At a Vox rally at a former bullring in the working-class Madrid suburb of Leganés, Sandra Gutiérrez says she is drawn to the far-right party for a simple reason. “I’m here because of the disaster that is Spain,” said Ms Gutiérrez, a public relations consultant from Madrid. “You have to put your foot down and say, ‘Enough. It’s over.’ The same that happened in Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland. The people explode because of the oligarchies, the bureaucracy. The money is for them, not for the citizens.”
At the rally, Ms Gutiérrez had listened alongside almost 9,000 others as Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, thundered about protecting rural traditions such as bullfighting and hunting and the need for immigrants to “accept our culture”. He talked about taking up an “ideological battle against the progressives” on issues such as feminism, gay marriage, multiculturalism and “historic memory” laws.
“We have come to build a new Spain. A proud Spain. Not a prostrate and humiliated Spain,” said Mr Abascal, lashing out at “the traitors who are in the government today, supported by all the enemies of Spain”.
Spain has not had a meaningful far-right party since its return to democracy four decades ago. Analysts have suggested that dark memories of the Franco dictatorship and the fact that many Spaniards have family members who emigrated during that era has made Spain immune to the far-right and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But its electorate is expected to do on April 28 what many have done across Europe in recent years: vote in droves for a populist party with a rightwing nationalist message.
Vox’s poll ratings show that it will be integral to the formation of any government that can oust socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez. In a running poll of polls in El País, the party stands at 10.7 per cent, compared with 20.1 per cent for the traditional centre-right People’s party and 15.5 per cent for the liberal Ciudadanos, its likely partners in a right-leaning government. Mr Sánchez’s socialists are polling at 29.2 per cent.
The emergence of Vox, which was founded only six years ago, has forced tough choices for the parties on the more moderate right, especially the centrist Ciudadanos, who have to decide whether to work with them or risk forcing Spain into repeat elections.
“Ciudadanos walks a very difficult line: it has to avoid getting too close to Vox because that would damage its centrist credentials, but it has to get enough votes to get into power,” said Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo. “A coalition with Vox at the national level would create serious problems for the party.”
Mr Abascal and Vox burst on the Spanish political scene in December, when they gained their first regional parliamentary seats in Andalucía, Spain’s most populous region, and helped oust the PSOE socialists after almost 40 years in power.
As in places such as Italy, where the far-right League last year surged into government, Vox has exploited voter frustration with illegal immigration. While overall numbers arriving in Europe from across the Mediterranean have fallen, Spain last year became the main entry point with about 65,000 migrants arriving, almost all through Andalucía.
Vox’s political platform calls for the expulsion of all illegal immigrants and any legal immigrants who commit felonies or multiple misdemeanours, as well as an “impassable” wall around Spain’s enclaves in north Africa. While Vox’s participation in any right-leaning government would likely be limited, the fact that its votes would be integral to any legislation would inevitably push immigration and other policies to the right.
But Vox’s main card has been its fierce and long-expressed opposition to the separatist movement in Catalonia, which culminated in an illegal independence referendum in late 2017. Vox has benefited from voters’ anger at a perceived existential threat to the unity of Spain and at Mr Sánchez, who benefited from the help of Catalan separatist parties to oust Mariano Rajoy in a confidence vote last June.
“We are [for a] free-market economy, we have conservative views on the family, we are [in favour of the] right to life . . . We’ve been holding very similar positions for five years with no success,” Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, Vox’s US-educated head of international relations, told the Financial Times.
Then Catalonia happened, he said. “Why would someone in Andalucía think about Catalonia when they’re voting? But they do. People were fed up with no one else taking a stand on it.”
Inside the rally in Leganés, Vox supporters chanted for Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to be imprisoned and loudspeakers pushed out slogans promising to “Make Spain great again”.
“What’s attractive about Vox? The concept of Spain. The concept of tradition,” said Manuel Arredondo, a retired teacher and IT worker, straining to make himself heard over patriotic songs blasting in the arena.
Mr Arredondo said that he voted for the United Left in the past, but Spain’s principal problem today was “the PSOE, their treachery and their alliance with the separatists”.
If Vox wants to continue to grow, political analysts suggest it will have to lure more such disaffected left-leaning voters, especially in places such as Leganés. At his rally Mr Abascal made an explicit pitch to the Socialists’ traditional working class base.
“What does the socialist party have to do with workers any more?” said Mr Abascal. “I come here to say to Socialist voters who have always trusted the left to best defend the country and their interests [and] to protect the weakest: ‘We are here, we are with you’.”
Mr Espinosa de los Monteros points to post-election polls in Andalucía which showed that 15 per cent of Vox’s vote in the traditionally left-leaning region came from people who had voted for Spain’s three leftwing parties — PSOE, United Left and Podemos — in the last poll in 2015.
But so far Vox has poached the vast majority of its support from the centre-right People’s party (PP) and the economically liberal Ciudadanos.
“Extreme right populists in other countries have been able to construct eclectic coalitions and capture the social democrat vote,” said Lluís Orriols, professor of politics at Madrid’s Carlos III university. “That doesn’t appear to be happening in Spain.”
He added: “Vox does not seem to be able to penetrate [the working class] . . . If they cannot correct this they will be a very limited party.”