Polarised Spain eyes the hard-right ahead of election


The most likely government to emerge – most analysts predict – will be a coalition including a hard-right nationalist party for the first time in Spain since the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

More left-leaning Spaniards are frantically texting contacts, urging them to make sure to vote – despite the heat and it being holiday time for many – to “stop the fascists” in their tracks.

The political right, meanwhile, has said voters have a choice: Sanchez (the current centre-left prime minister and his coalition including the far-left) or Spain. Implying that under another Sanchez government, the country will crumble.

The rhetoric this election season has been toxic, with voters becoming increasingly polarised.

It’s a fight over values, traditions and about what being Spanish should mean in 2023.

This kind of heated identity debate isn’t peculiar to Spain. Think of Italy, France, Brazil or the post-Trumpian debate in the US.

But Spain was already divided. It has been since the civil war in the 1930s and the following four decades of dictatorship under General Franco. To this day, there’s never been an open debate here about victims and aggressors. Old wounds still fester.

“The hard-right, centre-right coalition represents a return to the past, to neo-Francoism,” Ximo Puig, the former centre-left President of Valencia region told me at an end of campaign rally for Prime Minister Sanchez’s centre-left PSOE party on Friday night.

“Liberal values like gay marriage – Spain was one of the first European countries to legalise it – or the freedom for people to decide their gender – all of that is endangered.”

Mr Puig lost his job this week after a new Valencia government of the centre right PP, and hard-right Vox party were sworn in, following recent regional elections. Many in Spain believe Valencia is a weathervane for the wider country.

The vice-president of Valencia is now a retired bullfighter from Vox, Vicente Barrera. He’s also an apologist for the Franco regime.

To celebrate summer in Spain’s third largest city, there have been bullfights every night in Valencia’s packed arena. Women throw flowers and fans in appreciation at the colourfully dressed bullfighters below, as they tease and taunt their horned opponent and a brass band plays to the crowd’s cries of “Ole!”

Vox was busy electioneering just outside the arena, playing a recording on loudspeaker loop of party leader Santiago Abascal promising to “make Spain great again”.

Most Vox activists refused to speak to us. But pensioner Paco was keen to share his thoughts:

“Vox defends family values and other traditions, including bullfighting,” he told me. “The left call us anti-democratic but they’re the ones who don’t respect democracy. They want us not to exist.”

“I can’t even walk into a lefty neighbourhood of Valencia wearing a shirt with a Spanish flag on it,” 22-year-old Eloy added. “If I do, people shout ‘Facha! Fascist!’ at me. It’s not nice.”

Divisions here are so febrile, they’re almost tribal.

Many voters identify themselves by the pulsera, the ribbon they wear round their wrist. Yellow and red coloured ones, representing the flag of Spain are a sign of belonging to the right. Rainbow colours stand for LGBTQ+ rights and are also a symbol for the left.

All part of what many Spanish commentators describe as the current ”footballisation” of politics here.

But that risks trivialising how deeply many Spaniards feel about their preferred value set, or how threatened they believe those values are by the other side.

I met Nieves feeling disenfranchised at Valencia’s vibrant central market, where she now works. She says Spain may be doing better economically under Pedro Sanchez but the country’s poorest weren’t benefitting.

“This isn’t now about choosing the extreme right. It’s about extreme necessity. Salaries of hard-working people don’t allow you to pay your bills. I was paid €4 an hour for years when I worked as a cleaner. I’m saying all this as a worker, a mother and as a housewife. Let’s see what happens after Sunday’s vote.”

Nieves’ sentiments are clear, but the percentage of Spaniards now saying they can live within their means has risen during Pedro Sanchez’ time in government.

Employment figures have gone up. Spain has one of the lower inflation rates in Europe. Mr Sanchez got the EU to allow Spaniards to pay less for gas used to make electricity. He has raised Spain’s profile internationally with strong support for Ukraine in its fightback against Russia.

So how come the anti-Sanchez attacks by the right fall on such fertile ground?

A question I put to his science and innovation minister Diana Morant, formally a local mayor in Valencia region.

“We see the resurgence of the far-right across Europe,” she told me. “The right we have in Spain is not a moderate right. It uses the arguments of hate and tries to dehumanise our leader, the prime minister. While we were busy governing, they were spreading lies. But the people of Spain know what we stand for. Lies cannot win over truth.”

At EU HQ in Brussels, there are huge concerns about a resurgence of hard-right nationalist parties across Europe.

Esteban Gonzalez Pons is from Valencia. He’s a bigwig for the centre-right PP nationwide and in the European Parliament. I asked him if he was concerned it could damage his party’s and Spain’s reputation to jump into a coalition with Vox.

I got a pretty snappy response.

“I can tell you, Brussels isn’t at all worried if my party ends up in a governing arrangement with Vox. There are all sorts of right-wing governments in the EU now. Look at Italy, Sweden, Finland and Austria.”

“Actually,” he added, “The UK government is more right wing than Vox. So, thank you BBC for that question but what Brussels really wants is not to have any more communists in the government in Spain.”

This election is a story of two Spains.

The face this country wakes up with after Sunday’s election will be radically different depending on who wins. Each side claims the other threatens Spaniards’ identity and future.

But I can’t help wondering, considering the record temperatures and drought here – why the parties, and Spanish voters – haven’t concentrated more in the leadup to Sunday’s election on a very real existential crisis for Spain: climate change.__BBC.com