- - Thursday, April 25, 2019

MADRID — For decades, Spain’s politics bounced comfortably between the center left and center right, seemingly immune from the more radical, populist pressures that were disrupting countries across Europe.

No more.

The run-up to bitterly disputed snap national elections Sunday, Spain’s third in the past four years, has been marked by violence, rising populist and anti-immigrant sentiment, and divisive rhetoric.

The results, some analysts say, could mark a decisive shift for Spain, whose very unity as a nation is being challenged by separatists who have allied with governing socialists in some of the wealthiest regions.

Traditional conservative parties are increasingly targets of harassment, and the fledgling, far-right Vox party hopes to build on unprecedented gains even as its leaders are investigated for suspected hate crimes and excluded from nationally televised debates.

Vox, which in December won its first-ever representation in a regional parliament, was barred by the national electoral commission from participating in a debate last week between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the other mainstream candidates. The electoral panel cited the 6-year-old party’s lack of representation in the national assembly despite poll numbers indicating that Vox could emerge as the third- or fourth-largest group in parliament after the five-way race Sunday.

“They don’t know what to do to keep us down,” said Vox leader Santiago Abascal, pointing out that separatist parties are allowed to participate despite their single-digit following at the national level. Vox representatives have told The Washington Times that much of the party’s support is generated through social media and manifested in the largest public rallies of the campaign despite continual harassment by leftist groups.

For all the churning, polls suggest Mr. Sanchez’s ruling party will grab the largest share of the vote for Spain’s 350-seat nationalist parliament but will fall well short of the 176 seats needed to govern alone. The three right-wing parties have feuded in the run-up to the vote, and up to 30% of the electorate said they were undecided earlier this month, making unclear what path the Socialists have to a new governing coalition.

Vox appears to have momentum despite — or perhaps because of — its exclusion from the debate. With candidates from the other four major parties taking turns accusing one another of lying, corruption and bad faith on the separatism issue, polls give Vox over 15% of the vote — up 5 percentage points in recent days — and potentially more than 40 seats in the lower house, the Congress of Deputies, the first representation for the far right in the national parliament since the 1980s.

Vox’s platform targets what party officials say are the dangers of separatist forces: Muslim immigration and feminism. Its leader is a staunch defender of the traditional sport of bullfighting.

Vox isn’t the only force shaking up the vote. Spaniards were stunned this month when sympathizers of the terrorist group ETA invaded a meeting of the moderate centrist party Ciudadanos in the Basque town of Renteria. Several people, including a police officer, were seriously injured.

A few days earlier, separatist Catalan militants from the Committees for the Defense of the Republic blocked conservative Popular Party congressional candidate Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo from speaking at the University of Barcelona.

Street fights broke out between leftists and Vox supporters at a rally in which Mr. Abascal called for the arrest of Catalonia’s regional president, suspension of the province of self-rule and the banning of separatist parties.

“Neither Spain nor its laws will be small change or hostage to anyone. The time in which national policy was dictated by the enemies of Spain is finished,” Mr. Abascal said.

Dark echoes

To many, Spain’s increasing polarization harks back to the early 20th century.

“The atmosphere is reminiscent of the 1930s,” columnist Victor de la Serna wrote in the newspaper El Mundo, referring to the chaotic period of the Second Spanish Republic that led to the brutal civil war.

Mr. de la Serna said the ruling Socialists bear much of the blame for the current atmosphere.

“While the violence is committed by groups that are practically extraparliamentary, they have been brought about by the policies of [Mr. Sanchez],” he wrote.

But Socialist representatives say conservatives provoked the violence by holding rallies in regions where they generate hostility. In the televised debate last week, Treasury Minister Maria Jesus Montero accused conservatives of “living off tension.”

Mr. Sanchez said recently that “democracy is incompatible with intolerance” and compared the violence to “insults” that opponents hurl at him. Although he has moderated his tone, Mr. Sanchez described Vox as a “virus” when the group helped the Popular Party and Ciudadanos unseat a Socialist-led regional government long in power in Andalusia.

Mr. Sanchez became prime minister a year ago through a vote of censure against center-right Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, boosted by vital support from the far-left Podemos party, two Catalan secessionist parties and Basque nationalists. But he was forced to call the Sunday vote after he was found last month trying to formalize negotiations with Catalonia’s secessionist government by naming an international mediator to manage the talks.

With the Catalonian separatist push raising fears about the unity of Spain, Mr. Sanchez’s move met with strong opposition, even from members of his own party. Mainstream conservatives in Ciudadanos and the Popular Party joined Mr. Abascal in calling Mr. Sanchez a traitor before a flag-waving multitude of 200,000 demonstrators in Madrid.

Mr. Sanchez has tried to keep the campaign focused on economic issues by pushing through a series of emergency decrees in recent weeks that have hiked the minimum wage by 22%, promised vast increases in social spending and created 30,000 more public-sector jobs.

But separatism and illegal immigration from North Africa — which has risen by 170% over the past year — top the list of issues that worry voters, according to opinion polls. Mr. Abascal has called for the expulsion of undocumented aliens and shutting down mosques run by those who “preach against our Christian values and culture.”

His message received a late-campaign boost last weekend when a Moroccan immigrant, the son of the imam of a mosque in Seville, was caught preparing a suicide attack using explosives against Holy Week celebrations in the Andalusian capital.

The rowdy run-up to the vote is being watched anxiously in Brussels, where European Union officials are already dealing with strains caused by Brexit, rising anti-EU parties in countries such as Italy and Hungary, and trade pressures from the United States. A little stability and moderation in Madrid would be the best result for a battered EU.

“Brussels is hoping for a government with a stable parliamentary majority that will be able to push the budget through and put an end to all the wavering that has been the rule since 2015,” a high-ranking European official recently told the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

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