“Europe is threatened by anti-European mobs who destroy police stations, burn libraries and stab babies,” explained Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox Party and the bogeyman in this Sunday’s snap election there. Some delusional panic-mongers even see him as the Second Coming of dictator Francisco Franco.
Franco was a fascist general who overthrew the Spanish republic, won a civil war that killed more than half a million people, and ruled Spain with an iron hand for 35 years. Hitler and Mussolini were his allies (though he kept Spain out of the Second World War), and Franco was a thoroughly bad man – but he died almost fifty years ago.
Spain has been a democracy since 1975, but Abascal may dream of filling Franco’s shoes. However, although his Vox party had a big breakthrough in the last election in 2019, winning almost a sixth of the seats in the Spanish parliament, the latest polls predict that Vox will drop from 52 seats last time to only 36 this time.
So why are we even hearing about the Spanish election anywhere outside of Spain? Because the leading centre-right People’s Party (PP) is predicted to win the most seats this time, but it won’t get enough (176 seats) to form a government alone. The only way it might form a majority government is by forming a coalition with Vox.
If that were to happen, then (to quote the media refrain) ‘for the first time since Franco, an extreme-right, neo-fascist party will be in government’ in Spain. Not very far ‘into government’, however, as Vox would be the junior partner in a coalition government. Moreover, the polls are predicting a majority of precisely one seat for the projected coalition.
The last published polls will be almost a week old by Sunday, so that prediction could already be untrue. However, ‘fascists near power’ is the best story-line available for those covering the election – and if the facts don’t bear that claim out, then cover the trend line.
The trend line is more promising, because you can then use Spain as a symbol of what could be happening (if you are looking for panic to monger) all over Europe. After all, a coalition containing populist, nationalist, and ‘soft fascist’ parties recently came to power in Italy (although Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is currently soft-pedaling the fascist bits).
The extreme-right, anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist ‘Alternative for Germany’ party became the largest opposition party in the German Bundestag in the 2017 federal elections (although it dropped back to fifth largest party in 2021).
The National Rally, which occupies a similar position in the French political spectrum, is doing better. It got a boost in the opinion polls in the wake of last month’s riots (after the police murdered a minority teenager), and former leader Marine Le Pen got 41% of the votes in the 2022 presidential election.
The far-right Finns Party is part of the new right-wing coalition government in Finland, and the Austrian and Dutch hard-right parties have similarly promising prospects in forthcoming elections there.
The roll-call stops there, because the countries farther east, although equally democratic (with the exception of Hungary), have different priorities and follow different trends. But Western European countries really do tend to dance to the same drummer, so is the rise (if you can call it that) of Vox in Spain a harbinger of things to come?
Not exactly, although Santiago Abascal does try to make those links. (The ‘anti-Europeans stabbing babies’ that he fantasises about refer to the riots in France last month, not to anything in Spain.) Nationalist grievances tend to be too specific to cross borders easily – but sometimes a common cause comes along.
The anti-immigrant cause is the one common theme that energises hard-right parties from Spain to Poland, but Spain is probably the wrong place to expect a breakthrough on this front. It’s one of the few European countries where there is a hard left popular enough to rival the hard right (a relic of the civil war, perhaps), so it’s unlikely to lead the charge.
The one thing that could really empower the Voxes and Rallies and Alternatives is a very big wave of climate refugees flooding into Europe from countries to the south and southeast.
There are one billion people within a thousand kilometres of the European Union’s borders, mostly living in countries much poorer and much hotter than the EU’s members – and those countries are getting still hotter.
If just one percent of them decide that they have no choice but to move, there would quickly be ten million people knocking on Europe’s doors (or more precisely, trying to scale its fences and walls). And watch what happens to Europe’s politics then.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’