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Challenge to Catalonia: Spain’s fractures play into hands of far-right upstarts

The name of far-right party Vox is sprayed over a graffiti stencil reading "Independence" on a sidewalk in Barcelona.
The name of far-right party Vox is sprayed over a graffiti stencil reading "Independence" on a sidewalk in Barcelona. Albert Gea, REUTERS

The violent standoff over Catalonia’s independence drive has fostered a new far-right surge in Spain’s latest general election – and exacerbated the divide between Spanish nationalists and regional separatists.

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Barely six months after jumping from 0 to 24 seats in April’s inconclusive general election, Spain’s far-right Vox party picked up more than twice as many seats – 52 – in an equally inconclusive general election on Sunday – the country’s fourth in as many years. The stunning result made it the third-largest political force in the country, behind the incumbent Socialists and the conservative People’s Party, neither of which is even close to commanding a majority in parliament.

Vox’s rise was the "most meteoric and rapid in Spanish democracy", its leader Santiago Abascal told jubilant supporters as the results came in. Overnight, he had become the new darling of far-right leaders across Europe, with the likes of Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders and Italy’s Matteo Salvini rushing to tweet pictures of themselves standing next to Vox's 43-year-old leader.

The trial

The steady rise of the hard right has acquired an aura of inevitability across much of the Western world. But the latest “meteoric” surge by Vox, a party founded just five years ago, was no foregone conclusion.

Only a few weeks before the vote, Abascal's party looked set for a relatively disappointing election. It had done worse than expected in European, regional and local elections in May. Its atavistic brand of macho chauvinism, and talk of "reconquering" Spain in terms that hark back to the medieval wars between Christians and Moors, appeared to have scared away more voters than it could sway. And its readiness to team up with mainstream conservatives to form regional administrations had made its anti-establishment pitch, and claim to novelty, sound hollow.

Until late September, Vox had polled consistently below the 10.2% it won in April’s general election. But all that changed on October 14 when Spain’s top court delivered its verdict in a trial that had hung over the election like a sword of Damocles.

In a momentous decision, the Supreme Court handed down stiff prison sentences to nine Catalan separatists who led the region’s botched independence drive in 2017. The ruling triggered massive protests in Catalonia that left more than 500 people injured, roughly half of them police officers – in turn stirring up Spanish nationalist sentiment and resentment towards the country’s wealthiest region.

The sight of blazes and running battles in the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia’s largest city, cast a pall over the Socialists' handling of the secessionist conflict. But for Vox and its leader, it was a godsend.

One country, one nation

Even before the Oct. 14 ruling, Vox had played an active role in the Catalan separatists' trial, using a peculiarity of the Spanish legal system that allowed it to act as co-accuser – or "people's prosecutor". To an extraordinarily complex problem Abascal offered deceptively simple solutions: banning all separatist parties, suspending the region’s autonomy, and arresting its pro-independence president, Quim Torra.

At the same time, the Vox leader was able to exploit the feeling of resentment harboured by many right-wingers over the Socialist government’s decision last month to exhume the remains of General Francisco Franco, Spain’s former dictator, and remove them from his gargantuan mausoleum.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal addresses supporters during a rally in Madrid.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal addresses supporters during a rally in Madrid. AFP

Historian Christophe Barret, the author of a book on Spain’s Catalan standoff, says Vox has offered an accessible narrative that can appeal to at least part of the electorate in a divided country plagued by self-doubt and still reeling from years of austerity, corruption scandals and a near financial collapse.

“Vox is trying to give meaning to the Spanish nation – a meaning we know all too well, since it is a legacy of Franco’s Spain,” Barret told FRANCE 24, pointing to the nationalist, centralising, traditionalist and anti-feminist discourse that underpins the far-right movement.

The party’s signature policies include repealing laws that ban Franco-era symbols and seek to crack down on gender-based violence. Mirroring a familiar pattern for far-right parties across Europe, Vox’s nationalist pitch conceals a fiercely pro-business agenda. While its economic policies would be a boon for the rich, and ultimately deprive the poor of critical state support, its populist rhetoric is clearly aimed at society’s worst off – and this is where the Catalan crisis comes in handy.

“For the most humble Spaniards, Spain is their only asset; only the rich can allow themselves the luxury of not having a homeland,” Abascal stated last week in a televised debate, during which he was able to issue blatant lies – such as claiming that immigrants are to blame for the majority of sex assaults – unchallenged by his opponents.

One country, multiple nations

Antoni Vives, a former deputy mayor of Barcelona and a senior advisor at the London School of Economics, says Spain’s Socialist premier Pedro Sanchez and his predecessors carry a large share of responsibility for allowing the Catalan crisis to fester and offering Vox such fertile terrain. Instead of gambling on a repeat election in the hope of strengthening his hand, Sanchez would have served his country better by engaging in serious talks with separatist parties, Vives added.

“What Spain is facing is a constitutional crisis because of its incapacity, from an institutional level, to solve the Catalan problem and all that is derived from it,” he told FRANCE 24. “If the only conversation is no conversation, then you will have Vox and the far right and people-hating democracy – people who in fact come from the dictatorship,” he added, referring to the four decades of Franco's rule.

Dismissing Vox’s vision of a uniform Spain as a fiction, Vives said the far-right party would only end up strengthening its bitter rivals in the separatist camp. “They don’t understand that they have to handle a multi-national country,” he explained. “That is why we have more than 50% of the Catalan population voting for independence parties.”

While Vox’s nationalist pitch proved popular with many voters, so did other nationalists in Spain’s patchwork of regional identities. The result is a parliament that is more fragmented than ever before, with established separatist groups now strengthened and new regional groupings also emerging – such as the rural movement ¡Teruel Existe! (Teruel Exists!), from the little known Aragonese province of Teruel.

In this extraordinarily fragmented and polarised landscape, Vives said the only solution to Spain’s crisis is for the progressive camp “to sit down with independence parties to find a constitutional solution for the problems Spain is facing”. He added: “If they don’t do it, Spain is going to sink.”

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