The far-right is changing the face of the EU's third biggest city
Posted October 12, 2019 5:26 a.m. EDT
CNN — A far-right party is exerting its political influence in the Spanish capital of Madrid, starting with its Christmas lights.
Vox made a pact with the conservative Partido Popular (PP), which rules the city's regional government, earlier this year. And the far-right party, a newcomer on Spain's political scene, has already made its presence felt.
It has seized on cultural issues, and last month secured commitments to increase spending and religious imagery on Christmas decorations around Madrid. Vox has also opposed attempts to improve gender equality and pushed for a new family department to promote what it describes as traditional values.
Each of these policies touches on key issues for Vox, which won four out of 57 seats in May's Madrid council elections. It then entered negotiations with the PP over policy concessions in exchange for support in crucial council votes. The PP formed the city government in August.
Vox burst onto the political scene in 2018 after taking an unexpectedly high number of seats in the election in Andalusia, Spain's largest region. Not only did the result accord the party influence through its crucial support for a PP-led alliance, it also marked something of a watershed -- as the first time a far-right party had entered a regional parliament since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
It then won 24 out of a total 350 seats in the national parliament in April's general election, a slightly disappointing result for the party after its Andalusian success, according to some political experts, but one which nonetheless cemented its place as a new political force.
Traditional Christmas images
Vox has attracted voters with its hard line stance on illegal immigration, its opposition to Catalan independence and its calls for Gibraltar to be returned to Spain, as well as an emphasis on cultural traditions, which were raised recently in Madrid.
A Vox spokesman told CNN that the previous regional government had removed all religious symbolism from Christmas decorations in the city, but his party wants to reemphasize the Christian tradition of the festival. "We are not telling people how they should celebrate Christmas but from the institutions we should be accurate and respect the Spanish culture, the Catholic culture," he said.
This year there will be more lights, larger decorations and new designs that focus on traditional Christmas images. Nativity scenes will be installed at several of the city's symbolic monumental gates.
Festive decorations are just one symbolic issue that Vox has taken up. The party doesn't control any council departments and officially remains in opposition. But Vox's pact with PP means Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid's regional leader, has promised to develop a program with concessions to Vox.
"I'll honor it completely because that's my word," said Ayuso in reference to the pact, which includes provisions forcing schools to inform parents about the content of lessons before the start of term, and changes to the way in which unaccompanied migrant children are identified.
A Vox spokesman told CNN that there have been mistakes in identifying foreign unaccompanied minors and that there have been cases of people pretending to be children in order to claim certain state benefits.
"We demand that a new way of identification is put in place so we can correctly identify the people who have the right to those benefits," the spokesman said, emphasizing that Vox has zero tolerance for illegal migration. "We would like those benefits to go to legal and regulated immigration."
A PP spokeswoman told CNN the identification of minors is the responsibility of the central prosecutor's office for minors, not regional politicians. The spokeswoman emphasized that any policy changes would have to be made at a national level, rather than by the local Madrid government.
PP reliant on Vox to govern Madrid
Madrid's PP mayor, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, will need Vox's votes again to pass a budget and other essential business.
However Almeida and Vox spokesman Javier Ortega Smith have already suffered a very public disagreement, arguing in the street in full view of the press and the public on September 19. As Almeida and other public figures observed a minute's silence in honor of a victim of gender-based violence, Ortega Smith disrupted proceedings holding a sign that read: "Violence has no gender."
Speaking about the incident, the Vox spokesman expressed his condolences with the family of the victim. "It was just a way of expressing our condolences from another point of view," he said. "All victims are the same, they shouldn't be treated differently because of their gender."
Almeida said that he thought Vox had made a mistake in bringing the banner to the memorial. However the mayor also emphasized that he "does not believe in gender ideology" and that the struggle for equality between men and women should be "without ideology."
Despite the public row, Almeida said that there was nothing "uncomfortable" about the arrangement between Vox and the PP. "I don't see any issues with the relationship with Vox other than some disagreements that can be solved," he said at a press conference.
However Yolanda Besteiro, president of feminist organization Fundación de Mujeres Progresistas, told CNN that she is worried and saddened by the PP-Vox pact and Almeida's statements on gender equality. "It's dangerous," she said, warning that the PP is legitimizing the far-right. "It's a setback in the implementation of gender equality policies."
With a relationship that includes significant concessions to Vox' policy program, some had worried that the far-right was controlling the Madrid government. However Maria José Canel, professor of political and public sector communication at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, told CNN that the situation is more nuanced. "It (Vox) holds an important position but not as important as it had hoped," she said. "Vox is not directly imposing conditions on the local government in Madrid."
The party secured fewer concessions than it had originally asked for from the PP, according to Canel, and has adopted a less controversial approach in the run-up to new national elections on November 10. "I think they're going to maintain this softer approach until they work out how many votes they can get," she said.
However, by staying out of government the party has made a strong strategic move, she added. "It is able to keep its hands free to raise objections and make public declarations against (the government)," said Canel, explaining that it would not have been able to do so if it took control of a council department.
As for Vox's place in the far-right ecosystem, Canel warns against drawing easy comparisons. "The far-right movement in Spain does not fit the same characteristics as far-right movements in other countries," she said.
Canel said that Vox is not as "skillful" as other far-right groups, and pointed out that the vast majority of Spanish voters are in favor of the European Union. Other European far-right movements use opposition to the EU as a rallying cry, something that Vox is unable to do. So the party exists in a specific Spanish context which sets it apart from other far-right groups.
Canel also shut down the idea of deep cooperation between Vox and other far-right figures such as Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini of the Northern League party, who has himself been advised by US President Donald Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. "It's not that simple," she said.