BY TOM GALLAGHER
Spaniards head for the polls on 28 April after an election when, for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1977, a strong Christian perspective is being offered by one of the main contenders. Vox is a national conservative party which argues that Spain must re-embrace common sense after decades when winning the approval of a range of radical minorities, has been the priority of nearly all sides in politics.
Dissidents from the Popular Party formed Vox in 2013 disillusioned with the concessions being made to ethnic minorities as well as feminists and the gay rights movement. Its leader Santiago Abascal comes from a small town in the Basque Country where his family have run a clothing business. Vox currently has only 1 member in parliament but polls show that it is on course to obtain at least 10-14 per cent of votes. It is the only contender which is holding large-scale election meetings. It also has a very sophisticated online platform. This has enabled it to reach out to young people who are the age-group that seem most receptive to the Vox message of unabashed patriotism and self-reliance.
When news of the catastrophe at Notre Dame cathedral came through, Abascal was in the city of Valladolid. It is an industrial centre in Castile, a province dominating the Spanish tableland which used to be the beating heart of Spanish conservatism. But since at least the dictatorial era of General Franco it has been neglected by Madrid and has suffered depopulation and decline.
Abascal spoke to a packed venue with over a thousand outside unable to gain entry. Beforehand he had tweeted about the news from Paris: ‘Saddened by the loss of such an exceptional symbol for France, for all of Europe and for Catholics around the world, in a historical moment in which it is most important to look to the Christian roots of the continent.’
This burly, mustachioed figure, most often seen in denims and an open-necked shirt, defended the unity of Spain, the need for the revitalisation of ‘overlooked’ regions, and the curtailment of state funds for politically fashionable causes.
Critics on the left accuse his party of being xenophobic and extremist. It has retired generals prominent among its candidates which, in some eyes, is a throwback to the Franco era. But in Barcelona, a young mixed race businessman is at the top of its electoral list and a gay academic specialising in Spanish language is standing for the Senate, someone who argues against turning homosexuality into a lucrative ideology for a small minority of activists.
Vox has an important advantage over other right-wing challengers of the European status quo. The wellsprings of tradition remain strong in Spain for all its exuberance and non-conformity. This will be seen during Holy Week where the week-long ceremonies marking Christ’s passion, death and resurrection have still to lose their profoundly religious character. The family remains a much stronger institution than in Northern Europe. So-called progressive elites have not succeeded in altering national values or re-defining common sense. Many Spaniards are still untouched by relativism and remain attached to values which emphasise solidity and prudence over experimentation and rejection of all that is old and familiar.
The Spanish terrain gives Vox the self-confidence to proclaim that ‘we fear nothing and nobody’. It has shrugged off attempts by the radical left and separatists to prevent it holding meetings in the Basque Country and Catalonia. It has also rebutted the claim coming from the moderate Popular Party (PP) which has most to fear from its rise, that backing Vox is tantamount to throwing away the vote.
It is true that Spain’s form of proportional representation gives an advantage to the largest party and penalises camps where there is a split in the vote. PP’s young new leader Pablo Casado pleads for his support group not to be tempted by Vox and points to the fact that the beneficiary could well be the most radical left-wing Prime Minister seen in Spain for over forty years.
Pedro Sanchez is the unconventional son of a diplomat who has brushed off charges of plagiarism and bounced back from being suspended by his party. He has no coherent economic programme beyond, it seems, rewarding the clients who have usually benefited from left-wing rule. His vote-winning ‘big idea’ is to disinter Franco’s remains from the national mausoleum, known as the Valley of the Fallen, situated not far from the Escorial on the outskirts of Madrid.
The decision of the Spanish left to base its appeal on a strategy of politicising historical memory is seen as high-risk, including by not a few on the left. They see Sanchez as a demagogue, ready to gamble with the unity of Spain itself if it will keep him in power.
To have any chance of ruling, the centre right will have to include Vox in any governing arrangement. Polls suggest that if the anti-separatist Ciudadanos party is included the centre right will have a governing majority. Meanwhile, the Socialists can only expect to govern if they establish a pact with the far-left Podemos party or Catalan separatists.
After forty years of the left and right alternating in office, Spanish politics have suddenly grown fragmented. But to view it as the return of the extremism that scarred Spain in the first half of the last century, is perhaps premature.
Instead, a critical mass of Spaniards appear to have grown weary of sterile two-party politics and its limited returns for those outside the charmed circle of insiders. Cronyism has prevailed, leading to corruption, stagnation, and standstill economics. The young especially appear ready to look at new political offers in the hope that an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent for their age group can at last be lowered.
If there is a major reset in Spanish politics, it looks as if the Vox party will become a new and perhaps permanent feature of the landscape. Branding it as neo-fascist or even far-right is probably ill-judged. Not since the early 1980s has the far-Right counted for anything in Spain. Instead, several million Spaniards have concluded that democracy is the poorer for lacking a robust conservative voice in politics. It looks as if that omission will be rectified from the 28th of April.
Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. His biography of the Portuguese autocrat, Oliveira Salazar, will be published by Hurst and Co in 2020.