40 years after Spain’s return to democracy, a far-right party rises

Santiago Abascal, center, of the Spanish far-right party Vox waves to his supporters during an election event Thursday in Valencia.
(Manuel Bruque / EPA/Shutterstock)

The nightclub was dark. A crowd of cocktail-holding partygoers — mostly 20- and 30-year-olds — waved Spanish flags and shouted, “Viva España!”

They sang along to an electronic version of the Spanish national anthem and chanted “Jail Puigdemont!” in reference to the former president of Catalonia who fled the country a year and a half ago. One man made a fascist salute.

“Good evening patriots,” yelled Ignacio Garriga, a candidate for Spain’s upcoming parliamentary elections, from the stage. “This Sunday will be a historic day. This Sunday we are excited to start the reconquista of Spain.”

This Spain, he continued, is “unaware of its enemies, who are the separatists, the communists, the revolutionaries and all of those who defend the discourse of the politically correct.”


“Rojos!” — Reds! — a man jeered.

“This coming April 28 we are going to win to defend the future of our fatherland,” Garriga said.

“Viva España!” the crowd screamed back.

The group of young people had gathered late Thursday night to support Vox, the xenophobic Spanish political party whose rhetoric contains echoes of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

After elections Sunday, Vox will likely be the first far-right party to enter parliament since Spain’s return to democracy 40 years ago.

The setting was fraught with symbolism: Barcelona, the capital of Spain’s prosperous northeastern region of Catalonia, is the heart of a regional secessionist drive that prompted an angry backlash of Spanish nationalism and helped lead to the rise of Vox.

Questions of national unity and identity have defined this spring’s general election — Spain’s third in four years — which Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called after failing to pass a national budget in February.

“It’s a very emotional election,” said José Ignacio Torreblanca, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid. “It’s very contested, very polarized, with a big question mark over where voters are going to go with … national identity, with identification in relation to Catalonia.”

Analysts predict that no single party will gain a majority, meaning that parties will need to make coalitions in order to form a government. A coalition government would cement a new era of political fragmentation in Spanish politics, which had reliably seen a parliament ruled by the conservative People’s Party or the Socialist Workers Party since the country’s transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975.

In the background of the election is the Catalan independence crisis, which came to a head in October 2017 when separatists held an independence referendum deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish government. While the referendum only drew 40% of eligible voters, 90% of them voted to secede, and three weeks later, Carles Puigdemont, the region’s president at the time, declared independence — leading to Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since its return to democracy.

In response, the Spanish government, then led by the conservative Popular Party, fired the Catalan parliament, wrested control of the region, began arresting the movement’s leaders and called for fresh regional elections in December.

At the time, separatists and some on the left criticized the Spanish government for acting with impunity.

But Spaniards on the right didn’t think the Popular Party went far enough.

Former supporters of the Popular Party turned toward alternative parties like Vox and Citizens — a center-right group known for its firm stance against Catalan independence — who reject negotiation with separatists and call for another takeover of the region.

“You have to vote for Vox, because around a year ago Mariano Rajoy abandoned us,” said José Lopez, 29, a Barcelona resident at the Thursday event, referring to the Popular Party prime minister. “You have to bring order back to Spain.”

Rajoy was ousted in June following a vote of no confidence regarding a corruption scandal in his party. Socialist Sánchez formed a minority government with the backing of Catalan independentistas, leading his critics to accuse him of being too friendly with the separatists.

But the same separatists failed to back his February budget, forcing him to call elections.

Vox was founded in 2013 when a few members of the Popular Party broke off to form their own party with a tougher stance on Basque and Catalan nationalism.

At the time, the party was small and wielded little influence, unlike nationalist, anti-immigrant right-wing movements that were spreading across Europe.

But in December, Vox gained a footing in politics when it won 11% of the vote in Andalusian regional elections, surpassing expectations and helping to oust the Socialists who had held power there for 36 years.

In the years since its founding, the party has adopted the populist playbook. Vox stokes fear of immigrants, demonizes feminists and urges a return to Spanish values in a country corrupted by “left-wing extremists.”

Most essential to its platform is its call for Spanish unity.

The party — whose supporters are primarily 25- to 44-year-old middle- to middle-upper-class men, according to Spain’s Center for Sociological Investigations — also employs language associated with Franco’s dictatorship and the Spanish age of conquest.

Vox leaders call for the “reconquest” of Spain, harkening back to the 800-year Spanish campaign, completed in 1492, to expel Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. They appeal to Spanish nationalism and urge their followers to “thank God for having been born in the fatherland.”

At the Barcelona event, a congressional candidate played the song “El Novio de la Muerte,” a song associated with the Spanish Legion, a military body that Franco commanded in the 1920s.

“In all of this vocabulary, there is clearly a substratum of anti-democratism, of Francoism,” said Matilde Eiroa San Francisco, a journalism professor at the University of Carlos III of Madrid. “They don’t negate it.”

Vox’s rise also underscores a deep conflict in Spanish society about how to interpret Franco’s 40-year dictatorship.

In June, Franco’s remains will be removed from the Valley of the Fallen, an imposing basilica the dictator had built, in part by forced labor, as a monument to his victory in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The move, intended as a symbolic reckoning with the country’s past, sparked outcry from Spanish conservatives, some of whom don’t consider Franco a dictator.

Vox publicly denounced the exhumation.

Earlier Thursday evening in Girona, the most independentista province in Catalonia and the city where Puigdemont lived before he fled, a crowd of about 100 people poured into a banquet hall to listen to speeches from local Vox candidates.

Organizers were on high alert in such unwelcome territory. They employed three security guards and papered the windows to prevent journalists from peeking in. To one photographer standing outside the event, an attendee said gruffly, “Take a photo of me and I will burn your camera.”

A pair of protesters tried to sneak into the venue with a Catalan flag. They were denied entry.