How Vox Evokes Spain's Past to Shake Politics Today

(Bloomberg) -- A right-wing political movement known as Vox shook Spanish politics with an unexpectedly strong showing in regional elections in Andalusia, Spain’s largest region and a Socialist stronghold for the past 36 years. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen took to Twitter to toast Vox’s success, and its leadership is in touch with Donald Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon. In the short term, Vox could play a role in forming a right-wing coalition government in Andalusia. Longer-term, it adds an extra layer of complexity to the political calculations as Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez weighs the risk of calling snap elections next year.

1. Has populism come to Spain?

Actually, Spain has had left-wing populists for a while, including Podemos, the anti-establishment, anti-austerity party that grew out of street demonstrations against politicians and banks and exploded onto Spain’s political scene in 2014. But like more recent populist movements in Poland, Hungary and Italy, Vox is nationalist and anti-immigration. Founded in 2014 by former members of the conservative Popular Party, it could best be described as populism with a Castilian twist: It defends bullfighting, wants the Spanish flag flown on all public buildings and advocates the use of traditional Castilian Spanish over other languages spoken in the country, including Catalan and Basque.

2. How would Vox try to change Spain?

Its severe anti-immigration policies include proposals to deport undocumented immigrants and ban them for life; put limits on the construction of mosques in Spain; ban teaching of Islam in Spanish state schools; and erect walls in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Africa. As part of its opposition to separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque country, Vox proposes changing the constitution to reduce the power of regional governments. It would cut income and corporate taxes. Harking back to the conservative Catholic values espoused by the late dictator Francisco Franco, the party would forbid public hospitals from carrying out abortions or sex changes. Vox doesn’t advocate Spain leaving the European Union but calls for changes in EU governance.

3. What explains Vox’s surge?

Its anti-immigration message resonates in Andalusia, Spain’s southernmost region, which has borne the brunt of illegal arrivals on boats from Africa across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. This year has seen a surge in migration to Europe via Spain due to a border clampdown by Italy’s new government. Vox’s opposition to Catalan separatists’ push for independence last year in the region that includes Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city, has also gone down well in Andalusia. So many Andalusians -- an estimated 1 million -- moved to Catalonia in the 1960s in search of economic opportunity that Catalonia is popularly known as Andalusia’s “ninth province.”

4. What does this mean for Spain’s politics?

Vox’s emergence will make politics noisier and sharpen rivalries as the traditional parties adjust to the new challenge from the right. The conservative People’s Party, which fared badly in Andalusia’s voting, now faces a rare challenge on its right flank, as Vox reaches out to its voters with an appeal to traditional Spanish values. For Socialists, Vox creates an opportunity to rally voters who oppose the far right. To that end, Sanchez’s first response to the events in Andalusia was a tweet saying he would continue to defend Spanish democracy against the politics of “fear.”

5. Who leads Vox?

Its president is Santiago Abascal, a politician from the Basque country who served in its regional parliament for the People’s Party from 2004 to 2009 before quitting the party in 2013. A motorcyclist, bird watcher and horseman, he was shown in Vox political ads on Facebook riding through the Andalusian countryside to the theme of "Lord of the Rings" as he began his “reconquest” of the region. Another founding member of Vox is Jose Antonio Ortega Lara, a former prison worker who was kidnapped by the Basque terror group ETA for 532 days from 1996 to 1997.

6. Why does Vox spur talk of the Franco era?

Vox’s description of its campaign in Andalusia as a “reconquest” draws on old tropes about the victory of Catholic Spain over the Moors that the Franco regime used in its propaganda.
Like Vox today, Franco, the fascist dictator who died in 1975, claimed to be a champion of traditional and Catholic values. Franco himself was tapping into older currents of conservative Spanish thinking with his embrace of anti-liberalism and Catholic doctrine.

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