Two years ago, when Donald Trump won the American presidency, with the support of Steve Bannon and the alt-right, one party moved quickly to try to position itself as Spain’s answer to that ascendent US national populism.
Vox’s first attempts did not go very far beyond a few meetings, on both sides of the Atlantic, and some press statements accompanied by photos of party leader Santiago Abascal with Marine Le Pen (France, National Front), Geert Wilders (Holland, Party for Freedom) or Frauke Petry (Alternative for Germany).
But there was not much substance to it. In a recent article describing that period, El Confidencial wrote that Vox was considered “a pariah among the eurosceptic right in Europe”.
On Monday, Vox published a pre-campaign video of Mr. Abascal trotting around a plain somewhere in Andalusia—where regional elections will be held on December 2nd—looking manly in a more Putinesque than Trump-like manner, to adventurous music, with a bullfighter, Morante de la Puebla, and a few others. “The reconquest starts in Andalusia”, said a tweet, as they rode off under some suitably moody clouds.
Abascal on a horse, presumably somewhere in Andalusia. That's more Putin than Trump. Vox tweet says “reconquest starts in Andalusia”.pic.twitter.com/sY3GgYJInE
— Matthew Bennett (@matthewbennett) November 12, 2018
Founded in 2013, at the December 2015 general election the party won just 0.23 percent of the vote, short of 58,000 ballots, and at the next general election, in June 2016, did even worse, losing 11,000 of those votes to finish on 0.2 percent, very far from any level of support that would translate into a seat or two in Congress.
There did not seem to be much appetite for the alt-right, far-right, national-populist right or any other kind of right in Spain at the time that was not the Popular Party, which for about 30 years had managed to encompass anything more conservative than the Socialist Party (PSOE).
Although as Podemos rose suddenly on the left, the first cracks began to appear on the right with Ciudadanos, which came in with a respectable enough 13 percent at those general elections on the back of PP voters fed up with Mr. Rajoy after he abandoned some core conservative groups that rejected abortion or supported terror victims. Ciudadanos, though, was still a year-and-a-half away from ditching its social-democratic roots for a liberal agenda.
And all politicians in Spain are europhiles. There is no Nigel Farage or Matteo Salvini here, badgering voters to ditch Brussels.
This summer, Mr. Abascal was on TV quite a bit, outraged at the boatloads of African immigrants landing on Spain’s southern coasts, a manageable problem if the right policies are adopted but until then fodder for conservative politicians looking for air time.
A Metroscopia poll in October gave the party 5.1 percent of the vote and Vox filled an arena used for rallies in Madrid, the Vistalegre, with 9,000-10,000 supporters.
That was the same arena Podemos had filled in 2014 as it began to shoot up the polls. This time, however, instead of laudatory editorials dreaming of a progressive future after years of financial crisis and austerity, the alarm bells rang loudly in left-leaning media outlets around Spain, their editorialists aghast: “The extreme right fills Vistalegre”, “The ultra-right fills Vistalegre”, “Vox fills Vistalegre with project against foreigners”.
This weekend, Vox held another rally in Seville, at an arena in the Andalusian capital that, again, Podemos had managed to fill with supporters at the beginning of 2015 but that Albert Rivera and Ciudadanos had only half filled at the end of that year. Mr. Abascal’s result on Sunday? A full house.
His candidate in the regional elections, a judge, Francisco Serrano, rejected the “far-right” label, said gender considerations were a “perverse invention” and that the party accepted homosexuals and immigrants, “as long as they integrated with Spaniards”, railed against Catalan separatists, called for the closure of fundamentalist mosques, and celebrated bullfighting and Easter Week.
The party got into a spat with La Sexta on Sunday evening, accusing the TV channel’s reporters of making up homophobic and racist quotes that had not been spoken at the event, not unreminiscent of the dynamic between President Trump and CNN.
Given the increased level of interest over the last few weeks but the still tiny polling results in reality (the average is at about 2.5percent, but not all polling companies even ask respondents about the party), Mr. Abascal should be praying every single night, with both hands clasped tightly together, that La Sexta and its most famous presenter, Antonio García Ferreras, decide to launch a media attack against Vox’s rallies and election events, both during the upcoming Andalusian campaign and over the next seven months in the run up to the local, regional and European elections in the rest of the country next May.
Given Mr. Abascal’s penchant for polarising quotes and Mr. Ferreras’s voracious appetite for more viewers, it would be a match made in heaven, especially if editorially La Sexta wants to try to split the vote on the right between the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox. He could even organise rolling live soundbite punch ups between Mr. Abascal and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias. Why not daily? The crowd would love it. Ratings would soar.
Watch what happens over the next three weeks, on TV and on Twitter, and watch to see if Vox can turn the noise into any real progress: one seat in the regional parliament would certainly be enough to take notice.
And then watch the polls through to Christmas: if Mr. Abascal can use the exposure from the Andalusian campaign to consistently hit 4-5 percent in the national polls, instead of the current 2.5 percent, they will have progressed to the next level and will be a danger for both the Popular Party and Ciudadanos next year, whatever label we end up putting on them.