Far-Right, Anti-immigrant Vox Party Gains a Toehold in Spain

A demonstration against Catalan separatism called by the Vox party in Madrid in December. The Catalonia issue has reignited Spanish nationalism, largely dormant since the Franco era.

MADRID — Four decades after Spain transitioned from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy, the country’s far right has found its voice again in the nationalist, anti-immigrant Vox party.

The group made its mark in December in regional elections in Andalusia, in southern Spain, where it won parliamentary seats for the first time.

In the greater political sphere in Spain, Vox remains a small player. But some analysts say its appeal could spread, making it an important wild card in European Union parliamentary elections in May, when more traditional parties will be trying to hold off nationalist parties on the Continent.

Vox is just one relatively diminutive stream of a swelling tide of nationalism in Europe, from Sweden, France and Hungary to Austria and Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany party entered Parliament in 2017. Although Vox differs from some of those movements in significant ways — it has grown amid domestic tensions generated by Catalan separatism, for instance — it shares with them a strong dislike of migrants, especially Muslims.

In 2018, more migrants arrived by sea to Spain than to any other European country, including Italy and Greece, and most of them landed in the southern region of Andalusia. Such percentage-change increases in the number of migrants have been shown to increase anti-immigration sentiment.

Vox is the brainchild of Santiago Abascal, a fiery speaker who founded the party after breaking with the conservative Popular Party in 2013, and who prides himself on carrying a licensed Smith & Wesson handgun.

A Vox video posted before the election showed him leading a group on horseback accompanied by triumphant music worthy of “Wagon Train” in a re-enactment of the Reconquista, or Reconquest, the medieval battles waged by Spain’s Roman Catholic kings to end centuries of Muslim occupation.

Vox appears to have gained its footing in Andalusia in part because the party forcefully championed Spain’s fight to stop breakaway lawmakers in Catalonia, in the northeast, from seceding. That tapped into a strong sentiment in much of Spain, where separatism has also been rejected as an attempt by wealthy Catalonia to abandon poorer regions like Andalusia.

The Catalan conflict has reactivated Spanish nationalism, which had been tarred by its linkage to Franco’s dictatorship, said Astrid Barrio, a politics professor at the University of Valencia. She said the battle over secession also prompted “competitive outbidding” between right-wing politicians trying to outdo one another as defenders of Spanish sovereignty.

Mr. Abascal, 42, had made his name as a fierce opponent of separatism in his home Basque region. One of Vox’s signature issues, besides its hostility to immigration, is its call for returning Spain to centralized political control. This would require removing the administrative autonomy of the country’s 17 regions, granted to them after Spain’s return to democracy, and also ending the fiscal privileges gained by some, like the Basques.

Mr. Abascal also appeared to win support by denouncing the corrupt practices of the Popular Party, which ran Spain from late 2011 to last June, when it was ousted from government after a scandal involving a slush fund that collected corporate kickbacks in return for the awarding of public contracts.

“Vox has a novelty factor, and it is benefiting from the major corruption scandals that have affected the main conservative party,” said Laia Balcells, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University. “In contrast to the Popular Party, they can present themselves as clean of corruption.”

Vox preaches conservative values embedded in Spain’s monarchy and Roman Catholicism, including eliminating the right to abortion. It defends bullfighting and other Spanish traditions, while calling for Spain to regain control over Gibraltar, the territory at the southern tip of the country that has been British since 1713.

The party also wants to erect walls around Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish enclaves in North Africa, to stop illegal migrants who have been climbing over their border fences.

Mr. Abascal has been strategic in joining forces with others pushing nationalist causes throughout Europe. In its party manifesto, Vox praises the example set by the government of Viktor Orban in Hungary, including its push to protect Christian minorities internationally.

In early 2017, Mr. Abascal attended a congress of European far-right parties in Germany. A few months later, he joined Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party, on the campaign trail before France’s presidential election. In December, Ms. Le Pen was among the first politicians to congratulate Vox on its success in Andalusia.

Vox said it also received advice from Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, who has been working to build a Pan-European movement of right-wing, nationalist parties. Last year, after sending an official to Washington to meet Mr. Bannon, Vox issued a statement in which Mr. Bannon argued that “it’s very important that a party exists in Spain, based on the sovereignty and identity of the Spanish people and willing to defend its borders.”

Mr. Bannon recently joined a Brussels-based research institute that aims to connect nationalist parties, particularly ahead of the May elections for the European Parliament, in which Vox hopes to burst onto the European stage. While Vox has accused the European assembly of wastefulness and is calling for tighter border controls across the Continent, it is less forcefully opposed to the European Union than other far-right figures like Ms. Le Pen, who also campaigned for France to abandon the euro currency.

Sergi Pardos-Prado, an associate professor in politics at Oxford University, said the party could make a mark in the coming vote because “radical parties have traditionally done well in European elections, because it is easy — and relatively inconsequential — for disaffected voters to send protest and anti-systemic signals.”

In Andalusia, the only municipality where Vox won the most votes was El Ejido, a hub for greenhouse farming that is reliant on migrant workers. It remains unclear how much the party’s anti-immigrant message will resonate with voters outside the region. Some analysts believe Vox’s appeal will be limited by the Popular Party, which has recently hardened its line on issues like migration.

“The Popular Party is a very ingrained party, especially in rural areas, and it will be hard for Vox to get widespread and systematic transfers from them,” said Ms. Balcells of Georgetown.

Still, since the Andalusian vote, Vox has been kept in the headlines by larger parties that have blamed one another for its emergence.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who leads a fragile minority government, has accused conservative politicians of fueling “the politics of fear,” playing into the hands of Vox. He has also played down Catalonia as an explanation for Vox’s rise.

“In Austria, France or Germany, they don’t have Catalonia and suffer the presence of the far right,” Mr. Sánchez said in an interview with Telecinco, a Spanish television channel.

“There’s always been the far right in Spain,” he said. “But now the leadership within the Popular Party is weak, and its supporters find in Santiago Abascal a leadership that they don’t see in Pablo Casado,” the recently elected leader of the Popular Party.

For now, Vox is enjoying its newfound role of kingmaker in Andalusia, where its support is needed to guarantee a new right-wing coalition government. Mr. Abascal recently warned the larger parties that Vox could not be treated as “a doormat” in the negotiations.

“For the first time, the far right can count on a competitive leader,” Ms. Barrio said.

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