The rise of Vox

A small right-wing extremist party managed to become part of the Spanish parliament. One reason is the toxic mix of nationalism and antifeminism.

Spanish flag

Until recently, extreme right-wing parties had been marginalized in Spain. This changed with the entry of the nationalist Vox Party (vox = Latin for voice) to the Spanish parliament in 2019 - putting an end to Spain’s special path in Europe. It is still too new a phenomenon to have been thoroughly researched, but two factors stand out as having been crucial for the rise of right-wing populist and extremist parties throughout Europe: the dissolution of the traditional party system and the linking of nationalist and anti-feminist ideologies and demands. 

I will shed some light on the first aspect to facilitate an evaluation of the Spanish political landscape. I will then address the Vox-specific connection between anti-feminism and nationalism.

The end of the two-party-system 

The two-party-system had dominated Spanish politics since the 'Transición' (the transition to democracy initiated after the death of dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1975). The fascist crimes have never been addressed as fear of another right-wing coup led the Left to agree to coexistence. Over the following decades, the Spanish party system consisted of two major parties: the right-wing conservative People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP) and the social-democratic PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español). A large number of Francoist Falange joined the PP and managed to acquire great political influence. The right-wing extremist forces continued to be fragmented in multiple squabbling tiny parties and were essentially irrelevant. 

The great success of the small right-wing extremist party, Vox, (founded 2013) in regional and parliamentary elections in 2018 and 2019 only became possible after other parties had already fractured the two-party-system. This process began on the very left in 2015 when the Podemos party (“We can”, founded 2014) emerged from the mass market square demonstrations to become the third strongest group in the Spanish parliament. The right-wing, liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens, Cs) was elected to the Spanish parliament as the fourth biggest group. While Podemos politically positioned itself where many activists of various social movements were active to the left of the PSOE, Ciudadanos attracted those dissatisfied with the PSOE and PP. The party fought against any attempt to increase the independence of the regions - Catalonia, in particular - from the central government in Madrid. 

“Spain first“ mobilizes right-wing forces

Spain’s unity is a powerful issue for mobilizing political forces on the right. Under Franco it was even forbidden to use regional languages like Basque and Catalan. Vox has also used this issue to establish itself. The party wants to rescind the broad self-government of the regions and ban parties that fight for regional autonomy. The fact that recentralization is not consistent with the current constitution does not bother them. The slogan, “España primero“, (Spain first) was originally used by the Francoist mini parties. It has since been taken up by a range of ostensibly electable parties.

Vox's election victory (1in Andalusia became possible when neither the PP nor Ciudadanos distanced themselves from right-wing extremist positions during the campaign and even considered Vox a potential coalition partner. In fact, their 12 MPs contributed to the fall of the PSOE government after 37 years: they now support a minority government of PP and Cs. 

Shortly after Vox had been founded, the liberal daily El Confidencial outlined the four pillars of the party: family, Spain’s unity, and No to abortion and ETA. Two parts nationalism; two parts antifeminism. The curtailment of reproductive and sexual rights has been at the top of Vox’s agenda from the onset. For example, during the 2014 political crisis, the party committed itself to implementing a comprehensive tightening of abortion legislation. 

The PP had won the preceding election in 2011 by promising to suspend the provision permitting abortion within the first three months of pregnancy that had been adopted under the PSOE in 2010. The proposed measures would have made Spanish legislation one of the most restrictive in Europe. The intended abolition of abortion in case of an impaired fetus (embryopathic indication) was even too much for some within the PP. The regional party leaders were opposed; the responsible minister of justice, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, resigned; and the project was buried. The consequence was that the conservatives faced the wrath of the Catholic Church and the “Pro Life” movement, which is strong in Spain. The influential Spanish Bishops Conference harshly criticized the suspension of the legislative initiative as they wanted every abortion to be a punishable act.

The Internet platform, Vox, presents Vox as the only party that defends all “values” and commits to amending legislation in line with an ultra-conservative ideology. Election recommendations on a platform established by HazteOir (Make yourself heard) - a religious fundamentalist lobby organization - indicate that ultra-Catholic groups no longer support the PP but Vox. The party (headed by party Chairman, Santiago Abascal) receives 'green' ratings in “right to life”, “natural family”, bisexual marriage, educational and religious freedom, Spain’s unity, and political “regeneration”.  Meanwhile, the PP gets only one 'green' for religious tolerance and otherwise must make do with yellow and even red ratings. Ciudadanos performs a bit better than the PP. But red scores for “right to life” and bisexual marriage would appear to make the party unelectable for their target audience. 

Reinterpretation of terms as a strategy

Despite its long existence, Vox has no party manifesto. During the last two parliamentary elections in April and November 2019, they presented “100 Measures for a Living Spain” (2)  (“100 medidas para la España viva“). Under the headline “Life and family”, they called for the suspension of the “Act on gender-specific violence” of 2004 as well as any other provision that “discriminates against a gender”. The latter might sound as if it could appeal to feminists; but the cultural crusade of anti-feminists (3) includes the struggle over terminology and the denial and/or reinterpretation of oppressive relations. According to the extreme right, mainstream feminism oppresses “the man” and keeps “the woman” from attending to her “true” role as wife and mother. 

Instead of protecting women from male violence, the party advocates a “Law against family violence” that equally protects elderly people, men, women, and children and seeks to treat all victims of violence alike. But the misogynous core of their position manifests itself if this argument is used to withdraw resources from already underfunded women’s shelters. This is in line with demanding „effective criminal prosecution“ of wrongful allegations of sexualized assaults. The fact that they – according to the department of public prosecution – account for only 0.01 percent of reports, and that only a very small number of cases of domestic and sexual violence are reported at all, is of no real interest to Vox - or the AfD in Germany. 

Where the party has influence, parts of their agenda have already been implemented. As triumphantly reported by the new-right weekly, Junge Freiheit (4)parents in Andalusia can now exempt their kids from "gender projects”. In line with the anti-feminist Right concept of 'individual freedom of conscience', parents have the right to exempt their kids from additional school activities (5if they violate their personal convictions. This applies to sex education, ethics, and information on homosexual lifestyles. Vox even provides a form for parents on their website. 

Unclear Prospect 

Although - following multiple elections - it was possible in January of this year to forge a governing alliance of PSOE and UP, it is extremely fragile. It does not have a majority in the Spanish parliament and depends on votes of smaller left-wing nationalist parties. Given that the ultra-nationalists benefited most from the last series of elections, a major concern is what will happen if this government also fails. 




(3) Vgl. AK Fe.In: Frauen*rechte und Frauen*hass. Antifeminismus und die Ethnisierung von Gewalt.