Spain’s far right stopped in its tracks
Against all predictions, Spain’s 23 July snap election didn’t result in the far-right Vox party entering government alongside the established conservative Popular Party (PP). The PP’s victory over the incumbent Socialist Party (PSOE) was far narrower than expected and Vox’s ferocious anti-rights campaign evidently backfired, bringing major losses. With no other party ready to support a government that includes Vox, a new PSOE-led minority government seems the likeliest outcome. But if neither major party manages to piece together a government, a fresh election will be called, offering a renewed outlet for anti-rights attacks and giving the far right a second chance at power.
Many things were unusual about the 23 July Spanish election – not least that it was held in the middle of summer, with much of the country experiencing scorching heat. But people went to the polls regardless, knowing there was much at stake: turnout, at over 70 per cent, was up on the previous election of November 2019.
There’s long been an idea in Spain that the country is inoculated against fascism, having endured the long trauma of the Franco dictatorship. But in the run-up to this election, Spain seemed headed, like many European countries, towards the normalisation of the extreme right and even its entry into government.
This election campaign has been plagued by expressions of homophobia and transphobia. I see the future with fear. I was a teenager at the time of Franco’s dictatorship and I fear the idea that we might be headed back to that.
The snap election was called in reaction to the results of regional and local elections on 28 May, which saw the mainstream conservative Popular Party (PP) win resoundingly, and the far-right Vox party enter regional governments in coalition with it. Castilla y León, Extremadura and Valencia, where the two share power, were feared to be the future of Spain.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) responded by gambling that an early general election could mobilise a united left in the face of fears of the far right’s entry into national government. To some extent, his gamble paid off: Vox fell back and, at least for the time being, lost its chance to become part of government.
Now the winner may well end up losing, and the loser might end up the winner. Having won by a narrower margin than expected, and with Vox losing many seats, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo is unlikely to be able to form a coalition government. Current prime minister Sánchez has more coalition options and could try to piece together a government and stay at the helm. If neither succeeds, another election will have to be held within a few months, bringing a protracted period of uncertainty.
Winners and losers
The polls predicted a clear PP victory, but not by enough for it to govern alone. A strong performance was also expected from Vox, making it the likely source of the seats the PP would need to form a coalition, unless the PP gained enough seats to make minority government plausible.
But the polls were wrong – or perhaps the predicted results mobilised people to vote to try to stop Vox entering government. The PP’s victory was much tighter than expected: it came first with 33 per cent of the vote, translating into 136 seats – up from 89 in 2019, but still far short of the 176 needed for a majority.
The PSOE’s second place, with 31.7 per cent, was surely better than expected: having weathered the pandemic and the economic impacts of a war in Europe, it received a million votes more than in 2019 and gained two seats, up to 122. The reason it went from first to second place lay in the disappearance of a right-wing party, Ciudadanos, which fared so badly in the regional and local vote that it decided not to stand in the July election. Most of its votes migrated to the PP rather than Vox.
In third place, Vox was the biggest loser: its 33 seats were 19 down on its 2019 performance. The left-wing platform Sumar, which incorporates PSOE’s coalition partner Unidas Podemos, came fourth with 31 seats, four fewer than those held by Podemos.
There’s still the votes cast by Spanish citizens abroad, not a negligible amount, to be counted. These tend to sway left: since the mid-1980s, when these votes started to count, the PSOE has won them seven times, including in the last three general elections, with the PP and Podemos winning twice each. This time they may result in two or three extra seats for the PSOE, and perhaps one more for Sumar.
The state of the economy is often decisive in election outcomes – inevitably to the detriment of incumbents – when things are going badly. When the economy is perceived to be doing well, it tends to be less of a campaign issue. Spain’s economy is currently among Europe’s fastest-growing, inflation has subsided and its unemployment rate, once marked by catastrophic rates of youth unemployment, has declined sharply. The government’s rising star is its Labour Minister, Sumar’s Yolanda Díaz, responsible for popular measures, including a minimum wage increase.
There was some debate about affordable housing, with all parties offering policies to tackle the problem, but overall, the election campaign was about something else entirely. Much of it focused on the likely coalition partners of the two main contenders. The PP was questioned, including among its own ranks, for its alliances with Vox, while for the PSOE, controversy centred on its links with Catalan and other pro-independence parties.
Catalonia has a long-running independence movement, and its pro-independence parties have significant national-level representation. With the two-party system long gone, their seats can make a crucial difference when it comes to putting together a government. During the campaign, the right-wing opposition decried the PSOE’s parliamentary agreement with Catalonia’s Republican Left, a Catalan pro-independence coalition, as well as with EH Bildu – a Basque pro-independence party that includes some former members of the now-defunct ETA terrorist organisation. They also tried to capitalise on controversy over the government’s 2021 pardon of nine Catalan leaders, jailed for their role in a 2017 illegal independence referendum and subsequent unilateral declaration of independence.
Sánchez defended his government’s social achievements as well as its Catalonia policy, which appeared to pay off electorally, as the PSOE increased its vote in Catalonia, partly at the expense of pro-independence parties, which lost several seats.
But it was Vox that set the tone, determined to resurrect the spectre of anti-Spanish terrorism while creating a new monster in the form of sexual and gender diversity and equality. Ironically, the extremism of Vox’s approach likely ended up pushing many of its voters into the arms of the supposedly more moderate PP and helped the governing coalition close ranks in defence of hard-won rights.
Rise – and fall? – of the anti-rights reaction
For almost a decade, Spain witnessed the rise of Vox. Founded in late 2013, it made its big leap into the national arena in 2019, a year of two elections. As support for the PP plummeted due to a corruption scandal, Vox saw its vote jump from just 0.2 per cent in 2016 to more than 10 per cent in the April 2019 election and 15 per cent in November 2019, when it became the third-largest parliamentary party.
Vox positions itself as the defender of traditional Catholic values. As well as being xenophobic and anti-Muslim, it declares itself to be anti-feminist and opposed to what it calls ‘gender ideology’ and the ‘LGBT lobby’. It campaigns against abortion and in defence of traditional family roles. It called for the repeal of the 2004 Gender Violence Law, saying that it discriminated against men and children. It denies the existence of gender-based violence.
Vox consistently attacks civil society groups mobilising for sexual and reproductive rights and the recognition of sexual and gender diversity, calling them ‘communists’ and ‘feminazis’. One of its recent proposals was a so-called ‘parental pin’ to put parents in control of education: school heads would be required to seek parental authorisation to include children in activities that might be ‘ideologically or morally’ contrary to family convictions, including sex education.
It also mounted a fierce disinformation campaign against the 2022 Law on the Guarantee of Sexual Freedom. Also known as the ‘only yes is yes’ bill, this law is structured around the principle of consent and seeks to challenge widespread impunity for sexual and gender-based violence. Vox falsely claimed the new law wouldn’t protect male victims of sexual violence, would violate the right to the presumption of innocence of someone accused and would oblige people to sign a ‘contract of consent’ before having sex, among other intentionally misleading claims.
More recently, Vox opposed the approval of the Trans Law tooth and nail, then went to court to challenge it. Passed in February 2023, this law seeks to ensure equal rights for transgender people and prohibit so-called ‘conversion therapies’.
Vox’s rise and its attention-grabbing campaigns have been consistently and generously funded by Hazte Oír (Make Yourself Heard), an ultra-Catholic Spanish anti-rights organisation founded in 2001, and the platform it established, CitizenGo, which since 2013 has worked to export Hazte Oír’s operations to some 50 countries around the world.
The election campaign brought more of the usual Vox discourse, focused on rolling back laws that recognise rights – including the Gender Violence Law, the Abortion Law, the Equal Marriage Law, the Law on the Guarantee of Sexual Freedom and the Trans Law. But it also coincided with the inauguration of the regional governments elected in May, including those in which Vox now plays a role. Various acts of cultural censorship, including the removal of the rainbow flag from Valencia City Hall, offered a glimpse of what a Spain ruled by Vox could look like. Many didn’t like what they saw.
Voices from the frontline
Emilio de Benito is spokesperson for Health and Seniors of the LGTB+ Collective of Madrid (COGAM).
We have a problem: the rise of hate speech propagated by the far right, represented by Vox, and even by the more traditional conservative party, the PP. This election campaign has been plagued by expressions of homophobia and transphobia. We have seen politicians refuse to address trans people in a manner consistent with their gender identity and threaten to abolish laws that have enshrined rights, such as the Equal Marriage Law and the Trans Law. This has reflected in an increase in harassment of LGBTQI+ people both in the classroom and on the streets. According to official data, last year hate crimes in Spain increased by 45 per cent, although real figures may be much higher, because people do not always report these crimes.
Right now, at this crossroads, I see the future with fear. I was a teenager at the time of Franco’s dictatorship and I lived through it in fear. Now I fear the idea that we might be headed back to that.
In recent decades many people have accepted us, but they have not all done it for the same reasons. Many people have done so because they did not dare to express their rejection, because it was frowned upon. But now the part of the population in which rejection is well regarded is growing.
The other day in a public debate a trans girl who is a member of a party was called ‘chronically ill’. Members of regional parliaments insist on addressing trans women lawmakers in masculine terms. Until recently, those who thought these things kept quiet because they were frowned upon and feared social rejection. But now there is a public emboldened to express their hatred. And this will continue regardless of the outcome of the election, because the groups that promote hatred have a public presence that transcends parliament. So I fear for the fate of egalitarian laws, but I fear the streets even more.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Emilio. Read the full interview here.
In Spain, forming a government at a first attempt requires an absolute majority of 176, but if no one wins the first parliamentary vote, a simple majority suffices in subsequent votes, as long as a sufficient number of deputies abstain.
During the campaign, the PP expressed its preference for governing alone, but never ruled out a coalition with Vox. Had it reached somewhere close to an absolute majority, it could have pressured the PSOE into abstaining to allow it to form a minority government on the promise of closing the door on Vox. But the results have removed this possibility.
1/ Lo fundamental del 23 de julio es que España frena el pacto PP-Vox como marco principal; la onda Meloni, la onda Orban, la onda Morawiecki, la aleación de la derecha con la extrema de derecha. Se frena una operación de alcance que pretende mover los ejes de la política europea— Enric Juliana Ricart (@EnricJuliana) July 24, 2023
The two major parties have both emerged stronger than they’ve been in a long time – but they still need the support of parties to their left and right. The most the PP could muster is 171 votes in its favour, but it’s to be expected that all 179 other votes would be against it. Nobody else wants to be part of or enable a coalition that includes Vox.
The PSOE can count on 172 – its own 122 and Sumar’s 31, plus 19 from the Basque, Catalan and Galician parties that have so far supported its government. That hands the key to power to Junts per Catalunya (JxCat), a right-wing Catalan party. JxCat would never support the PP, but if it was to abstain to enable a PSOE-led government, it insists on two conditions that seem impossible: a binding referendum on self-determination in Catalonia and amnesty for all those prosecuted for their role in the 2017 referendum.
For now, the situation is deadlocked. If no agreement can be brokered, fresh elections will be called, potentially giving rise to another campaign where anti-rights disinformation and hate speech will flourish as the far right makes a second attempt to enter national government. Uncertain times lie ahead.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Political parties including the Popular Party should commit to not forming or enabling a coalition government that includes Vox.
All political parties should commit to upholding all existing laws that recognise rights.
Civil society should work to defend the rights of women and sexual and gender minorities, likely to continue to come under attack, particularly if there is a second election campaign.
Cover photo by Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images