Spain will head to the polls on Sunday after Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called for a snap general election almost one month prior. For some, however, the stakes of this election and the strategy informing Sánchez’s decision may not have been immediately clear, thus prompting articles with titles such as ‘What is Pedro Sánchez Thinking?’. For someone such as Gordon Brown (former UK Prime Minister), however, the central significance of these elections are nothing short of the future of Europe. Writing in the Guardian, Brown offers his word of warning: ”If you want to peer into the future of Europe, just look to recent events in Spain in the lead up to its general election on 23 July.”
28 May Regional Elections
On 28 May, Spain’s center-left suffered significant defeats in the regional and municipal elections to the country’s main conservative opposition party, Popular Party (PP). As reported by Foreign Policy, in the “local and regional elections, the PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party] and Podemos sustained losses virtually everywhere, including in traditional strongholds such as Valencia and Andalusia,” which saw PP win the majority of votes. According to the Associated Press, “PP, won 31.5% of votes compared with 28.2% for the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, or PSOE” while “the far-right Vox movement more than doubled their share of local councilors to 7.2%.” The very next day, PSOE’s party-leader, Pedro Sánchez, called for a snap elections. What was the strategy informing Sánchez’s decision, which effectively sacrificed precious time that could have been used in a PSOE campaign between now and 10 November, which is when Spain would have held their next general election?
Hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic (resulting in PSOE led-government opting for some of the strictest lockdown policies in the EU), with a projected economic recovery that is already underway and only hampered by inflation, and the prolongation of the Catalonian question, by calling for a snap election, Sánchez’s strategy is effectively one of political damage control. Rather than waiting until 10 November 2023 (original date of Spain’s next general election), by calling for a snap election on 23 July, Sánchez’s hope is to avoid a situation where the PSOE’s political base has been diminished to the point that would all but secure the victory for the PP in a general election that is still four months away.
Sunday’s General Election
While PP candidate and party leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, currently leads the polls, forecasting the PP as securing 34% of Sunday’s votes, their projected victory still falls short of the percentage required for PP to govern with an outright majority (176 seats of 350), forcing them to form a coalition government. The fact that the PP and Spain’s far-right populist party Vox “have agreed to govern together in some 140 cities and towns” after the local and municipal elections raises the possibility of a PP-Vox coalition government, something that Feijóo has previously denied as an option for the PP. During a visit to Valencia in November 2022, Feijóo gave a speech and commented on the PP’s decision to form a coalition government with Vox in Castilla y Leon (one of Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions and located just north of Madrid), adding that “sometimes it is better to lose the Government than to win it from populism” — ostensibly denying his and the PP’s interest in forming a coalition government with Vox at the national level. In the event of a “hypothetical alliance between PP and the anti-immigration, anti-feminist Vox,” Reuters journalist Inti Landauro has remarked that the exact nature of this coalition government and its political reach still depends “on who comes third in a number of provinces, and how many lawmakers a few regional parties, who have supported Sanchez’s minority coalition over the last four years, elect.”
That said, concerns over the likelihood of the PP governing in coalition with Vox are entirely well-founded. As the third-largest party in Spain’s Congress of Deputies with 52 seats, and ever since its inception in 2013, Vox is a known opponent of “LGBTQ+ rights, gender parity, and ongoing efforts to help Spain cope with the dark legacies of the Franco period.” Vox would become more of a household name after the party’s surprise victory in the 2018 regional elections, which saw Vox win almost 11% of the popular vote. Despite the fact that this percentage of the popular vote amounts to only 12 seats in Andalusia’s 109-seat regional chamber, the historical significance of Vox’s victory was not lost on the Spanish public: ever since the death of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and despite the regional rather than national scope of the elections, Vox’s sudden electoral victory in Spain’s largest region would mark the first time that “the extreme right has entered a Spanish parliament.”
If there was any doubt regarding the extremism of Vox’s far-right politics, Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, Spokesperson of the Vox Parliamentary Group in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, clarified the party’s understanding of the centrality of Spain’s far-right politics to the historical development of Europe as a whole: “Europe is what it is thanks to Spain—thanks to our contribution, ever since the Middle Ages, of stopping the spread and the expanse of Islam.” As for how Vox understands its own role within EU as a whole, its current party-leader, Santiago Abascal, has publicly shared his long time admiration for Marine Le Pen. While Vox became known for its reactionary celebration of the militarized expulsion of Muslims and Arabs from Iberian territories or the veneration of far-right party leaders synonymous with racism, sexism, and islamophobia, lesser known is that “Vox’s emergence is intimately linked to Mojaheddeen-e Khalk (MEK), an exiled Iranian cult bitterly opposed to the current government of Iran.” According to investigations by El Pais, one of Spain’s largest newspapers, “Vox received a donation of 500,000 euros from MEK, acting under the umbrella of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in 2014. The money reportedly came via thousands of contributions ranging from 200 to 5000 euros from individual members and sympathizers of the NCRI.” The material effects of the party’s receipt of donations from MEK, however, were not limited to Spanish national politics. As LobeLog reported already in 2018, with financial backing in the form of MEK donations, Vox was able “to kick-start its election campaign for the European Parliament.”
And yet, if Nagore Calvo Mendizabal, senior lecturer in Spanish and European Politics and Society at King’s College London, is correct in saying that Vox’s party manifesto is basically a “copy-and-paste of the tenets of the Franco regime,” it is precisely because even Spain’s arch-fascist General Franco found himself in need of, and thus courting, Muslims in North Africa: “There was a time when the Spanish far right, in another incarnation, needed Ceuta’s Muslims and plied them with gifts. One of these, the Muley el-Mehdi mosque on the Avenida de África, was built in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. Behind the gates, in its shaded entrance, there is a dedication, in Spanish, then Arabic: ‘and when the roses of peace bloom, we will give you their best flowers’ — Francisco Franco, (3 April 1937 ).”
And given Vox’s policy proposals and their public/street presence, Mendizabal’s insight has only been further corroborated by Vox’s party platform. For example, to counteract what Vox perceives as the “rewriting of history”, two of the party’s most notable proposals are the revocation of the Law of History Memory — “a landmark piece of legislation the PSOE enacted in 2007 that offered reparations to the victims of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s political repression and deemed Franco’s regime illegitimate” — and the 2022 Democratic Memory Law, “which voided all court rulings issued under the old dictatorship, compelled the government to exhume the remains of those killed during the Civil War and the dictatorship and buried in mass graves, and banned the Francisco Franco National Foundation, which had promoted Franco’s legacy in democratic Spain.” Regarding the still unresolved status of Gibraltar — which “was not included in the UK-EU post-Brexit trade deal, and was left outside the customs union. A temporary “pre-deal” arrangement was introduced in 2020, which effectively allowed freedom of movement at the Spain-Gibraltar border to avoid disruption, while letting Gibraltar remain a British territory” — Vox’s desire to extend Spanish sovereignty to the whole of Gibraltar would be the first time the territory would come under the sovereign rule of a single European nation-state ever since Francoist Spain, which saw the country’s fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, close Gibraltar’s borders “in a bid to blockade Gibraltar into submitting to Spanish rule.” Borders would not fully reopen until 1985 as part of Spain’s preparations for joining the EU. Regarding the status of Spain’s TransLaw passed in February of this year, which allows “ transgender people aged 14 and over to change their legal gender without the need for psychological or other medical evaluation and judicial approval,” not only has Vox already issued a legal challenge but, as of 9 May, Spain’s Constitutional Court announced it would consider Vox’s legal challenge to the law.
The fear of repression under a PP-Vox coalition government from Spain’s marginalized social groups is something that is felt on a daily basis. According to Barcelona based artist-theorist, Ian Alan Paul, “the possible coalition between the Partido Popular (PP) and VOX would be a step back into the Francoist era, with the extreme right formally entering power for the first time since the end of the dictatorship. Migrant and queer communities as well as radical and independentist political organizations all fear repression and political violence should the PP and VOX win a majority of seats, as we’ve already seen in areas where they recently won municipal elections.” Making matters worse, Paul adds, “The steady fracturing of the radical left parties and the inability of the governing socialist party to respond to the needs of the working class has put the country in a volatile and dangerous situation.”