Vox Popular: PP rebels take a step to the right

The launch of a new party appears to reflect the rise of extremism across Europe But analysts say it has more to do with national issues

Far-right supporters celebrating Spain's national day in Barcelona with Franco-era flags.
Far-right supporters celebrating Spain's national day in Barcelona with Franco-era flags. CARLES RIBAS

Since it was founded on the back of the Popular Alliance in 1989, the Popular Party (PP) has represented a broad spectrum of Spain's political right, from neo-liberals through to traditional monarchists and conservatives, taking in libertarian supporters of same-sex marriage, along with arch-Catholics opposed to divorce and abortion rights.

But in recent months, tensions within the PP have reached breaking point, with former party leader and ex-Prime Minister José María Aznar snubbing his successor Mariano Rajoy by not attending a party conference at the end of January, while another party heavyweight, former Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja, has refused to head the list of candidates in the upcoming European elections.

The image of a party at war with itself has been further bolstered by the creation in January of Vox, set up by rebels on the PP's far right hoping to tap into public discontent over unemployment, the economy and corruption scandals, who accuse Rajoy of being soft on Catalan and Basque independence, as well as breaking election promises by raising taxes.

Recent opinion polls suggest that there are probably between half-a-million and 700,000 potential Vox voters out of a total electorate of 35.7 million.

The founders of Vox, like those of other populist far-right groups throughout the rest of Europe, will be hoping to attract voters who feel they have been ignored by the major parties, seeing them as interested only in maintaining their hold on power. Between now and the end of next year, Spain faces European, municipal, regional and general elections, and opinion polls show widespread disenchantment with the country's two main parties, which could lead to widespread abstention, as well as support for far-right groups such as the anti-immigration Platform for Catalonia, which won 67 seats on local councils in 2011. The danger that Spain's emerging far right presents to the two main parties is clear from the experience of Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi was able to tap into voter discontent and dominate politics for two decades.

Between now and the end of next year, Spain faces European, municipal, regional and general elections

For the moment, Spain lacks such a figure. Or does it? "The key question here is whether Aznar, who can lay claim to having united the right wing in Spain, will now be the man who blows it apart," says Fernando Vallespín, the former head of the Center for Sociological Research. He doubts that Aznar has any designs on creating a new political force. "In the first place, because there is no room for a right-wing party to the right of the PP: despite what Vox says, the party continues to shift further to the right."

"What's happening here seems much more like an attempt to push Rajoy out of power, rather than an attempt to create a new political force," says Vallespín. "My feeling is that there is deep, deep discontentment within the PP over Catalonia and the way the peace process in the Basque Country has been handled, backed by tremendous pressure from certain sectors of the media that once supported the PP." Nor does he think that Vox will establish links with other European far-right parties: "This is very much an internal affair, and really has nothing to do with anti-Europeanism or even immigration."

And there seems to be little evidence of any links between what drives Spain's far right and the parties in France, the Netherlands, Finland, or the United Kingdom, whose electoral platforms are mainly built on opposition to immigration and the EU. Here, the rallying cries are the government's handling of Catalan independence, and perceived concessions to ETA as part of the process to end terrorism in the Basque Country. In other words, the old warhorse of the unity of Spain at all costs. Vox is calling for a return to centralization, with a single government and national parliament, its only concession being "administrative decentralization."

Bearing in mind Spain's history, it is easy to dismiss Vox as a party that wants to return Spain to its fascistic past, says historian Santos Juliá. He and other researchers who have written extensively about the far right in Spain in the final years of the Franco regime and the emergence of parliamentary democracy in the early 1980s, see no connection with groups like Vox. "The extreme right that existed in the last years of Franco and the beginning of the Transition still enjoyed significant support within the country's institutions, within some labor unions and the armed forces, for example, but that crumbled in the wake of the failed military coup of February 23, 1981. The vacuum they left behind was never filled, as it was, say in Italy by the MSI, or Le Pen in France, and by similar movements in Austria and Belgium, which were new formations, and had no direct links to the old, pre-World War II fascist movements."

Bearing in mind Spain's history, it is easy to dismiss Vox as a party that wants to return Spain to its fascistic past

Santos Juliá says he has "no idea" what will emerge from the mounting divisions within the PP. "In any event, it's not going to be anything that could be considered a continuation of the far right that existed 35 years ago, which split up into myriad, politically irrelevant factions."

Spanish politics has developed differently from that of the rest of Europe. In the first decades after the death of Franco, the center left came to dominate politics in the form of the Socialist Party (PSOE). In turn, the Popular Party, which won its first general election in 1996, became the house of many rooms for the Spanish right. What would become the PP began to take shape after the Center Democratic Union (UCD), created by the country's first democratically elected prime minister after the death of Franco, was disbanded in 1982, after garnering just 6.7 percent of the vote, down from the 34.4 percent that swept it to power in 1977. Former UCD supporters went over either to the Socialist Party or the Popular Alliance, forerunner of the PP. When Aznar took over the PP in 1989, he swept up what remaining votes remained in the center ground, a process that continued throughout the first decade of the new century, with Mariano Rajoy also garnering swing voters who were angry with the failure of the Socialist Party to deal with the economic crisis that hit the country in early 2008.

Until now, despite bitter internal fighting between the factions led by the old guard of Aznar and Esperanza Aguirre, the former head of the regional government of Madrid, and supporters of Rajoy, the PP has held firm. And there are those who say that Vox has little future in a political system that is overwhelmingly dominated by the two main parties. Senior figures in the PP say voters who have been critical of the party's policies will toe the line come election time, fearful of what they see as a possible unholy alliance of Catalan and Basque nationalist parties and the Socialists. That said, if Vox is able to stay the course over the coming two years, it may well be able to break the rules that have governed Spanish politics until now.

France offers a case in point, a country whose two-round, majority presidential system has for decades hidden the huge groundswell of support for the far-right National Front. It has taken 38 years to get from the one percent of votes it earned in the presidential election of 1974, which was won by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, to the 18 percent it garnered in the 2012 poll won by François Hollande. It is now placed to sweep the board in the European elections.

The National Front "has managed to increase its vote among the middle classes and the working classes"

Over the course of recent elections, the National Front "has managed to increase its vote among the middle classes and the working classes; it has even managed to overturn the communists as the refuge for the hopeless," says Antonio Fernández García, who, along with fellow academic José Luis Jiménez, has written extensively about the far right in Europe. The Le Pen clan has built up a solid platform of support in France's cities, areas with large immigrant populations that have been hit hard by the economic crisis, with soaring crime rates. Aside from calling for an end to immigration, it has turned its guns on the EU and the impact of the single currency and Germany's domination of economic policy.

Attacking the PP for failing to quash demands for Catalan independence, or for giving into ETA is a way of attracting support from sectors of Spanish society that increasingly see the two main parties as different sides of the same coin. The careers of the men and women leaving the PP to join Vox were probably already over, but the main issue here is whether, in the years to come, populist parties in Spain can elbow their way into the political arena by convincing growing numbers of disenchanted voters that they offer an alternative to the business-as-usual approach to politics practiced by the two main parties. After all, it has worked in the rest of Europe.

Any room for maneuver?

Around two percent of the Spanish electorate place themselves on the far right, politically speaking. That is to say that on a scale of zero to 10, in which zero is the far left, and 10 the far right, they are between nine and 10. In absolute terms, this amounts to around 700,000 people, most of whom are former voters of a Popular Party that they see as having shifted leftward in recent years.

According to pollster Metroscopia, around half-a-million of these voters supported the PP in the 2011 general elections. In all likelihood, they did so in the absence of any realistic alternative to the right of the party.

This does not mean, however, that a schism on the far right of the PP caused by the creation of a new political party would necessarily garner most of the party's extreme right wingers, most of whom would probably remain faithful to the PP, with some abstaining, and others switching to other parties. But even if all of them voted for the new party, something that would require a leader with sufficient charisma to rally the electorate and bring together all the tiny parties of the far-right, that party would still have very limited impact.

Quite simply, Spanish politics functions in favor of large parties. For example, in the upcoming European elections in May, such a party would need to garner around 300,000 votes just to win a single seat in Strasbourg. In a general election, Vox would be very unlikely to win a seat in Congress. It might, however, be able to build up support via municipal elections, or at the regional level, as the Platform for Catalonia, which won 67 seats in 2011, has managed to achieve.

The paradox is that if a far right party in Spain wants to build an electoral power base and win seats, it will be obliged to moderate its policies and appeal to the less ideologically extreme: around eight percent of the population puts itself between seven and eight, and 10 percent, six. However, that would simply put it into direct competition with the PP.

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