Spain’s far-right rise highlights re-emergence of identity politics

Regardless of the nature of provocations of the far-right nationalist parties, the minorities must insist on their rights and obligations as European citizens.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Spanish far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal delivers a speech during a rally in Madrid after Spanish  general elections, April 28. 	  (AFP)
Unsurprising trend. Spanish far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal delivers a speech during a rally in Madrid after Spanish general elections, April 28. (AFP)

As Spain marked International Workers Day, the country’s labour unions also celebrated the victory of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, a social democrat, in parliamentary elections a few days earlier.

The prospect of Sanchez, whose party had 29% of the national vote, presiding over a centre-left coalition government in Madrid, was not just welcomed by the labour unions. It was a relief for those who feared the rise of far-right nationalist parties and of anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe.

Identity politics, however, remains just under the surface: The April 28 election also resulted in a victory for Vox, the first far-right party to gain 10% of the national vote in Spain since the 1970s.

Sanchez’s campaign strategy was predictably focused on the future, building on his record in office with achievements such as a 22% hike in the minimum wage, restoration of slashed pensions, tax increases on multinationals and rent controls.

Just as important, Sanchez, whose cabinet is composed of 50% women, campaigned on a progressive gender equality agenda. The social democratic leader also promised to make a clean break with the past by vowing to exhume the body of General Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain until his death in 1975, from its resting place at the Valley of the Fallen. This mixture of concrete policy initiatives and symbolic measures clearly helped him win the election.

The leaders of the far-right Vox, on the other hand, vowed to “make Spain great again,” campaigned against alleged “gender totalitarianism,” Catalan separatism and warned of Muslim seizure of power in Spain. Following a controversial video production of the Vox party showing the remaking of churches into mosques, Vox Secretary-General Javier Ortega Smith warned of an “Islamist invasion” — a statement investigated by Spanish prosecutors as possible hate speech.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, speaking at a post-election rally in Madrid, blamed Sanchez’s victory on the once-dominant conservative Popular Party and, more controversially, said: “We told you that we were going to begin reconquering Spain and that’s what we have done.”

Euphoric Vox supporters had no doubt Abascal was referring to Reconquista, the period from 711-1492 when the Catholic kings of Spain tried to end Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.

The rise of the Vox in Spain is hardly surprising and follows the re-emergence of identity politics in the post-ideological era. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s League party, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Fidesz, the Freedom Party of Austria and Denmark’s the Danish People’s Party increasingly classify the citizenry by “blood” and relationship to the “soil.”

Newer far-right parties attempting to steal the mantle of leadership from established nationalists have taken further measures to attract public support: The leader of the newly established Stram Kurs (“Hard Line”) nationalist party in Denmark systematically burns copies of the Quran in the public space to attract attention.

Appeal of identity politicians is unsurprising. Lacking grand political ideologies and disenchanted with the political establishment’s handling of the financial crisis and influx of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the citizenry increasingly organises along ethnic and religious lines.

This trend increasingly marginalises minorities — in particular Muslim communities in Europe — who find it increasingly difficult to belong.

Regardless of the nature of provocations of the far-right nationalist parties, the minorities must insist on their rights and obligations as European citizens. Regardless of how appealing unmeasured words and deeds to provocations of rabble-rousers may appear, civic virtues provide a better guide through this dark crisis.

17