With Vox’s vote rocketing, the election has seen the end of Spanish exceptionalism – and Catalonia was the catalyst
Spanish exceptionalism – the country’s supposed immunity to the far-right parties that have seeped into mainstream European politics – has finally succumbed to the wounds it received last December.
Four months after picking up 12 seats in the Andalucían regional election, the upstart Vox party led by Santiago Abascal is to enter the national parliament, winning 24 seats in the congress of deputies and taking 10% of the vote.
Even a year ago, Vox’s breakthrough would have been unthinkable: in the last general election in June 2016, the party attracted a paltry 0.2% of the vote.
Despite Abascal’s histrionic calls for a “reconquest” of Spain – a reference to the long campaign against Moorish rule, which concluded in 1492 and also led to the expulsion of Spain’s Jews – his party’s success has less to do with immigration and borders than domestic politics.
The prime catalyst has been Catalonia and the tumultuous events of autumn 2017.
The fuse was lit when the Catalan regional government, led by Carles Puigdemont, held a unilateral referendum on seceding from Spain and followed it with unilateral declaration of independence a few weeks later.
Spanish flags began to multiply on balconies and windowsills across the rest of the country as the governing conservative People’s party (PP) of Mariano Rajoy stepped in and assumed direct control of the region.
In a move that would backfire spectacularly for both his party and administration, Rajoy also announced fresh Catalan elections.
Although the pro-independence bloc retained its majority, the biggest winners were the PP’s centre-right rivals, the Citizens party, which saw its hardline, anti-independence line vindicated at the ballot box.
The PP’s mishandling of the situation – together with a resurgent sense of Spanish nationalism – opened the way for Citizens and then Vox.
It also offered final proof that the PP, which had been the broad church in which the entire spectrum of the Spanish right had worshipped for the past 40 years, had lost its hegemonic status.
Moderates drifted towards Citizens, while more conservative voters defected to Vox, which was itself founded by a splinter group of PP members six years ago.
The far-right party’s pitch to disillusioned PP voters has not been subtle but it has been undeniably effective.
Vox’s solution to Spain’s worst political and territorial crisis since the country’s return to democracy is simple: suspend Catalan self-government “until the defeat of the coup plotters” behind the push for independence and ban “parties, associations and NGOs that strive for the destruction of the sovereignty and territorial unity of the nation”.
The party’s tirades against “feminazis”, gender violence legislation and its gripes over what it sees as the scourge of political correctness have not hurt either, serving to further endear it to those traditionalists who feel that contemporary Spain is moving too far, too fast.
Sunday’s results are unequivocal proof of the advent of Vox and the era of five-party politics in Spain.
Even if the breakthrough has been a little less spectacular than anticipated, the damage inflicted on the PP has been brutal. And, in any case, Vox has already succeeded by shifting the political discourse and dragging a divided and untethered Spanish right ever further from the centre.