Henry Patterson writes: Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, the ultra-nationalist party of the Spanish right, could not hide his disappointment at what had been planned to be the party’s victory rally in the appropriately named Plaza Margaret Thatcher in Madrid on April 28th. Not only had the party failed to gain the number of seats expected, twenty-four instead of private estimations of up to fifty, but the election had been a qualified triumph for the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) of Pedro Sanchez. Vox, along with the traditional party of the right, the Popular Party (PP), and the newer centre-right formation, Ciudadanos (Citizens), had focused its campaign on dislodging the socialists from government, depicting them as prepared to sacrifice the unity of Spain in deals with Catalan independence parties.
Sanchez’s strategy focused on whipping up fears of a revanchist tide of the “three rights” intent on refighting the Spanish Civil War. In elections for the Andalucian parliament in December 2018, the PSOE was evicted from power for the first time since the return of democracy to Spain. It was this election which catapulted Vox from the margins to the centre of political debate. Winning 11 per cent of the vote and twelve seats in the region, it did particularly well in the province of Almeria, where the highly successful agro-industry is based on a vast expanse of plastic greenhouses – the infamous mar de plastico ( sea of plastic) is one of the few human constructions visible from space. Supplying much of the fruit and vegetable needs of northern Europe, its workforce is almost totally composed of migrants from Morocco and other African countries. In towns like Ejido, where the migrant population was around 60 per cent of the population, Vox’s appeal was based largely on its anti-migrant rhetoric. It won 30 per cent of the vote in the town.
Many socialist voters had stayed at home in December and Sanchez used the example of Andalucia to point to the dangers of apathy or complacency. A new PP/Ciudadanos government in the region was only possible with the support of Vox, which made it contingent on the repeal of laws on Historic Memory – dealing with the legacy of Francoism ‑ and violence against women. Sanchez was also helped by the incendiary rhetoric of Abascal, referring to the government as the “Popular Front”, against which the generals had revolted in 1936, and speaking of the need for the “reconquest” of Spain from separatists, “feminazis” and communists.
Vox was established as a hard-right scission from the PP before the Catalan separatists’ disputed independence referendum, the subsequent imposition of direct rule from Madrid on the region and the ongoing trial of separatist politicians. However, the party’s irruption into national politics has been in part due to the hostile reaction in much of the rest of Spain ‑ the Basque country excepted ‑ to the Catalan challenge. Hostility to Catalan nationalism crosses party divides ‑ many of the regional leaders of the PSOE are as opposed to dialogue with the Catalan parties as the leaderships of the PP and Ciudadanos.
The Catalan question has also contributed to the ongoing crisis and decline of Podemos. A product of Spain’s economic crisis post-2008 and the radical adjustment policies of the PP government of Mariano Rajoy, which pushed unemployment up to a peak of almost 27 per cent in 2013 ‑ youth unemployment reached 56 per cent ‑ Podemos at one time harboured the hope of replacing the PSOE as the principal party of the left. It was aided by a series of corruption scandals which, although they mainly concerned the PP, also implicated leading members of the PSOE, particularly in their southern fiefdom of Andalucia. However, after almost level-pegging with the PSOE in the 2016 general elections ‑ 21.2 per cent to 22.7 per cent ‑ the intervening period has seen the party hit by internal conflicts, personality clashes and a fundamental strategic dilemma over how to respond to Catalan nationalism. In Sunday’s election the party’s vote was down seven per cent at 14.3 and its number of seats fell from seventy-one to forty-two.
The official line of its leader, Pablo Iglesias, has been to support the demand for a negotiated referendum, not the unilateral version followed by the Catalan separatists in 2017. In such a referendum Podemos would argue for Catalonia to remain part of Spain. However, support for a referendum and Iglesias’s championing of a policy of negotiating with the Catalan parties and criticism of the arrests of Catalan leaders, has unsettled the party’s working class supporters. It has also led some of the founding members of the party to criticise Iglesias for ignoring the rest of Spain and focusing too much on Catalonia. As a result, long gone are the days when Corbynite commentators like Owen Jones and Paul Mason could write breathless dispatches from Spain predicting the death of Spanish social democracy. Iglesias’s hope of the sorpaso – eclipsing ‑ of the PSOE has been replaced with a plea for inclusion in a progressive government in Madrid.
While such inclusion is possible at this stage nothing about the future government formation is clear. For while the result saw the PSOE vote increase from 22.7 per cent and eighty-five seats in 2016 to 28.7 per cent and 123 seats last Sunday, a simple majority in the Spanish parliament involves 176 seats. Even aligned with Podemos the two parties would also need the support of the Basque Nationalist Party and at least one of the Catalan nationalist parties to form a majority government. Sanchez’s previous brief government was as a minority supported by Podemos and relying on nationalist support ‑ it was the failure of the Catalan nationalists to support his budget which precipitated the election. Although Sanchez’s deputy has declared that the PSOE is prepared to go it alone once again, a protracted period of inter-party negotiations is more likely.
Vox, although disappointed, will use its new presence to attack any PSOE administration, particularly if it is reliant on Basque and Catalan nationalists. It will also continue to cannibalise the traditional right. The PP, under a relatively new leader, had its worst election result ever, halving its representation to sixty-six seats. Abascal and other Vox deputies will continue to denounce the PP as the “cowardly right” that failed to take a sufficiently tough line against regional nationalists. During the campaign, Vox succeeded in pulling both the PP and Ciudadanos to the right. One result of this was to force Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, to pronounce that he would never enter a coalition or agreement with the PSOE – a destructive and self-denying commitment since on a range of social issues there is considerable common ground. The day of the Andalucian election results, Podemos proclaimed an anti-fascist alert. But it was Sanchez who was able to use the emergence of Vox most effectively by arguing for the voto útil (useful vote) that the best way to contain the threat from Vox was to vote for the larger party of the left. Vox, unlike some of the more successful right-wing parties like the Rassemblement National in France is neo-liberal in its economic policies – proposing major tax cuts, a shrinking of the public sector and the privatisation of state pensions. A Catalan nationalism whose largest party is showing signs of moderating its tone and forsaking unilateralism may pose less of an existential threat to the Spanish state and if so, the main driving force behind Vox will be blunted . Immigration is a regionally mobilising issue for the right, not a nationally polarising one. Ironically the main contribution of Vox to the Spanish political system may well be the resuscitation of social democracy.
Images: Pedro Sanchez celebrating victory with party members. An online ad for Vox using the Star Wars lightsaber meme: The party declares war on the enemies of the nation: communists, anarchists, regionalists, the media, LGBT activists and feminists. The new Spanish parliament has the highest ever number of women members, with 164 women out of 350. Both the PSOE and the PP have more women deputies than men. Vox has nine women out of twenty-four.