MADRID — During the height of the crisis in Catalonia over that region’s renewed push for the issue of independence from Spain in Sept. 2017, television news programs here showed groups of police officers heading for Barcelona, and citizens cheering them on, waving the Spanish flag and shouting “Go get them!”
“Go get them!” was chanted again on Sunday night in Madrid, this time by those celebrating the transformation of the far-right Vox party into the third-largest political force in Spain. The chants were a reminder of the issue that propelled the party’s rise and strong performance in Sunday’s parliamentary elections: the inability of successive right and center-left leaders to assemble a coalition and form a government in Madrid, in part because of disagreements over Catalonia.
If the conflict in Catalonia was the straw that broke the camel’s back for voters, the crisis within the Popular Party — the conservative conglomerate that ruled for 12 of the past 20 years — was what allowed Vox to find traction.
The fact that Spain had bucked the ultraright movement that has swept across part of Europe had been a source of national pride. Spaniards boasted of superior reasoning and lessons well learned from Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, which ended in the mid 70s. But, with the rise of Vox, it now seems that extremism in Spain was merely delayed.
The Vox leader, Santiago Abascal, 43, who had been a member of Popular Party for more than 10 years, registered his organization on Dec. 17, 2013, but few paid him any attention until the Popular Party became mired in a corruption scandal in 2018.
Vox — nationalism at its purest — has clamored for the strongest possible repression of those seeking independence, and, more generally, for an end to federalism and a return to Castilian centralism. The Francoists and their ideologies survived, but were subsumed in the Popular Party and relegated to the margins. With the rise of Vox, though, it now seems that extremism in Spain was merely delayed.
When Vox appeared as an alternative, cringe-worthy moments followed, such as a propaganda video in which Mr. Abascal leads a group of men on horseback to launch a “Reconquista” to recover Spain from the hands of the infidels. Invoking God and the fatherland, the group has attacked immigrants who they claim come to take our jobs and crowd our hospitals and assault our women, and they’ve proposed slashing gender-equity policies. Mr. Abascal boasts of never going out unarmed.
These unabashed declarations are the party’s strongest weapon. Until recently, leftists were the ones breaking taboos. Now that many on the left are invoking peace and tolerance, some on the right have happily appropriated the iconoclastic role, proclaiming that they talk about what others don’t have the courage to say, nor have the will for “change.”
Unlike France or Germany, where the constitutionalists rejected any dealings with neofascists, in Spain the other two conservative parties — the Popular Party and Ciudadanos — allied with them to form regional governments, thus legitimizing them. In doing so, they’ve broken a basic tenet of Spanish democracy. For many years the majority of Spaniards condemned Francoism. Vox has undone that consensus, which many had accepted out of convenience, and set about revising what it means to be Spanish.
Borrowing from that old far-right playbook, Vox has claimed a monopoly on nationhood, arrogantly proclaiming what the nation is and who its true citizens are and are not. At their flag-waving rallies, the House of Bourbon once again becomes a place of exclusion, reserved for those who meet certain conditions of blood, birth, race or ideology.
This Sunday, Vox won 3.6 million votes, an increase of a million since April. A year ago, they held no parliamentary seats; by April they had 24, and now 52. They are the winners in these elections that so many considered a further example of the futility and selfishness of their politicians. It was a perfect opportunity for a group that had been alienated by traditional politics to gain ground. If they get their way, Spain will once again become a place to which only those who embrace the party’s Christian, familial, Castilian “traditions” belong.
Spanish progressives are raising their voices, frightened because the neofascists are xenophobic, homophobic, sexist, hunters, bullfighters. Some also speak up against Vox’s violent nationalist rhetoric. Yet almost no one talks about its policy proposals, including a plan to drastically reduce taxes for the richest and for large corporations.
The current debate centers on engaging in legitimate cultural and social issues, and forgetting that class divisions exist and that political groups such as Vox are following in the footsteps of Donald Trump, engaging the help of their very victims to increase their own exploitation and inequality. They understand the art of fear and resentment, and take advantage of the hopes of the poor while leaving the true perpetrators of their misfortunes off the hook. That’s how Mr. Abascal was able to win 20 percent of votes in Madrid’s working class, left-leaning red belt.
Vox is a new phenomenon, and nobody can predict how far it will go. On Sunday its precursor in the fight for the right, Ciudadanos, saw its number of parliamentary seats decrease to 10 from 57, and its founder and leader, Albert Rivera, resigned. Many of their voters are assumed to have shifted to Vox. Voting for Vox seems to be the institutional equivalent to the unrest on Latin American streets these days: protests without much clarity about political and social regimes that leave a wake of dissatisfaction; people who go out or vote in exasperation without knowing what they want, so long as it’s not the status quo.
Vox will surely continue to grow as Spanish politicians remain intent on fighting each other rather than working for the citizens. The discrediting of politics, as justified as it may be at times, provides excellent conditions for the rise of these leaders, from Mr. Trump to Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, from Matteo Salvini of Italy to Viktor Orban of Hungary to Marine Le Pen of France, who work on behalf of the rich and still manage to call themselves populists. Only a serious, profound recasting of the mechanisms of democracy and the recovery of social justice can stop them. Until then, they will continue to grow and frighten, threaten and multiply.