This article was first published on the Spanish magazine CTXT
On Sunday October 7, the Spanish far right party Vox achieved what they had been looking for for a long time: their baptism as a relevant political actor in the Spanish public sphere. They did it by filling the Vistalegre palace in Madrid with 10,000 supporters and leaving a thousand people out for lack of space. In the past few years, Vistalegre has symbolically become the venue used by Podemos for their annual congresses. The choice of the venue for this event is not coincidental: Vox is explicitly looking for parallels with the first Podemos. They want to turn the political indignation of a certain sector of the Spanish right into political capital. And to achieve this they hope to use the springboard of the European elections. In this sense, it’s fundamental to note that there are people within the Vox party who are studying the political campaign and strategy of Podemos in 2014, when the party entered candidates for the 2014 European Parliament election, polling with 7.98% of the national vote.
Outside the venue a group of Vox volunteers dressed in the distinctive green vest of the party approach a police car and give the driver a bracelet with the colors of the Spanish flag, a gesture that the police officer thanks gratefully. A few meters away, two street stalls are selling Spanish flags. “We came here with great enthusiasm,” says Maite before entering the event, “we needed someone to say what nobody, out of fear or for some other reason, dares to say.” “Vox dares everything,” says Luis, her husband.
Within the mythical bullring where Podemos celebrated its two great congresses and where José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (former president of Spain and member of the Socialist party) organized several of his most powerful public performances in 2004, 2007 and 2009, the atmosphere is festive. Almost of euphoria. “We did it,” says Manuel Mariscal, the party’s deputy communications secretary and press officer. The joy increases when the organizers announce that 3,000 people have been left out the venue due to lack of space. Santiago Abascal, leader of the party, and Javier Ortega Smith, general secretary of Vox, go outside the entrance of Vistalegre and, with a megaphone in hand, happily address the audience outside, a scene that recalls other events which have taken place in the Spanish political context over the last few years.
In the arena, well beyond the burladero, there is a first row where writers, historians, journalists and even bullfighters, all identifying within the far right spectrum in Spain, gather together looking at the audience. However, the absences are more surprising: Vox had invited international personalities from other European political parties, both from the ENL parliamentary group (which brings together in Brussels the National Front, the Northern League, the Austrian FPÖ or the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders) and from the parliamentary group of the European Conservatives and Reformists, where Polish, Czech and British conservatives meet. But none of them attended. Not even Steve Bannon, whose presence was speculated a few weeks before.
Their proposals, one hundred measures that Vox communicates broadly, are listed: suppression of autonomous communities, illegalization of separatist parties, derogation from the law on historical memory, derogation from the law on gender violence, defense of borders, immediate deportation of illegal immigrants to their countries of origin and drastic tax reduction. There is also room for comments on abortion and euthanasia: “we will defend life from the moment of conception until natural death”, a sentence that Is applauded and cheered by the audience.
The different speakers who step onto the stage, play a role in the party: Rocío Monasterio, president of Vox in the community of Madrid, uses a political way of speaking that parallels religious discourse: he uses expressions such as “giving testimony”, “preaching by means of example” or “defending the sacred character of people”. Truth will set you free, says Rocío Monasterio, emphasizing the biblical-political character of his message. Javier Ortega Smith, general secretary of the party, prefers the epic tone that aims to give the party’s discourse a historic mission and setting. That is why he begins his speech referring to the battle of Lepanto, which, according to his words, “led a Spanish coalition 447 years ago to defeat the largest Turkish fleet saving independence, sovereignty, freedom and Western civilization from barbarism”.
Their language, inherited from reactionary traditions, sometimes even imitates the speech of Donald Trump: “May God bless you and may God bless Spain”, “Make Spain great again” or “Spain first”.
If Rocío Monasterio wants to link Vox with certain groups of the Spanish Catholic Church, Ortega Smith wishes to link the new project with the ideological and discursive background of the Spanish far right. That is why it is not by chance that invocations to the Army of Flanders or to the Spanish Empire emerged from the audience. The idea is always the same: Spain is a nation in danger of dissolution due to territorial conflict and foreign invasion and it needs to re-engage with its founding myths. It should never be forgotten that both the current and past far right have always understood nations as living organisms susceptible to periods of decay (due to illness, fatigue or lack of self-confidence) and periods of rebirth or flourishing (when the nation finds within itself the energy to overcome the state of bereavement or apathy). All of Vox’s rhetoric is embedded within this ideology.
Their language, inherited from reactionary traditions, sometimes even imitates the speech of Donald Trump. Ignacio Garriga, one of the speakers chosen for the occasion, surprised everyone using expressions such as “may God bless you and may God bless Spain”. This North American rhetoric was echoed by other claims such as “Make Spain great again” or “Spain first”.
“Look, this is very simple: we are fed up with a country that no longer works,” says David as he waits to buy a sandwich with his family from Zaragoza that same morning. “Catalonia woke us up, it was as if they told us ‘this is going to sink’, ‘this has been a scam’, all these years of democracy stealing and putting their friends in the corrupt institutions of the autonomous communities. Do you remember 1898*? Well now it is the same: we need regeneration”. His daughter Mercedes reasons in the same way: “I do not mind saying that I have always voted for the Popular Party, but this is already too much, corruption and robberies on the one hand, bad management of the independence process in Catalunya on the other… It doesn’t seem normal to me”.
Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists, and take these insults with honor.
Further on a group of party volunteers with adolescent features follow the speeches with attention. They are happy to respond: “It is my first time in one of their events”, says Ana, “my mother votes for the Popular Party and she says that she likes our ideas, but that she will not support us because she prefer to give “a useful vote” to the Popular Party.” In some cases it is true that our parents vote for PP while we vote for Vox”, Daniel acknowledges. Miguel is standing next to him and explains: “No, no, in my case it’s not like that: my father is very far from the PP”. “Does he vote for the left?” Silence. Miguel gestures that he cannot say anything. “But,” he warns, “my grandfather has never voted and now he says he’s going to vote for Vox.”
Santiago Abascal comes to the podium with cries of “President! President!”. His speech is structured following a very trumpian tagline: “fachas, muy fachas**”, he repeats ironically to refer to the way they are treated by the media; a tagline reminiscent of the phrase pronounced by Steve Bannon at the last congress of the French National Front held last March: “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists, and take these insults with honor. Because, in doing so, every day that passes we are stronger and they are weaker.” The message is clear: in moments of satiety, the insults of the political and media elite are a gift. That is why Santiago Abascal seeks them instead of avoiding them.
While Abascal is speaking, 10,000 people follow the rally on YouTube, and the comments of those who listen to the speeches via LIVE streaming are very positive. The success of Vox, which has allowed them to fill Vistalegre, derives from their ability to coordinate a series of feelings of humiliation and grievance that a part of the Spanish society has felt over the past few years, and particularly after the Catalan crisis in the autumn of 2017. In this sense, Vox is the mechanism of psychic compensation of a part of the Spanish society that perceived the Catalan crisis as a contempt of its own; it is, in a way, the nationalist plus that rewards the wounded narcissistic pride of a country in distress. But, beware, it is not only Spanish nationalism in the form of a boomerang: the party of Santiago Abascal also proposes to coordinate the feeling of abandonment of the rural areas of the inland regions of Spain (of which there were several mentions throughout the talks, imitating the style of Marine Le Pen), the fear regarding a hyperbolic “foreign invasion” (during the meeting there are several allusions to the “assaults” at the fence of Ceuta), as well as a kind of anti-feminist reaction opposed to the demonstrations held on March the 8th. In fact, a middle-aged woman explains the reason for her taking part in Vistalegre, by hinting to this issue: “We cannot blame men like that, it does not seem fair to me”. Other militants mention this point as one of the main reasons for their political commitment.
Vox’s strategy for the next year’s electoral cycle rests on three pillars: appeal to a vote of conviction, use politically incorrect language and indicate very clearly who the enemies are. Namely: the Catalan independence movement, feminism and immigration.
Vox’s strategy for the next year’s electoral cycle rests on three pillars: appeal to a vote of conviction, use politically incorrect language and indicate very clearly who the enemies are. Namely: the Catalan independence movement, feminism and immigration.With these wicks, the party led by Santiago Abascal will try to be involved in all the decisive issue on Spanish agenda and, in the end, win everything. Some polls indicate that Vox will foreseeable reach parliamentary representation in the European Parliament and that it could be decisive when it comes to deciding the balances between left and right in some regions such as Madrid or Murcia.
Back in the street a group of supporters makes a corridor for a police car while applauding and encouraging its occupants. It’s time to eat and people start to leave. Vistalegre shapes Vox as the expression of part of the Spanish “neocon” right, which has broken away from the mothership of the Popular Party as a result of Catalan management and aims to politically articulate the disenchantment of a sector of society that is exasperated by the territorial claims, the so-called “cultural domain of the left” and the hegemonic impulse of the feminist demands. All this is expressed with tones that are both tragic and epic, representing who think that their country is stranded in an existential problem.
Vox’s right-wing populism is not statist like that of Marine Le Pen, nor does it have the popular anchoring that Matteo Salvini enjoys, but it looks to the Spanish political tradition for its own language, a language that allows it to connect with the movement of nationalist insurrection led by Steve Bannon. In fact, several of the main Eurosceptic groups of the European Parliament are starting to look with sympathy and interest to the Vox party. Whether or not Vox achieves the capacity and influence of its European neighbors will depend, to a large extent, on the skills or clumsiness of its political rivals.
*With the Treaty of Paris (signed Dec. 10, 1898), Spain renounced all claim to Cuba, ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States, and transferred sovereignty over the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. The Spanish-American War was an important turning point in the history of both antagonists.
** ‘Fascists, very fascists’