Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Vox: Europe’s latest far-right threat

With a snap election called for April following the collapse of Pedro Sanchez’s minority government, Callum Tipple explores the origins of the far-right party on the rise

Spain’s emerging far-right party is something of an enigma. Its name alludes to an old adage about the supremacy of the people’s voice, but does so in a language few people actually understand. What is more, it has succeeded in mainstreaming a discourse that was rightly ostracised from political debate for 40 years, in a country whose social fabric is still marred by the legacy of General Franco.

But who are Vox, and how have they succeeding in upheaving a political order that had proved so stubbornly resistant to populist influence? Vox was formed in 2013 by a group of ultra-conservative figures including the philosopher José Luis González Quirós, and former members of the centre-right People’s Party (PP), Santiago Abascal and José Antonio Ortega Lara. Extreme political movements often require establishment support and messaging to ‘sugar the pill’ for voters wary of hardline narratives. Vox was no different; Abascal had been a member of the national governing body of the PP, while prior to his political career Ortega Lara had been kidnapped and held hostage for 532 days by the Basque separatist group ETA.

Though the party’s self-proclaimed raison d’être is similar to those of right-wing movements across Europe (i.e. the need to house those ‘orphaned’ from politics on the centre-right), their priorities diverge in interesting regards. For example, the headline policies on its membership card fail to reference migration, except through the proxy of attacks on particular imams and mosques. This may be all the more surprising in a southern European state whose foreign-born population increased more than ninefold in number between 1999 and 2009.

Instead, its founders astutely adapted the nationalist/populist playbook to Spain’s internal politics by focusing on regional separatism and moral, often specifically Catholic, concerns. On launch, the party directed its efforts around four pillars: opposition to abortion, defence of traditional family values, in favour of Spanish unity, and opposition to ETA. In recent months, this has transmuted into requests for the criminalisation of anti-fascist groups, the imprisonment of the current president of Cataluña, and opposition to a new law targeting gender-based violence.

As distasteful as many of these policies are, they have afforded Vox a powerful voice in opposition to the first progressive government of Spain in recent years. This voice has been amplified by the political context; corruption has rocked the PP and led to the downfall of its former prime minister, the right-wing vote splintered after the formation of the new Citizens’ party, and the progressive government of the Spanish socialists (PSOE) is under continued pressure from the radical left movement Podemos. Accusations of improper financing regarding Vox appear not to have had such a deleterious effect.

The party has not yet had enjoyed tremendous success at the ballot box, but April’s snap election called as a result of the collapse of Pedro Sánchez’s minority government will provide their best opportunity yet. Despite proposing candidates in a host of regional and national elections, Vox only secured their first seats in the Andalusian Assembly in December 2018 with just under 11 per cent of the vote. Nonetheless, this did mark a dramatic upturn in results, with their increased status further confirmed by an offer to serve in the governing coalition, an offer which itself pays testament to the pressure they are exerting on traditional right-wing movements.

Where they pose the most serious threat, however, is in their vocal manifestation of a conception of what the Spanish identity both is and should be, at a time when that identity is under the most extreme of strains. 64.1 per cent of Spaniards believe the far-right to be in advance, whilst Catalan separatism dominates the headlines in the Madrid-based press.

The challenge now for Sánchez in April’s election is to articulate a clear, progressive vision for Spain that counters the adept populism of Vox, and one that offers genuinely ambitious answers in areas from which progressives often shy away. Such a vision may be the key to maintaining Spain’s proud liberal tradition in the years to come.

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Callum Tipple is a writer at Progress. He tweets @Callum_Tipple

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