Spain has stopped the far-right Vox party, for now
Spain held parliamentary elections on 23 July and, contradicting most of the polls ahead of the vote, the centre-right Popular Party and the far-right Vox party failed to secure a parliamentary majority.
Both parties fell six seats short of the 176 seats that mark a majority in the Spanish parliament. The centre-right presidential candidate Alberto Nuñez Feijoó had never openly acknowledged his willingness to accept Vox and his leader Santiago Abascal in a coalition government led by the Popular Party.
The presence of Vox in the Spanish government would have had dire consequences for migrants and the Muslim minority in Spain, which represents around 5 percent of the population. In the years that led to Vox’s entry into parliament in April 2019, the party was influenced by figures such as Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon. Trump himself expressed his support for Vox in a short video in 2022.
"The presence of Vox in the Spanish government would have had dire consequences for migrants and the Muslim minority in Spain"
The far-right party has long espoused a strong anti-immigration discourse that calls for the deportation of undocumented migrants living in Spain. Vox leaders portray immigration as an ‘invasion’ or a ‘jihadist threat’.
The dehumanisation of migrants by the far right is particularly extreme against those who cross from North Africa to Spain searching for a better future, often fleeing war and prosecution. Vox has suggested that Spanish coastguards should reject assistance to distressed embarkations with migrants headed to Spain if they are not in Spanish waters, even if the Spanish coastguards could represent the only chance of their survival.
The electoral program of Vox for the parliamentary elections provides a general overview of the policies they would have pushed for in negotiations with the Popular Party to form a government. As the eventual junior partner in the coalition, Vox would have had to concede on multiple points, but even a watered-down version of the party’s proposals is a reason for serious concern.
In its manifesto, Vox described the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Northern Africa (a historical residue of Spain’s colonial past in the region) as harassed by Morocco and promised to deploy military forces in Ceuta, Melilla, and the Canary Islands to protect these areas from what it calls “invasions promoted from neighbouring countries and international organisations”.
Vox threatened to ban NGOs that aid migrants as well as to move centres hosting unaccompanied minors who have recently arrived in Spain away from urban areas. The stated goal of this policy, the prevention of “criminal behaviour”, is a perfect example of how the far-right party’s toxic discourse equates migration with criminality.
In its program for the parliamentary elections, Vox also called for stopping the supposed ‘Islamisation’ of Spain. The far-right party has often called its political mission ‘La Reconquista’ (The Reconquest), in a reference to the gradual military expulsion of the Arabs from Spain that culminated in 1492 with the fall of Granada.
Historians have long denounced the term as ahistorical, as it did not emerge until the late 18th or early 19th century with the growth of Spanish nationalism. Granada, for instance, could never be reconquered for the simple reason that it was founded by the Arabs.
Beyond historical discussions, Vox’s discourse of hate can be far more specific. In early 2021, during the election campaign in the northeastern region of Catalonia, Twitter temporarily blocked the far-right party’s account after it falsely claimed that Muslims represent 0.2% of the population and 93% of police reports in Catalonia.
A coalition government with the Popular Party and Vox would have represented a major setback for migrants and Muslims in Spain. Still, the current Spanish government, led by President Pedro Sánchez from the Socialist Party in a coalition with the left-wing platform Sumar (formerly known as Unidas Podemos), is far from flawless in its migration policy.
"The far-right party has often called its political mission 'La Reconquista' (The Reconquest)"
The Spanish government was partially responsible for the death of at least 37 migrants (the death toll is probably higher as 76 people are missing) in Melilla on 24 June 2022. On that day, migrants suffocated and were lethally beaten by the Moroccan police when trying to cross into Spanish territory.
An investigation by the BBC documented how the Spanish border guards fired rubber bullets at close range against the migrants, pushed back those who had crossed into Spain, and watched on as the Moroccan guards attacked the migrants. Although he later retracted his words, President Sánchez initially stated that the attempted crossing by migrants at Melilla had been “well resolved”.
Fernando Grande-Marlaska, Spain’s Interior Minister since 2018, has come to embody the harsh policies of the Spanish government in the country’s southern borders. It is illustrative that, three days before the elections, a TV program that satirically covers Spanish politics joked about the possibility that Grande-Marlaska could stay as Interior Minister in a government led by the Popular Party and Vox.
The response of President Sánchez to the racist claims against migrants by Vox leader Santiago Abascal in one of the two debates that preceded the elections was also worrying. Sánchez countered Abascal by pointing out that the number of irregular migrants arriving in Spain from Northern Africa had decreased during his period in power.
Although this is factually correct, it completely misses the point as Sánchez lost a valuable opportunity to denounce on prime time TV the far-right party’s demonisation of migrants.
After the election failed to provide a majority for the Popular Party and Vox, defying expectations, the sense of relief among politically progressive sectors in Spain was understandable. Complacency, however, would be dangerous. Vox lost support but received over three million votes and the Popular Party, which was ready to reach a deal with the far-right to govern Spain, finished first in votes and the number of seats in parliament.
Turnout was high by Spanish standards, registering at 70.4 percent, which represents the second-highest turnout in the last six elections. Post-election polling is still not available but the feeling in Spain is that many voted for coalition parties less to reward their performance than to stand in the far-right’s way to power.
President Sánchez is further away from having a majority in parliament with his coalition partner Sumar than he was before the elections, as the left-wing platform’s loss of seats was not offset by the Socialist gains.
The coalition parties will need to conduct complicated negotiations with the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties to find the support that could make him president again. A repeat election is a very real possibility, and the traditional decrease in turnout when Spain goes to repeat elections could improve the electoral fortunes of Vox, as was the case in November 2019.
Even if Sánchez succeeds in being re-elected, serious soul-searching regarding xenophobia and Islamophobia in Spain is long overdue. The Socialist Party has sometimes failed to contest the dangerous messages of Vox. Meanwhile, the Popular Party (in contrast with the centre-right in Germany, even if the consensus there is wavering) has proven ready to govern Spain with the far-right and is already doing so in many regions of the country.
Spain only needs to look north for a cautionary tale. After two consecutive second-round presidential elections where Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen, recent polls show that the far-right candidate, who collected 7.5% more votes in her second defeat in 2022 as compared to 2017, would currently win the first round of the presidential elections in France.
After all, the danger lies in the fact that Vox only needs to enter the government once for migrants and the Muslim minority in Spain to suffer the consequences.
Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East Blog, Middle East Monitor, Inside Arabia, Responsible Statecraft and Global Policy.
Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3