Spain’s far right hates not only immigrants, but also women

What is behind the unexpected rise of Spain’s racist, homophobic and anti-immigrant Vox party?

VOX spain - reuters
Leader of far-right VOX Santiago Abascal and regional candidate Francisco Serrano celebrate results after the Andalusian regional elections in Seville Dec 2, 2018 [File: Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters]

The regional elections in Andalusia last December put an end to 36 years of uninterrupted socialist rule in the most populous region of Spain and laid the foundation for a new right-wing coalition that includes a racist, homophobic and anti-immigration party: Vox (“voice,” Latin).

Founded in 2013 by Santiago Abascal – a 42-year-old Basque who prides himself on traditions such as bullfighting, hunting and carrying a Smith and Wesson gun – Vox is now part of the country’s political establishment after winning nearly 11 percent of the vote and 12 seats in the regional election. Its plan for the region is called the “reconquest” of Spain, alluding to the Reconquista period, when Christian kingdoms reclaimed Muslim-held territory across the Iberian peninsula in the middle ages.

The party’s nationwide goal is to transform Spain’s current system of devolved regional power into a single government and parliament for all of Spain. Their slogans, similar to those of other right-wing populist parties across the West, are “España primero and “Los españoles primero”, that is, “Spain first”, “Spaniards first”. Steve Bannon has obviously endorsed them.

After several weeks of intense negotiations, the two major parties of Spain – the conservative Popular Party and centre-right, pro-business Ciudadanos (Citizens’ party), which obtained 20 and 18 percent of the vote respectively – reached an agreement with Abascal that will make the Andalusian regional government the most radical not only in Spain but also among other European nations already under right-wing nationalist rule.

Like the Northern League in Italy, the National Rally in France and the Alternative for Germany, Vox also wants to shut down mosques, erect walls and deport immigrants. While the party’s political and economic proposals are similar to those of other extreme parties throughout Europe, they include another alarming feature: hate for gender equality movements.

Vox, like Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, denounces “gender ideology” as a threat to heteronormative, Christian, and white family values. According to the party programme, men and woman are already equal and so there is no need for specials laws against domestic violence to protect women’s rights. Measures to fight gender violence are “ideological” and “discriminatory” against men. These measures – introduced by the Socialist Party government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2004 to crack down on gender-based violence – offer free legal aid and established special courts for victims.

Although these measures are still necessary – at least 47 women in Spain were killed by their partners or ex-partners last year – Vox believes the problem lies in false accusations that ruin men’s lives and that the media ignores. This is probably why Abascal often picks fights with journalists. “In Spain’s recent democracy,” as writer and journalist Cristina Fallaras pointed out, “there hasn’t been an open, institutional, and belligerent discourse against woman and their rights. It has now arrived [with Vox].”

But Vox wants not only to repeal these gender measures, but also to eliminate subsidised feminist groups, create a Ministry of the Family and introduce “an organic law protecting the natural family, which shall be recognised as an institution that came before the State”. While they also seek to abolish laws protecting abortion and gay marriage, their goal, as veteran Spanish feminist Ana Maria Perez del Campo said, is to stop in the advance of women’s rights”.  It should not come as a surprise that their regional leader, Francisco Serrano, a former judge, was suspended by the Supreme Court after altering visitation arrangements in a custody case in favour of the father without calling the mother to the hearing. As a radical opponent of feminism, Serrano considers himself “a victim of gender-based jihadism”.

But why has this radical right-wing party now emerged in Spain?

Last summer, the leader of Spain’s opposition Socialist Party (PSOE), Pedro Sanchez, managed to pass a vote of no confidence, forcing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to resign. When Sanchez replaced Rajoy as Spain’s prime minister a day after the no-confidence vote, his government was seen by many as a fresh beginning for the country. Rajoy was removed because of widespread corruption allegations targeting his party and also for his inability to confront the Catalan crisis. The shameful repression that took place during the Catalan referendum and the imprisonment of several independent politicians and activists were signs that Rajoy and the Popular Party had lost all credibility. 

In the eight months following Rajoy’s ousting, Sanchez, with the support of Podemos, not only re-established dialogue with the Catalan regional government, but also addressed many social needs of Spaniards. After years of austerity measures, the PSOE increased the minimum wage and state pensions and also began a process to exhume Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen memorial site.

While Sanchez’s government is off to a good start, it did not yet resolve all of Spain’s deep-rooted problems, such as high levels of unemployment. Moreover, the progressive stance of the new government – which boasts the highest proportion of female cabinet members in the world – unsettled many conservatives in the country. Angered by issues like the new government’s approach to the Catalan crisis and Franco’s exhumation, many right-wing voters in Spain became disillusioned with the mainstream political parties on the right, and started to look for more radical alternatives.

It needs to be noted that since the restoration of democracy in 1975 until three years ago, the Popular Party had managed to contain all far-right votes in Spain. But in 2015, Ciudadanos, a new centre-right party from Catalonia, emerged as an alternative to the PP. Its leader, Albert Rivera, a 38-year-old Catalan, is not only committed to traditional liberal values, but also radically opposed to the Catalan independence cause. In the last national elections, Ciudadanos obtained 14 percent of the vote, and, according to the latest survey, it might double this result in the next.

Many in Spain believed the rise of the Ciudadanos would split the conservative vote, weakening the far right and the PP in the process, but this has not proved to be the case. As seen in the aftermath of the Andalusian elections, Ciudadanos chose to join forces not only with the PP, but also with a much more radical group like Vox – even though Rivera and other members of his party are uncomfortable with many of Vox’s platforms, they agreed to form a government in Andalusia with Juan Manuel Moreno (PP) as the president. Talks to repeat this alliance at a national level have already begun.

Reaction to feminist movement

The Catalan crisis, the exhumation of Franco’s remains and the high unemployment levels undoubtedly played an important role in the rise of Vox. But the increasing public support for the far-right party cannot be explained through these parameters only. 

The recent achievements of Spain’s feminist movement, which last March managed to mobilise over five million women in massive street protests across the country demanding gender equality, also contributed significantly to the party’s new-found success.

As stated in a new feminist manifesto signed last week by hundreds of feminist associations, “Vox has declared war to women” and seek to turn them “into slaves at the service of men”. While the Socialist government, as well as other progressive forces, must remain vigilant towards Vox’s far-right ideology, only feminist activists and organisations can save Spain from the patriarchal obsession with the so-called natural order and the politics of hate that it incubates.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.