular Party and the Socialists, created a political center and provided a home for most voters.

But recent events have tested the strength of Spain’s immunity against appeals from the political extremes. Even in its central position, there is no doubt that Spanish politics today is, if not polarized, drawn to the margins.

A corruption scandal in the Popular Party prompted Vox to quit in 2013. Then the near-exit of Catalonia in 2017 provided jet fuel for nationalists at a time when public anger against globalisation, the European Union and gender-based identity politics was taking off across Europe.

On the other side of the spectrum, the financial crisis prompted the creation of a hard left in 2015, forcing Mr. Sánchez to later form a government with that group and crossing a red line for himself and the country.

Perhaps as a result of this election, it also depended on the votes of Basque groups filled with ex-terrorists, which gave a green light to conservative voters to be more permissive of Vox, Mr. Torreblanca said. “This is what has made Spanish politics very toxic,” he said.

After local elections in May, which dealt a blow to Mr Sánchez and prompted him to call early elections in which Spaniards will vote on Sunday, the conservatives and Vox have already formed coalitions across the country.

In some cases, liberals’ worst fears are being borne out. Outside Madrid, Vox culture officials banned performances with gay or feminist themes. In other towns, they have closed bike lanes and taken down Pride flags.

Ester Calderón, a representative of a national feminist organization in Valencia, where a feminist march took place on Thursday, said she feared that the country’s Ministry of Equality, which is loathed by Vox, would be abolished if the party shared power in a new government.

She attributed the rise in Vox to the progress that feminists had made in recent years, saying it had fueled a reactionary animosity. “It’s as if they came out of the closet,” she said.

At a rally for Yolanda Díaz, the candidate for Sumar, the left-wing umbrella group, an all-female group spoke about maternity leave, defending abortion rights and protecting women from abuse. The crowd, many cooling themselves with fans showing Ms. Díaz in dark sunglasses, pressed the various calls to action to stop Vox.

“Only if we are strong,” said Mr. Díaz. “Shall we send Vox to the opposition.”

But members of the conservative Popular Party, which hopes to win a clear majority and govern without Vox, have tried to assure moderate voters spooked by the prospect of an alliance with the hard right that they will not allow Vox to pull them back.

Xavier Albiol, mayor of the Popular Party in Badalona, ​​outside Barcelona, ​​said he would not “100 percent” back down on gay rights, women’s rights, climate policies or Spain’s close relationship with Europe if his party had to bring in Vox, which he called 30 years behind the times.

Vox, he said, was only interested in “spectacles” to feed their base, and would only change the “name” of things, such as gender-based violence to domestic violence, without any change in substance.

Some experts agreed that if Vox were to enter government, it would do so in a weak position as its support appears to be falling.

“The paradox is now,” said Mr. Torreblanca, the political analyst, that just as Mr. Sánchez entered government with the far left when it was losing steam, the Popular Party seemed to be able to rule with Vox and its support was sinking. “The fact is that Spain is turning to the right. When this is the moment Vox is at its weakest.”

Recent polls showed that voters would turn away from Vox, and even some of its supporters did not think the party should touch the civil rights protections introduced by Spain’s liberals, and supported by its conservatives.

Gay marriage should remain “legal of course,” said Alex Ruf, 23, a Vox supporter who sat with his girlfriend on a bench in Barcelona’s affluent Sarriá district.

Mr. Albiol, the mayor of Badalona, ​​argued that Spain was inoculated, and said that unlike other European countries, it would continue to be.

“Due to a historical tradition of dictatorship for 40 years,” he said, Spain “is a society where the majority of the population is not located at the extremes.”

That was a great consolation for Juana Guerrero, 65, who attended the left-wing Sumar event.

If Vox comes to power, they will “tread us under their shoes,” she said, grinding an imaginary cigarette butt under her foot.

Rachel Chaundler reporting helped.

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