How Spain’s Far-Right Is Exploiting A Local Political Fight To Start A Culture War

Homophobic Franco nostalgists are using the controversy over Catalonia’s 2017 independence vote to polarize what was once a beacon of tolerance in Europe.

BARCELONA, Spain ― Nearly 45 years after Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco died and this country transitioned to democracy, a resurgent far-right movement is once again on the march.

Just look at the past few weeks.

Days after Spain swore in a new left-wing government this month, far-right leader Santiago Abascal declared a “war without a barracks” in the Parliament, courts and streets of Europe’s fifth-largest economy.

Bombastic rhetoric quickly manifested into action. Two weeks ago, his ultra-nationalist Vox party marched thousands through Spanish cities, denouncing Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as a “traitor” to the nation. This past week, his lawmakers wrangled new provisions allowing parents to yank children from public school lectures that teach sexual safety and understanding of the LGBTQ community, which Abascal derided as the “corruption of minors” with “erotic games.”

Far-right movements have spread across the developed world over the past decade as voters angered over income inequality, decaying social services and increasing chaos from conflicts and climate disasters have sought easy answers in age-old social divisions. It’s a sign of the movement’s expanding reach that the moves here in Spain came within days of a march by gun-toting extremists in Richmond, Virginia, and an announcement by France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen that she will run again for president.

Yet the increasing visibility of the Spanish far-right marks a jolting escalation for a country whose recent memory of fascist brutality seemed for years to inoculate its voters against the bigotry-fueled populism seducing other parts of the West.

While an economic malaise appears to have made Spain fertile ground for the far-right, experts say lingering tension over the Catalonia region’s failed 2017 vote for independence created a historic opening the party has handily exploited.

Now Vox looks poised to spark a “culture war,” political scientists say, rooted in nostalgia for the regime behind what some historians call the “Spanish Holocaust” ― a state-sanctioned campaign of terror against leftist dissidents, workers and LGBTQ minorities that left upward of 200,000 dead and 400,000 languishing in prisons and concentration camps.

“There’s a government that wants to revitalize old hatreds,” Abascal said of Sánchez in a recent interview with Spanish broadcaster Antena3. “There’s nothing sadder than that.”

Fueled By Hatred Of Separatists

Vox, established in late 2013, first gained a toehold in December 2018, when the upstart party won a dozen seats in the local parliament of Andalucia, Spain’s largest region. The victories sent what The Guardian called a “shockwave through Spanish politics” and showed, according to the Financial Times, that Spain was “no longer immune to the far-right.”

The conservative Popular party and the liberal, pro-business Citizens party courted Vox in a bid to form a coalition government, giving the extreme right its first taste of power since the end of the Franco era.

In the next two national elections, Vox strengthened. In an April vote, Vox surged from zero to 24 seats in the national Parliament. November’s most recent election raised that total to 52, making Vox the third-largest party in Spain.

Vox supporters sing the anthem of the Spanish Phalanx while making the fascist salute during a Jan. 12 protest in Barcelona.
Vox supporters sing the anthem of the Spanish Phalanx while making the fascist salute during a Jan. 12 protest in Barcelona.
SOPA Images via Getty Images

Vox made no effort to temper its approach to a familiar right-wing platform.

In a nod to U.S. President Donald Trump, the party vowed to “build a wall” on Spain’s border to keep out immigrants from northern Africa. In November, Vox spokesman Iván Espinosa de los Monteros falsely claimed foreigners were “three times more likely to commit rape ... than Spaniards.”

Last year, the party enlisted as a candidate a homophobic pseudohistorian who questions basic facts about the Holocaust and advocates gay conversion therapy, a debunked treatment now widely considered to be torture. On human-caused climate change, the official party line is to call it “una tomadura de pelo” ― a term roughly translating to “a joke.” Vox is vehemently antifeminist and made the repeal of Spain’s 2004 law against gender violence a top priority, targeting government workers who focus on the issue and blocking new measures from being enacted.

The inflammatory rhetoric and hard-line conservatism put Vox and its leaders in line with far-right figures such as Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Yet what set Vox apart, say experts, is that it rode to power primarily by playing on Spaniards’ anger over separatist movements in Spain.

Much like the United Kingdom ― a union that includes the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ― Spain is a patchwork of linguistically and culturally distinct territories that have to varying degrees over the past century pined for complete sovereignty. The most powerful and visible of those independence movements are in Catalonia and Basque country, two regions that suffered brutal repression under the Franco regime.

Basque separatists waged a decades-long militant insurgency, carrying out hundreds of bombings and shootings, finally disarming in April 2017. But months later, in October, long-simmering tensions boiled over in Catalonia. That month, lawmakers in the northeastern region held a referendum on independence, defying a constitutional court that ruled such a plebiscite illegal.

Just 43% of eligible voters cast ballots. But of those 2.26 million Catalans who voted, 90% favored leaving Spain. The vote drew a swift backlash. Then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a conservative, responded by dissolving the Catalan parliament and accusing separatist leaders, who were arrested, of rebellion.

The independence leaders went on trial last February. In October, Spain’s high court found nine former Catalan lawmakers guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds in holding the vote, handing down decade-long prison sentences, including 13 years in prison for Catalonia’s former vice president, Oriol Junqueras. The ruling sparked violent protests in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital.

Months later, the gold-and-red stripes and blue stars of Catalan separatist flags ― a vexillological allusion to those of Cuban and Puerto Rican independentistas ― flutter ubiquitously across Barcelona and Girona, an ancient city 65 miles north.

Yet the unmissable demonstrations belied divided public sentiment. In November, a poll found that fewer than 42% of Catalan voters supported independence. Among Spaniards outside Catalonia, 57.3% opposed independence for the region, according to a separate November survey from the Catalan government’s own Center for Opinion Studies.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right Vox party, has declared a “war without a barracks.”
Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right Vox party, has declared a “war without a barracks.”
Sergio Perez / Reuters

In Basque country, 25% reported feeling more Basque than Spanish, while 26% said they felt only Basque in a poll released last June. Still, just 22% favored independence, down 3 percentage points from a year earlier. Meanwhile, Basques who favored a federalist relationship with the central government in Madrid increased 6 points to 34%.

Despite this, Sánchez enlisted the support of a handful of Basque and Catalan separatist lawmakers to gain approval for his new government, a coalition between his center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the far-left Podemos party. In doing so, the Sánchez administration made nominal concessions, including allowing the reopening of some overseas Catalan consulates shuttered after the failed independence vote. But El País, the country’s newspaper of record, said that the move was not a “challenge” to the Spanish government but that it “signaled a new era in relations between the northeastern Spanish region and the central administration in Madrid.”

That nuance eluded the far-right, who instead called the deal between Sánchez and separatist parties a sign that the prime minister betrayed Spain’s sovereignty in regions over which Vox wants the central government to exert more control.

“The rightist parties are all trying to paint the government as if they were puppets of the pro-independence forces in Catalonia and the Basque country,” said Robert Fishman, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid. “There is a slight problem with their arithmetic.”

Had the pro-independence lawmakers been ousted from the Parliament before the Jan. 6 vote to approve the new government, Sánchez would have won approval by a margin of 10, said Fishman. Instead, he won by a slim margin of two votes, thanks to the eight pro-independence lawmakers who voted with the political right against the government and the 18 separatists who abstained.

Vox did not respond to a request to interview Abascal.

A ‘Culture War’

While the separatist fight propelled the party to power, Vox now looks to be fanning similar flames raging elsewhere in Europe.

The country remains in the grips of a long-term jobs crisis. Unemployment hovered at about 14.2% all last year. It was the lowest in a decade and down from a 2013 peak of 27%, but still more than double the European Union average.

“A homophobic family… does not have the right to make their children homophobic as well.”

- Spanish Education Minister Isabel Celaá

In December, a European court ruled that Catalan members of the European parliament who supported the independence vote should receive immunity from prosecution under the chamber’s rules. The decision sparked outrage among Vox supporters, who started pressuring the party to follow the British right-wing and advocate an exit from the European Union altogether. The hashtag “Spaxit” trended on Twitter.

On the whole, Spain tends to be more tolerant than some of its neighbors, a far cry from the hard-line Catholicism that Franco pushed after winning the Spanish Civil War in 1939 with the help of Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

In 2013, the country was deemed the world’s most accepting of LGBTQ people after a Pew Research Center survey of 39 countries found that 88% of Spaniards ― by far the highest percentage ― agreed “society should accept homosexuality.” In a 2017 Pew poll, 86% of Spaniards said they would accept Muslims as neighbors, compared with 96% of Dutch and 65% of Italians.

Vox seems aimed at reversing those trends. The party steeps its rhetoric in that of the Reconquista, the 780-year period in which Christians reclaimed Iberian lands from Muslim rulers.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has enlisted the support of a handful of Basque and Catalan separatist lawmakers to gain approval for his new government.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has enlisted the support of a handful of Basque and Catalan separatist lawmakers to gain approval for his new government.
Jon Nazca / Reuters

“Europe is what it is thanks to Spain — thanks to our contribution, ever since the Middle Ages, of stopping the spread and the expanse of Islam,” Espinosa de los Monteros told Foreign Policy last spring.

Last week, the party got its first chance to start a major policy fight with the new government. In Murcia, in southeastern Spain, the Popular and Citizens parties rely on Vox’s votes to pass anything through the regional government. Last year, Vox agreed to vote for the region’s Popular party premier in exchange for a rule requiring parents to give their “express authorization” for children to attend lectures on sex education and acceptance of sexual minorities. The party renewed the fight last week, refusing to approve Murcia’s latest budget unless the education program includes the so-called parental veto.

Education Minister Isabel Celaá, from Sánchez’s Socialist party, vowed to fight the measure, telling the newspaper El Correo that “a homophobic family... does not have the right to make their children homophobic as well.”

“Parental authority cannot be confused with property,” she said.

Conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado, from the Popular party, countered Celaá’s accusation of creeping right-wing authoritarianism with an accusation of left-wing authoritarianism.

“Are they telling me that we have families like in Cuba, that children belong to the revolution?” he said, according to El País. “Are we going to arrive at the point where children inform on their parents if they are not good revolutionaries?”

The tit-for-tat war of words is a sign of the “culture war” Vox is fueling, said Victor Lapuente, a Spanish political expert and professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

“I think we (in the West) seem to be trapped in these wars where it does not matter so much what you fight for but on which side of the trenches you are,” he said by email. “Are you With us or Against us?”

Fishman drew parallels between Spain today and the cultural conflict that started in the United States in the 1960s.

“Spain has essentially moved from a period of political exclusion to one of ‘culture war’ in which the Left promotes inclusion and the Right denies the legitimacy of that step,” he said by email.

The shift follows the same sort of formula many see in America’s Republican Party, which gave rise to Trump, where once-fringe culture warriors influence and overtake the traditional conservatives.

“What is even more disturbing from my point of view,” he said, “is that the large established right-wing party, the Partido Popular, is playing along with them to a large extent.”

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