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Will Bannonism Play in Spain?

Spain has mostly resisted the right-wing populist wave so far. One party, with links to the former White House strategist, is trying to change that.

“Spain first!” roars Santiago Abascal, the leader of a far-right party called Vox. Sharply dressed, with a well-groomed beard, Abascal is giving a speech in a Barcelona hotel, with the words La España por venir, “The Spain to come,” looming behind him. “This is the biggest event in the history of Vox,” he declares to an audience of 2,000 people waving Spanish flags and cheering, on June 3. “We are here to defend our way of life, our homeland, and the heritage of our fathers!”

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Abascal finishes his speech and steps off stage to piped music that sounds like the soundtrack from The Lord of the Rings. Members of the audience, largely male, not young, greet the Vox leader with slaps on the back and bear hugs as he makes his way down the aisle. Above them is a forest of Spanish flags nearly touching the ceiling—a ceiling so low it makes the room look like an underground bunker. There’s something faintly ridiculous about the whole scene.

Vox was founded in 2014 out of disenchantment with the center-right People’s Party, the dominant force of conservatism in Spanish politics for the past 40 years. Along with the sort of hard-line stances on immigration and the European Union that are now familiar from emerging right-wing parties throughout Europe, Vox’s raison d’être is to protect the unity and sovereignty of Spain. It believes that the “autonomous communities”—regional governments set up in the years after Gen. Franco’s death in 1975—should be abolished. The party claims to be surging thanks to recent events.

In October, a referendum was held on whether Spain’s northeast region of Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural traditions, should become independent. Although the referendum did not have Madrid’s blessing, the “yes” result led Catalan leaders to declare a republic. Would-be voters were beaten by police, Catalan leaders were jailed, and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy imposed direct rule on the region in an unprecedented move. Still, Vox says that the Spanish government under PP was too soft in its response.

Throughout the crisis, Vox staged nationalist demonstrations, usually attended by a few hundred people. Fascist salutes and swastikas were often seen at protests organized or endorsed by the party.

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Vox chose to hold its aforementioned “biggest event” yet in Barcelona to directly confront the separatists. The party believes that it can win municipal seats in the Catalan capital with the support of unionists—people who want to remain part of Spain, and make up at least half of Catalonia’s population.

Vox’s “Spain first” slogan is a deliberate nod to Trump. “Like Donald Trump in the United States, we want to make Spain great again,” Vox’s general secretary Javier Ortega says. But while Trump is president of the world’s most powerful country, Vox consists of minnows. The party has no seats in the Spanish Parliament and despite its claims to be on the verge of electoral breakthrough, opinion polls suggest otherwise. Far-right parties have emerged in Spain in the past but have never managed to win much support here. Somehow the country has even been able to resist the recent trend of right-wing populism sweeping through Europe. Can Vox be the party to change that?

At least one person who thinks so is Steve Bannon. Trump’s former chief strategist has pledged his support to the party, after meeting Vox’s Rafael Bardají in Washington (Bardají is former adviser to José María Aznar, the Spanish prime minister who led his country into war in Iraq during the Bush years). According to Vox, Bannon is due to visit Spain in the coming months.

Bannon has been mingling with right-wing populists across Europe recently. In early June he was in Rome to celebrate the formation of a new populist government there. He has also worked with Viktor Orbán’s populists in Hungary, Brexiters in the U.K., and France’s National Front.

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In Spain, the political landscape is far from certain. The start of June saw the sudden collapse of the PP government, amid a massive corruption scandal. The new government, led by the center-left socialist party (PSOE), is propped up by smaller parties and may not last more than a few months. If elections are called, Vox plans to capitalize on PP’s demise. And they’re counting on Bannon’s help. Perhaps right-wing populism is coming to Spain after all.

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Vox’s second-in-command Javier Ortega is buzzing after a lively weekend for his party. “The Barcelona event surpassed all predictions,” Ortega tells me a couple of days afterward. “There are thousands of Catalans that feel completely abandoned by the People’s Party, and who aren’t going to vote for them anymore. … We are convinced that we can make progress there.”

Of course, the party doesn’t just have its sights set on Catalonia. After PP’s dramatic fall from grace, Ortega sees an opening forming on the right of Spanish politics. “Millions of voters who sympathize with PP have seen themselves completely betrayed,” Ortega says. “There is no party that is clearly defending without fear or ambiguity the unity of Spain. Vox was born for that purpose.”

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On the same day as the rally in Barcelona, Vox staged a demonstration against the new PSOE-led government in Madrid. With placards and chants, protesters demanded elections. The center-left PSOE could not have won the vote of no confidence without the support of regional separatist parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country—parties that Vox calls “enemies of the homeland” and thinks should be banned.

Vox also wants a single Spanish government instead of the current semifederal system, which features 17 regional governments “that function like little states contrary to the national state,” Ortega says. He adds that 40 percent of Spaniards want to get rid of the autonomous regions (though the numbers supporting recentralization are probably lower than that). These people don’t have “any representation in the institutions to defend them,” Ortega says. His party exists to give them a voice, he adds. Hence the name Vox, meaning voice in Latin.

Can Vox turn these supposedly “voiceless” masses into votes come elections? Party spokesman Manuel Mariscal tells me that membership has increased exponentially since the Catalan crisis. “We’ve seen a big growth in the last few months. In Barcelona alone we now have 500 members,” he tells me. When pressed, Mariscal admits that before the Catalan crisis Vox counted just 80 members in Barcelona, a city of 1.6 million people.

Nationwide, Vox claims that membership has doubled to 7,000. By comparison, PP’s membership is about 100,000. In opinion polls, Vox has grown from little over zero to between 1 and 2 percent. It seems the party has a steep road to climb if it wants to replicate the success of right-wing populists in other countries. In the wake of the financial crisis, which crippled Spain’s economy, why hasn’t Vox been able to gain more support?

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Where far-right populists have had success in Europe, there tends to be several key factors, according to Andrew Dowling, senior lecturer of Hispanic studies at Cardiff University. High unemployment and immigration, a couple of the variables Dowling identifies, are certainly at play in Spain. And yet they have not proved as emotive as elsewhere.

One answer might be that Spain is accustomed to having high numbers of jobless people. “Unemployment was over 20 percent for most of the ’80s, into the early ’90s. It only dropped to about 8 to 10 percent in 2005, and then rocketed again,” Dowling explains. “Spanish society is, in a sense, used to unemployment, so it’s very hard for an extreme party to mobilize around the issue.”

As for immigration, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in Spain. And although a substantial 4 million or 5 million people have come to the country over the past 15 years, they tend to work in areas Spaniards don’t want to work in, and so are not seen as a threat, Dowling says.

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“This doesn’t mean that Spain is a wonderful, harmonious society where there aren’t problems around immigration and racism,” he adds. Yet surveys do show Spanish attitudes toward immigrants to be more tolerant than in other European countries, Dowling says.

Euroscepticism is another feature of most right-wing populist movements on the continent. But again, there is very little anti-EU sentiment in Spain. “This partly goes back to the post-Franco era in the ’80s. For Spaniards, it was an achievement to become part of Europe [after the dictatorship],” Dowling says. “It was all part of the normalizing of Spanish society.”

Another thing that makes Spain different is that many of the immigrants to the country have been Latin Americans, whom even Ortega says share “a language, culture, a common history, and way of life” with Spaniards, which makes it easier for them to “integrate.”

Easier, Ortega means, than immigrants from “Arab countries.” He points to Muslim immigrants’ supposed lack of respect for women and belief in a theocratic state as things that make it difficult for them to integrate with Spanish society.

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Vox isn’t afraid to stoke Islamophobia, in keeping with other right-wing populists. One of the party’s earliest promotional videos was a spoof news broadcast depicting a veiled woman reporting from outside the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba after an imagined consecration to Islam by a fictional left-wing government (the building was erected during Spain’s Moorish era and was turned into a cathedral in the 13th century). The video ends with the words: “Do you want a future like this?” and doomy music.

But even this may also prove to be infertile ground for Vox. While Spain does have a significant Muslim population, anti-Islam views are virtually absent from politics. “Even with the Madrid bombings in March 2004, in which almost 200 people were killed and over 1,000 injured, there was no backlash,” Dowling says. “Spanish society responded pretty maturely to that threat.”

The unity of the Spanish nation is a more emotive issue for right-wing voters than Islamophobia, it seems. And the leading unionist party since the transition to democracy has always been PP. This might be the biggest reason why right-wing populism hasn’t taken off in Spain—PP has long held a commanding presence on the issue most important to far-right voters.

This may not be the case for much longer.

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The experts don’t think there’s much chance of Vox gaining electoral support in Spain. But that won’t deter a party that’s determined to bring Trump’s brand of right-wing populism to Spain.

“Donald Trump is doing great work in U.S.,” says Vox’s Javier Ortega. “And though Trump’s politics may not necessarily be right for Spain, [we admire] his defense of American liberty, his defense of the nation against international deals that have seriously damaged the country, and the effective border control he is creating in the face of illegal immigration,” Ortega says. “We believe that Donald Trump has restored the pride of millions of Americans … who want to resist globalization.”

To replicate Trump’s approach in Spain, Vox has a few tricks up its sleeves. The party is seeking to make the most of its links with the alt-right movement across the pond. Namely, Steve Bannon.

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Rafael Bardají, a member of Vox’s National Executive Committee, traveled to Washington in April to meet Bannon, as well as other members of the U.S. government, so he claimed. In a statement at the time, Bannon backed Vox as “a party based on the sovereignty and identity of the Spanish people, and that is ready to defend its borders.”

“Obviously we are excited to have contact with one of the best experts around despite the fact we’re a party with little in the way of financial resources,” says Ortega. “[Bannon] can help us with his experience, with his knowledge—advising us on how to campaign and make our message reach more people.”

Ortega expects the Darth Vader of international politics to visit Spain “soon.” Bannon was meant to meet with Vox in May, but Bannon is busier than ever, Ortega says, after going back to being an adviser to Trump. The Vox general secretary seems to have gotten his wires crossed on that count, unless there’s something Trump and Bannon aren’t telling us.

Steve Bannon’s press office declined multiple requests for comment.

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“There’s never been a party like Vox. Since the birth of the Spanish Constitution a party that defends what Vox defends has never existed,” Ortega says. He may be right. But a look at Spain’s post-Franco history suggests there’s a good reason why far-right populists haven’t been successful, and probably won’t be in the near future.

Unless Bannon has something to say about it.