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Spain isn't bowing to the rise of the far-right in the EU. Why?

A man stands next to an election poster of far-right Vox party showing its leader Santiago Abascal, outside the party headquarters in Madrid.
A man stands next to an election poster of far-right Vox party showing its leader Santiago Abascal, outside the party headquarters in Madrid. Copyright Andrea Comas/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Andrea Comas/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Laura Llach
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Europe has seen an increasing trend of far-right parties surging in popularity and conservative parties rising to power. Why has Spain bucked this trend?

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Last May, after the right swept the left in most Spanish regions in local elections, the conservatives had to concede. They could not govern alone.

They signed more than a hundred agreements to form local coalitions, and govern in town halls and regional governments across Spain with the far-right Vox party.

The first controversy took place in Valencia. Vox's candidate, who had been convicted of gender violence in the past, demanded a seat in the regional government in return for a majority the conservative Popular Party lacked to govern.

This was followed by the removal of LGTBQ+ flags from town halls during Pride celebrations and the cancellation of the theatrical performance of one of Virginia Woolf's most transgressive works in the region of Madrid.

In just two months, the far-right Vox party had left a deep impression, between the regional elections and the snap elections called by Pedro Sánchez.

The region of Castilla y León was the first one to see the party rule. It was just over a year ago when Vox came to power hand-in-hand with the conservative Popular Party, which needed a coalition partner to govern. 

Back then Santiago Abascal, Vox’s leader, said the agreement "would serve as a model for the rest of Spain".

His words came true. But not in the way the far-right party was hoping for.

Spaniards contradicted Abascal. 

In Castilla y León, the region Vox boasted would be a "model", Vox lost five of the six deputies it had. In the rest of Spain the party lost 600,000 votes, and dropped from 52 seats to 33 in the national parliament. 

These results not only broke with the party's expectations, but also with the electoral line set by most EU Member States.

Andrea Comas/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Young men raise their right arm making the the fascist salute outside the headquarters of far-right Vox party in Madrid.Andrea Comas/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

European’s far-right dream broken?

Over the past year Europe has seen an increasing trend of far-right parties surging in popularity and conservative parties rising to power.

Viktor Orbán revalidated his mandate in Hungary in April 2022; in September Giorgia Meloni became Italian prime minister; in Sweden the conservatives were able to govern due to the votes of the far-right in last autumn's election.

This spring, Finland got a right-wing government only with the far-right support; recent protests in France boosted Marine Le Pen in the polls, and the last elections showed a rise of the far-right in Portugal.

This week's results in Spain, which were also pointing in the same direction, bucked the trend on the continent. 

Although Vox remains the third most-voted party at a national level, the results don’t look good for its European allies.

The loss of seats and the impossibility of forming a coalition government with the Popular Party has halted the hopes of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), chaired by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“Even in Spain it is time for patriots”, Meloni proclaimed during a Vox election rally in the country.

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However, it seems the celebration will still have to wait.

"It is clearly a setback for those who believed that the fourth largest economy in the eurozone and the fourth most populated country in the European Union could have a government which included the far-right," Carme Colomina, a senior researcher specialising in the European Union at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, told Euronews.

"However, the ECR group will continue to be one of the most important groups in the chamber and Vox will keep having an important representation in the European Parliament," she added.

The expert points to the normalisation of the extreme right in Europe, far removed from the year 2000 when the first coalition government was formed with a radical right-wing party led by Jörg Haider in Austria.

"At first the EU imposed a symbolic punishment of six months to show that this was not a coalition to its liking. But from this point until now the evolution of the far-right’s electoral results and its normalisation has accelerated," says Colomina.

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Manu Fernandez/Manu Fernandez
VOX far right party leader Santiago Abascal waves to the supporters after leaving the closing campaign rally at the Colon square in Madrid.Manu Fernandez/Manu Fernandez

Is Vox less appealing than other far-right parties?

Spaniard’s latest vote shows the coalition between the conservative right and the far-right will not be able to govern. Adding up their votes they amount to 169 seats, falling short of the 175 needed for a majority.

There has been little self-criticism and many accusations between the conservatives and Vox.

Many experts have suggested the party led by Abascal is particularly more radical than those in the European family.

“Compared to other far-right parties such as Austria’s FPO, Le Pen’s RN or Meloni’s FdI, Vox is one of the youngest, most radical and least sophisticated far-right parties in the EU”, Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of European Law and Policy at the Ecole des Hautes Études Supérieures de Commerce in Paris, told Euronews.

“Its stint in local government proved the Left’s worst fear true: Vox local governments censored books and movies, withdrew LGBT flags from town halls. Instead of seeking ‘normalisation’ as its peers - Le Pen and Meloni - did to become mainstream, VOX remained radically antagonistic.”

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“Spaniards took notice and got scared as their dictatorship is still fresh in the country’s political imagination,” he added.

Carme Colomina from the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs agrees and believes the strategy may have backfired.

"Once in government, Vox has fuelled a cultural war in Spain that directly targeted rights achieved in recent years which had consensus in Spanish society", she says.

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