Is Spain Backsliding to Its Dictatorial Past?

BY Vadzim Malatok

Spain, the country that has been regarded by many to have an immunity against the omnipresent rise of populism, finds itself making the headlines amid the insurgence of the right-wing populist Vox party in the November general elections. An unexpected outcome has led to much debate on the future of Spain amid fears that the country will eventually backslide to its dictatorial past of the Franco era. 

The snap elections called by the Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez were held on November 10, 2019, in an attempt to break the political deadlock that arouse due to the Sánchez’s refusal to form a left alliance. What was seen as an opportunity to consolidate power, in fact resulted in an unfavorable outcome for the leftist parties that lost a substantial number of seats to the conservative Popular Party (PP), which gained over 20 seats, and the far-right Vox, which won 52 seats – doubling its seats since it first entered the Parliament in April.

“Today a patriotic alternative and a social alternative has been consolidated in Spain that demands national unity and the restoration of constitutional order in Catalonia,” said Santiago Abascal, a 43-year old leader of Vox, in his celebratory speech on Sunday night.

These results, however unexpected, shouldn’t come as a complete surprise given that most of the issues that Spaniards worry about such as corruption, unemployment, and Catalan and Basque separatism, remain unresolved.

Formed in 2014 by the former members of the PP, who were dissatisfied with the leadership of Mariano Rajoy and the party’s policies that landed it too far to the center, leaders of the new party pledged to defend Spanish national unity, restore central power, respect Spain’s cultural diversity, and bring immigration under control.

Despite the fact that Abascal himself does not place Vox to the right of the political spectrum but rather insists it is a party of “extreme necessity,” most experts seem to agree on striking similarities with other right-wing populist parties, especially on issues such as immigration.

What sets Vox apart, however, is the fact that it does not necessarily seek support of the working or “economically marginalized” classes but appeals to the middle-aged, middle-class males who has voted previously for the PP or Ciudadanos, according to Spain’s National Research Centre (CIS). In addition, the party’s uniqueness stems from the fact that it does not seek Spain’s break from the European Union (EU) but advocates for curbing illegal immigration and strengthening border security.

At home, Vox is seen as an alternative that the voters hadn’t had since 1975 when a predominant two-party system was established. Campaigning for tougher controls on immigration, a roll-back to the Gender Violence Laws, and economic liberalism, places the party between the PP and Ciudadanos, and thus helps attract supporters from both sides and foster sense of belonging. In fact, the losses suffered by Ciudadanos, which saw its numbers decrease from 57 to 10 in the Parliament, are believed to have gone to Vox.

“Unity is one of the things that needs to be very strongly defended in Spain. And the other is freedom — we defend the free market, we defend the freedom of Spaniards, we defend certain traditions. We defend things that nobody has been defending for the past 50 years,” told Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, Director of International Affairs at Vox, to CNBC back in April.

However, with its vows to “Make Spain Great Again,” the party’s promise to revoke a Historical Memory Law of 2007, which condemns Franco’s regime, and opposition of the government’s decision to exhume and transfer the body of the late dictator, many question the party’s stance on the Spain’s fascistic past. 

Abascal claims that he is not a supporter of the late dictator despite the fact that his party is advocating for the upholding of tradition – the policy that was championed by Franco. In his response to opposing the exhumation of Franco’s body, Abascal said that “Spain should look to the future not the past.”

It is evident that an absolute absence of right-wing nationalist and populist parties since 1975 has resulted in the accumulation of issues that are emerging all at once and Vox is seizing its opportunity to emerge as a powerful force by addressing these concerns in a pragmatic manner. And if the incumbent Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist Workers’ Party fail to form a majority alliance and leave the divided nation in limbo during the lengthy Catalan crisis, Vox will continue to capitalize on these shortcomings. However, no one is sure how far will Vox go.

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