The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How a right-wing party exploited Spain’s divisions to win

María Ramírez is the strategy director of, a Spanish news website.

In recent years I often boasted to friends and colleagues in Europe and the United States that Spain didn’t have a far-right party. No party in parliament was willing to exploit immigration, nationalist pride, women and gay rights as a central message.

That’s no longer true.

On Dec. 2, a party called Vox got 12 seats, or 11 percent of the vote, in the local elections of Andalusia, the most populated region in Spain. The leader of Vox in Andalusia, Francisco Serrano, a former judge, describes feminists as “b------” and “scum,” and has called for a new “Reconquista,” the violent expansion of the Christian kingdoms in the Middle Ages that ended with the expulsion or conversion of Jews and Muslims in 15th-century Spain. The party’s national leader, Santiago Abascal, has criticized African immigrants and Muslims. Vox proudly says it’s the only Spanish party that supported President Trump in the 2016 election. Marine Le Pen, of the French National Front, and David Duke, a former KKK leader, were among the first figures to congratulate Vox for the election result.

As with the triumph of Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, there isn’t a single factor that explains the emergence of this right-wing force in global politics.

Vox managed to get votes in the richest, more conservative neighborhoods of big cities and in some poorer, rural towns that traditionally supported the Socialist party. They got more votes in some of the towns with the highest percentage of immigrants from Africa, although immigration ranks low as a concern for voters in Andalusia and the rest of Spain, well behind unemployment and corruption.

Disappointment with the political establishment is particularly strong in Andalusia, where the Socialist party has governed for 36 years in a row and has survived several corruption scandals. The other big party, the conservative PP, has also been tainted by corruption — that’s why Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was forced out by a no-confidence vote and how the Socialist Pedro Sánchez became prime minister in June.

But there are at least three specific issues that seemed to have stoked the rise of Vox.

The crisis around the independence referendum in Catalonia, still unsolved, deeply polarized the country and generated disputes over the flag and other national symbols. The words of the current president of Catalonia, Quim Torra, who wrote against “the beasts” who speak Spanish, were weaponized in Andalusia.

Another issue particularly exploited by Vox is a backlash against a movement for women’s rights and representation, following massive protests in the spring and a record-breaking Socialist government mostly made up of female ministers and women in other top positions. Almost 7 in 10 Vox voters were men, according to the pollster Narciso Michavila.

The grievances over swift social changes were barely visible for years. The dominant mainstream parties, the conservative PP and the Socialist PSOE, differed in terms of style and tax policy, but not much on social issues. However, the fall of Rajoy brought a new, more conservative PP leader, Pablo Casado, more willing to campaign around immigration and religion.

The third factor in the rise of Vox is a weak media landscape. National and local TV stations often treat politics as an entertaining shouting contest; it’s hard to find outlets with the resources and independence to cover politics deeply. Social media has also fueled the anger of many and some of the usual suspects — like Russia Today and Sputnik — have been ready to spread a sense of chaos around immigration, protests and Catalonia. Some players from the Trump campaign have shown some interest, too. Cambridge Analytica offered its services to Vox, and Stephen K. Bannon has talked to one of its leaders.

What is perhaps more surprising about the Spanish case is that politicians and journalists, considering the dynamics fueling the right worldwide, still fell into the same traps. Politicians exaggerated the immigration issue; opponents were either “fascists” or “communists.” Media outlets jumped at news stories and sensationalized them in the pursuit of clicks or catchy front pages, and amplified anyone who would colorfully defend the Franco dictatorship, attack feminists as “feminazis” or praise authoritarians in Venezuela on live TV.

We’ve seen this play elsewhere — but they still followed the script.

Vox is a tiny party, but it has an opportunity in upcoming elections in May. There could be a snap general election, too, in 2019.

Now is a good time for politicians and journalists to pause. Putting the resilience of institutions to the test seems particularly risky. Spain just celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Constitution. It seems that’s enough time for some to have forgotten how precious democracy is.

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