For years, southern Spain has been one of the main entry points for migrants travelling to Europe from Africa or the Middle East. Yet throughout the so-called refugee crisis of 2015 – an issue that saw populist parties across the EU gain huge support – Spain proved to be one of Europe’s few exceptions.
Throughout a flurry of elections – the European elections in 2014 and general elections in 2015 and 2016 – voters were instead tempted away from mainstream parties by left-wing political upstart Podemos. Unlike the far-right in the rest of Europe, Spain’s was pretty much non-existent. Even just six months ago, the anti-immigrant, anti-feminist Vox party did not have a single councillor anywhere in the country.
One of the few other countries to rebuff the advance of European populism was Portugal. So analysts put this down to the Iberian Peninsula’s recent experience of dictatorship. Franco only died 44 years ago, some suggested, so perhaps history had instilled Spaniards with a deep scepticism towards the right.
The idea that Franco’s memory had immunised Spain from a wider European trend stood up until December’s local election in Andalusia. When Vox won 11 per cent of the vote in the southern region, giving it 12 parliamentary seats, the theory shattered. Now polls are predicting that the party could replicate that success in this weekend’s general election; Vox are predicted to win 11 per cent in Sunday’s vote.
If that happens, Spain’s Vox will join the ranks of other right-wing European populist parties redefining politics in their home countries. But why the delay? What makes Spain so different to other European countries?
While Europe’s immigration debate was not able to stir Spanish nationalism, it seemed the Catalonia issue could. “Catalonia is key to understanding the rise of Vox,” says Dr Manuel Arias-Maldonado, political scientist at the University of Malaga. “Vox has grown because of Catalonia. Vox was founded in 2013, before the Catalonia issue, but it was nothing. Only afterwards, did it start attracting voters.”
On Catalonia, the party found its voice in Spanish politics. Its 42-year-old leader Santiago Abascal stands firmly in opposition to Catalan separatists, chastising Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez’s negotiation tactics. “Catalan is not a nation! It is something much more important; it is a part of Spain!” he told a small but jubilant crowd in March.
As it found success with this issue, Vox began honing its own brand of nostalgic, Spanish nationalism. The party parroted Donald Trump in the slogans “Spain First” and “Make Spain Great Again”, vows to protect bull-fighting and released a campaign video of Abascal horseback riding through the Spanish landscape with his posse, declaring a new Reconquista of Spain.
Much like Ukip with Brexit, Vox has used Spanish sovereignty as its entry point into national politics but is using its influence to drag other issues - more typical of right-wing politics – into the mainstream.
Like many of Europe’s populists, immigration has been one of its targets. The party proposed building a wall to stop migrants entering the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco – even though these areas are already ringed with giant wire fences.
Vox has also positioned itself firmly in opposition to the women’s rights movement which has strengthened in Spain after a grim rape trial forced the country to debate what is and isn’t consent. While the major parties have made efforts to absorb feminism into their campaigns, Vox has gone firmly in the opposite direction, vocalising much of the misogynistic comment found online – calling feminists “feminazis”, their ideas “ideological burqas” and framing any progress for women as a threat to men’s own liberty.
As with its European equivalents, Vox doesn’t have to govern Spain to dramatically change its politics. Already Abascal’s rise might have splintered the right-wing vote, with a chorus of parties now criticising the government’s approach to Catalonia. That means Sunday could see another win for the incumbent Socialists, according to polls.
With even a small proportion of the vote, Vox could exert its influence. While populist parties target voters, it is often their political peers that end up changing their policies to hold back much-feared populist takeovers. If a new era of Spanish politics begins, will Spain continue to be an exception?