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Spain's Far Right Party Radicalizes Itself Out of Power
Vox responds to electoral losses by giving voters more of what they don't want
Vox, Spain’s decade-old ultranationalist party that once consulted with MAGA luminary Steve Bannon, has somehow found a way to drift even further to the right since national elections in July. In keeping with the pattern of increasing radicalization of right-wing movements around the world, Vox has intensified its commitment to social conservative ideals—particularly of the Catholic traditionalist variety. It has also purged classical liberals and free-market advocates from its ranks, ostensibly because they were not conservative enough.
Vox’s leadership oversaw this purity purge after this hard-right party lost 36% of its seats in Parliament (down from 52 to 33). In other words, Vox chose to respond to a loss of voter confidence in its national conservatism platform by hardening itself into an even-more extreme version of what voters found troubling in the first place.
To make sense of Vox’s decision to effectively radicalize itself past a point of political viability, we need to look at Spanish history and current Spanish politics.
Spanish Politics and the F-word
There has always been a strong conservative Catholic component within the broader historical tradition of Spanish Fascism.
Spain’s Fascist party, Falange (literally “Phalanx”), was created in 1933, when the country was careening toward a civil war that had a significant religious dimension to it—featuring Communists and Anarchists against Catholic traditionalists and Fascists. The war’s great winner, the Catholic traditionalist Generalissimo Francisco Franco, integrated Falange into his Movimiento Nacional (National Movement), which provided a façade of legitimacy to what in fact was a one-person rule. Franco’s move also effectively consolidated Spanish Fascism and Catholic integralism, the doctrine that Catholic teaching ought to be the explicit basis of a nation’s laws and policies, a school of thought that is again gaining favor with prominent Catholic intellectuals in America. In 1953, Spain adopted Catholicism as its official state religion. Although Spanish history does not suggest a perfect overlap between Catholicism and fascism—for example, in the ’60s, members of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei known as the “technocrats” successfully oversaw Spain’s economic liberalization—Catholicism and far-right politics have been so closely intertwined in the annals of Spanish politics that there is even a term for it that gets applied to Franco and his followers: “nacional-catolicismo” (National-Catholicism).
Vox in Spanish Politics Today
From its beginning, Vox always fit comfortably within that ideological lineage. Since the general election in late July, however, the party has embraced the nacional-catolicismo stance even more stringently. Despite the fact that the People’s Party (PP)—a conservative political party in the European Christian-democratic vein—squeaked out a win over the current Socialist regime (33.1% to 31.7%, respectively), Vox has responded to the election results by continuing to torpedo the right’s chances of returning to power.
Vox has spent years relentlessly attacking the bigger but less-fervently-conservative People’s Party, with Vox’s cofounder, Santiago Abascal, going as far as calling the PP the “little coward right” on Parliament’s floor. In a maneuver reminiscent of the MAGA movement’s insistence that non-Trumpian conservatives are really ‘RINOs’ (Republicans In Name Only), earlier this year Abascal stopped categorizing the PP as conservative at all, suggesting instead that the PP had become a firmly “center left” party. Then, once the July results poured in and Vox found itself on the receiving end of a thunderous electoral rebuke from voters, one might have expected Vox to tamp down its more firebrand version of conservatism and to make nice with other right-wing organs, especially ones it still had a chance to join as junior partners in a governing coalition. But Vox chose not to take any steps toward reconciliation. Not even the possibility of forming a new conservative government was apparently alluring enough for Vox to meaningfully walk back its toxicity. Of course, smearing other right-wing entities as insufficiency conservative is a technique far right groups often employ.
The political situation, as it currently stands, is that despite winning the election, the People’s Party was unable to form a new government by the Sep. 27 deadline, with the PP/Vox attempt coming up four seats shy of the required number. Ordinarily, a larger party like the PP would be able to cobble together a governing coalition made up of several smaller parties. But due to Vox’s accelerating radicalism—its embrace of conspiratorial thinking (e.g., partly blaming George Soros for the nation’s ills); its hardline nationalist stance that would centralize power by stripping provinces of their relative autonomy, an absolute deal-breaker across parts of Spain; its willingness to take up some of the most controversial culture war positions; and more—the party has become so toxic that other smaller parties that would otherwise join a PP-led coalition are unwilling to share a government with Vox. The result is that after five years of Socialist rule, Vox has critically jeopardized the right’s ability to return to power.
Now that the deadline for Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the People’s Party, to establish a new government has come and gone—and Vox’s ultranationalist repulsiveness is a big reason why he could not—it is the Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s turn. In order to get the pro-Catalan party Together for Catalonia (JxC) into its coalition and form a new government, Sánchez will look to pardon the former leader of the Catalan secessionist movement, in exile since 2017, and grant even more favorable tax treatment for Catalonia. For the Catalan independence movement, these concessions are a genuine lifeline since the July 23 elections showed that its popular support is crashing. The tragedy for the right is that Sánchez’s overtures to pro-Catalan parties have been made possible by the opening that Vox’s fanatical nationalism has created.
Vox and the Global Far Right
Just like Republicans in the United States reacted to losing in 2018, 2020, and underperforming in 2022 by hardening their Trumpian resolve, Vox has responded to its own political failures by doubling down on its ultranationalist brand of conservatism. In the U.S., rather than return to normalcy after a historically fraught presidential tenure that saw two impeachments and an unprecedented attempt to overthrow the results of the presidential election, the GOP decided to strengthen its commitment to MAGA nationalism by ridding itself of party leadership unwilling to parrot the most unhinged aspects of Trump’s agenda. In a similar dynamic, saner voices have been forced out of Vox in Spain. The affinities between Vox and the MAGA-friendly Heritage Foundation—Vox's in-house publication, La Gaceta de la Iberosfera, published Tucker Carlson’s keynote address from Heritage’s 50th Anniversary Gala earlier this year—are therefore no surprise.
Vox, however, is not merely attuned to America’s far right—it increasingly draws inspiration from likeminded movements around the world. Iván Espinosa de los Monteros resigned in early August as Vox’s spokesman because he favored a different model of conservatism than Vox is gravitating toward. In a write-up for The Guardian, the Barcelona-based journalist Stephen Burgen put it this way:
While [Vox’s hardliners] look for inspiration to the authoritarian government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the rightwing nationalists of Law & Justice in Poland, Espinosa de los Monteros represents a wing of the party that identifies more with the British Conservatives and whose role models are Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Somewhat paradoxically for a nationalist outfit, but in line with the new reality of fascism’s mutually-reinforcing global platform, Vox has relied on foreign support from its very beginning. Among its supporters is the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a group the U.S. considered a terrorist organization from 1997 until 2012. It financially contributed to Vox during its first year of existence.
Espinosa de los Monteros’s exit confirmed that Vox is no longer even minimally hospitable to a classical liberal perspective, or really to any right-wing perspective that falls short of the ultranationalist social conservatism exemplified by Jorge Buxadé, a former member of the fascist Falange party, and the party leader Santiago Abascal. Vox is currently falling further under the sway of hardline conservative Catholic groups, such as the Neocatechumenal Way and the Legionaries of Christ and El Yunque (The Anvil), the latter being a secret organization established in Mexico in the ’50s alleged to have committed violent acts throughout the Americas.
The picture that has emerged is of a party that in addition to being ultranationalist is also anti-system and anti-capitalist, as La Gaceta’s hiring of the Communist columnist Santiago Armesilla suggests. Whereas Vox was once pro-U.S. and pro-NATO, it now has an anti-Western stance and decries the institutions and international organs that have constituted the postwar order.
Vox and the Future of Spanish Conservatism
Vox was born under the exceptional circumstances originated by the Euro crisis of 2010-2014, and further developed under the Catalan secessionist movement of 2017. But as both crises faded, it was nimble enough to adapt to the new political, social, and economic environment. Now, however, its turn toward the farthest reaches of the right has put it at odds with the electorate; it has jeopardized its own movement’s ability to wrest power away from the current leftist government; it has tapped into the far right’s global advance; and it has openly embraced anti-liberal positions consistent with past forms of Spanish fascism.
One doesn’t have to work too hard to find in Vox’s increasing radicalization an echo of the Republican Party’s Trumpian turn. And the effect, namely, the inability of any reasonable form of conservatism regaining a foothold, is the same. Perhaps the biggest difference between Vox and the MAGA movement is that the institutional system in Spain is designed to have many competing parties, unlike the U.S., where there is only space for two. Structurally, this should make it easier for a sane version of conservatism to continue to exist in Spain, since the radicals can be circumvented in favor of coalition partners that are more ideologically sensible. In America, by contrast, the two-party system, together with the party nominee being chosen via primaries, means the radicals have a smoother path to taking over the entire movement, and worse, the country. As a vociferous minority, Vox could make it difficult for the mainstream right to return to power in Spain. But it has little chance of taking over the entirety of the conservative movement like Trumpism has in America. Still, over time, Vox could portend a Spanish conservatism that is strongly anti-liberal and anti-democracy—a future version that far too closely resembles the worst versions of its past.
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