- - Thursday, November 8, 2018

MADRID — As conservative, Euroskeptic, anti-immigration parties began racking up significant wins across Europe in recent years, Spain was a significant outlier to the trend.

Santiago Abascal is out to change that.

As head of the new VOX political movement, the 42-year-old sociologist wants to upend Spanish politics and shift the center of gravity to the right in the same way President Trump has disrupted conventional political boundaries across the Atlantic.

“We stand for the same law-and-order and social conservative causes as Trump,” Mr. Abascal said in an interview, noting that he has talked about his plans with former Trump campaign strategist and White House aide Steve Bannon. Mr. Bannon “gave us advice and helped set up connections with other like-minded parties” through organizations such as the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, which has links to the U.S. Republican Party.

Following the trail blazed by Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front, the Alternative for Germany, and the Five-Star movement in Italy, VOX has ridden the backlash to open immigration to electoral success. Spain’s right-wing startup is poised to pick up its first seats in European Union parliamentary elections next year and is given a shot at becoming the first far-right party to enter the Spanish parliament since democracy was restored in the mid-1970s.

Many Spanish political analysts look upon Mr. Abascal as a showman with few prospects of reaching power. Even with his increasing prominence, his party scores in low single digits in opinion polls.

He is labeled a “fascist” by the leftist media and is shunned by leaders of mainstream center-right parties, the People’s Party and Ciudadanos.

Mr. Abascal launched his group in 2014 by raising a 200-square-yard Spanish flag over the British colony of Gibraltar on Spain’s southern tip. The return of Gibraltar has been a longtime goal of Spanish nationalists. Some VOX activists escaped by swimming back to Spanish territory as Gibraltar’s authorities issued an international arrest order for the leader of the raid, who happened to be Mr. Abascal’s attorney.

Spanish politics in recent years has been consumed by the separatist crisis in Catalonia, while much of the country’s populist energy appeared to be on the left, harnessed by the radical socialist United We Can party as it became a virtual partner of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, head of the center-left Socialist Workers Party.

Some political commentators say the appeal of VOX is badly underestimated.

“They ignore Abascal at their peril,” said Jesus Zuloaga, editor of the Madrid newspaper La Razon. “He speaks with a clarity lacking in other Spanish politicians.”

VOX relies on the charisma of its leader as well as a mix of old and new political tactics. It has staged street rallies in Madrid — a recent one attracted 10,000 people as the party unveiled its manifesto — but it is also heavily invested in social media, Instagram and the WhatsApp online messaging service. Paid membership in the party has doubled to about 13,000 in the past four months, the Reuters news service reported.

Although he has compared notes with Mr. Bannon, Mr. Abascal said he wants his party to chart its own path.

“VOX does not respond to any international interest — only to the interest of Spain,” he told Reuters. “We want to decide the next Spanish government, and we believe we may have a shot at it.”

In the interview, Mr. Abascal cited two reasons why rightist reaction has been slow to take hold in Spain. Spain’s conservatives have been stigmatized by relatively recent memories of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who was supported by the fascist La Falange movement until his death in 1975.

Migration fears

A second and more pressing reason, Mr. Abascal said, is that Spain is just now starting to feel the impact of mass immigration, which has caused political earthquakes in Germany, Italy, Austria and a number of Eastern European countries. As Italy’s new populist government shuts the door on waves of immigrants seeking to enter the European Union from North Africa, Spain has suddenly become a destination of choice.

Over the past year, Spaniards have been exposed to TV images of boatloads of migrant Africans landing on their southern beaches and violently breaking through border fences of Spain’s territories on the North African coast.

Over 50,000 immigrants have poured illegally into Spain this year, more than triple the flow of previous years, according to government figures. The problem is further compounded by a French government decision to send thousands of Africans who have entered France from Spain back across the border.

Although mainstream conservative parties have refrained from raising the issue, Mr. Abascal continuously attacks the Sanchez government for doubling down on offers of social aid to immigrants.

“We are paying for the privilege of being overrun not by cultures which share our values and beliefs and contribute to our society, but by those threatening to impoverish and Islamicize us,” he said, warning of attacks by Islamist terrorist cells, which have already struck in Madrid and Barcelona.

Leftist politicians accuse VOX of fearmongering and demagoguery, but Rajae Nayaf, a Moroccan lawyer working for a Spanish company in Tangier, said Mr. Abascal has a point. She said immigrant traffic has greatly increased since Mr. Sanchez came to office because “he has invited them in.”

VOX’s popularity has risen accordingly. The party hardly registered on opinion polls two years ago, but two recent surveys placed its support at about 5 percent of the vote. That would be enough to secure several parliamentary seats under Spain’s system of proportional representation.

Mr. Zuloaga said VOX’s growing share of the electorate could be enough to undercut the center-right forces, the People’s Party and Ciudadanos, and thus clear the way for another leftist victory.

But Ramon Peralta, a law professor at the university of Madrid and adviser to VOX, noted that in Spain’s fractured political environment, “small parties with little representation can hold decisive sway over what are inevitably minority governments these days.”

Mr. Sanchez’s governing coalition was formed with critical support from a handful of Catalan and Basque separatist lawmakers who enabled him to muster a voting majority in the congress. Conservative critics say Mr. Sanchez is “hostage” to radical separatist groups and that the perceived weakening of national sovereignty is playing into the hands of VOX.

“The separatist coup in Catalonia has been transferred from the regional government in Barcelona to the prime minister’s palace in Madrid,” said Mr. Abascal, who accused Mr. Sanchez of secretly interfering with the judicial system to secure pardons for imprisoned leaders of Catalonia’s failed independence bid last year.

For Mr. Abascal, the fight is personal.

His family was persecuted by the separatist ETA in his native Basque region, where he started in politics as a town councilor for the People’s Party in the 1980s. His parents’ clothing shop was torched by the radical pro-independence group.

VOX militants clashed with Basque separatists last weekend when they turned out for a rally organized by the People’s Party and Ciudadanos to commemorate the lynchings of three members of the Spanish Civil Guard gendarmerie in the province of Navarra a decade ago.

VOX refused an order by local police to leave the town square.

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