Madrid, Spain – Across much of Europe, support for the far right is surging – and after Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s decision to call a snap general election for July, Spain could soon become the next European country to have an ultra-conservative party pacing the corridors of national power.
Socialist PM Sánchez was forced to bring forward Spain’s general election from its expected date of December to July 23 after regional and local elections held on May 28 saw the mainstream right-wing Partido Popular party (PP) make huge nationwide gains.
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But it quickly emerged that despite its notable election triumph, for the PP to govern in regions as important as the Balearics, Valencia and Aragón and take power in dozens of city councils, it would still need either the support, or at least the neutrality, of Spain’s far-right party Vox.
While polls indicate that the PP will again be Spain’s most-voted party come July’s general election, they also consistently show the PP will not capture an overall majority of parliamentary seats – likely making Vox the kingmaker of the national government.
“Vox are going to squeeze the PP hard,” Oriol Bartomeus, research professor at the Institute of Political and Social Science at Barcelona’s Universidad Autónoma, told Al Jazeera when asked what Vox’s price for supporting the PP would be.
“They have withstood the PP tsunami in these regional elections, so now, Vox can do what they already did with the PP in the region of Castille and Leon. They can demand to form part of the government,” he said.
“Vox don’t want to be just parliamentary allies for the PP any more. They want to be on the inside.”
The European far right
The recent normalisation of the European far right in national power in countries like Italy – whose leader Giorgia Meloni has never hidden her support for Vox, speaking at one of its rallies in Andalusia in 2022 – could well help Vox’s quest to be part of Spain’s government, Bartomeus said.
“The extreme right is already there [in power] in Italy, and Vox can exploit that. If you remember that Vox only really had their first breakthrough in voter support in 2018, which in political terms is the equivalent of the day before yesterday, their normalisation has happened very quickly,” he added.
However, Vox as kingmaker and potential coalition partner is a possibility that the PP, arguably keen not to deter more liberal-minded voters in a country ruled by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as late as the mid-1970s, is determined to distance itself from for as long as possible.
After all, Vox leader Santiago Abascal has said more than once that Sánchez’s “social-communist government” is “the worst in the last eight decades” or in other words, worse than Franco.
“Keeping their distance is so important that the PP is already pushing to postpone any regional or town council agreements with Vox until after the general elections. I think the PP are aware that any photos of them shaking hands with Vox will affect their chances,” Bartomeus said.
“But right now, it’s clear the only way the PP can get a parliamentary majority in the general elections is via an agreement with Vox,” he added.
While any highlighting of their political agenda arguably would risk raising questions about Vox’s future role and its far-right policies, the PP’s relentless election campaign focus on expelling Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) from power currently acts as a magnet for the broadest spectrum possible of Spain’s right-leaning voters.
Returning to the PP
In some cases, like that of Vox supporter Juan Luis Gutiérrez Quirós, it could even see voters return to the PP fold.
“Vox, politically, is situated to the right of the Spanish right, no doubt about it, and of all the country’s conservative parties, Vox has the hardest-hitting political programme. That’s why I quit the PP for Vox,” Gutiérrez Quirós told Al Jazeera.
“But what I want is the PSOE out. So if my heart says vote for Vox, my head says vote for the PP this time and be sure to get rid of this so-called progressive government once and for all,” he said.
On the opposite side of Spain’s political spectrum, voters further left of Sánchez’s PSOE are deeply unsettled by a potential alliance between the PP and the extreme right so it can gain power.
However, they hope the idea of a possible PP-Vox coalition will motivate their own voter base.
“It’s like a wake-up call,” said May Serrano, an artist and activist. “People like us, who have a very different point of view to the tidal wave of right-wing support, have to take action.”
“Often our disillusionment with this political system, and I’m as guilty of this as anybody, means we end up not voting. But if we don’t vote this time, the right-wingers will do whatever they want,” she said.
Left wing infighting
However, the current state of infighting between Spain’s left-wing parties makes it complicated to know who to vote for, Serrano said.
Even within the PSOE, some longstanding members are doubtful that Sánchez’s strategy of relying on support from regional nationalists and anti-austerity parties like Podemos is the correct one to go against Vox.
“Ever since the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, the socialist party has been the political party that most closely reflected Spain as a nation,” Ramon Vargas-Machuca Ortega, professor of political philosophy at the University of Cadiz and a former socialist MP for 16 years, told Al Jazeera.
“But Sanchez’s alliances and their erratic consequences have slowly ruined the Socialists’ credibility, and a significant number of its usual supporters cannot approve of them,” he said.
“In my opinion, his deference to the type of hard left, which does not believe in the Spanish state, will become both Sánchez’s political tomb and the ruin of the socialist party. The PSOE is going to end up being as irrelevant as its equivalent in Greece, Italy and France.”
Vox, on the other hand, is keenly aware that just five years after its political breakthrough in Andalusian regional elections, its best opportunity so far to have a say on the national political agenda may now be only months away.
Whether Sánchez’s warnings of Vox closing in on power will prove effective at capturing a significant number of votes, Bartomeus has his doubts.
“It’s a key question, but my instinct says it won’t be a big enough issue to make a difference. The ‘Watch out. Vox, the political wolf, is coming’ message only really hits home with people who are already convinced to vote left anyway,” he said.
“To retain power, Sánchez and the PSOE will need the support of voters whose concern about Vox isn’t their number one priority. So to get those voters to go out and vote on July 23, Sánchez will need to tap into something else.”