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Spain Takes a Leap to the Populist Right

This week’s border crisis with Morocco will cast a long shadow over Spanish politics.

By , the U.S. correspondent for El Mundo.
A Vox party supporter protests in front of the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid on May 18.
A Vox party supporter protests in front of the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid on May 18.

In less than 24 hours at the start of this week, at least 6,000 migrants, including 1,500 minors, crossed the border from Morocco to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast. To elude the border fences at this outpost of the European Union, most of the migrants swam to a beach in Ceuta. Some crossed on rafts, and at least one person drowned. The border is normally quiet and strictly controlled by Morocco. But this week, Morocco decided to rattle Spain—presumably because Madrid had taken in Brahim Ghali for medical treatment. Ghali is the leader of the Polisario Front, a rebel movement in Western Sahara, which Morocco has annexed.

Ceuta, a 7-square-mile patch of territory with a population of only 85,000, was quickly overwhelmed by the arrivals. After border police lost control of the situation, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sent the Army to detain the immigrants and eventually send them back to Morocco. On Wednesday, the crisis seemed to have abated after Morocco reinstated controls on its side of the border.

But the political consequences for Spain will be long-lasting, because immigration has been pushed back to the center of the Spanish political debate. Pablo Casado, leader of the biggest opposition party, the center-right People’s Party (PP), called Sánchez unfit for office. The far-right, anti-immigrant Vox party, which currently polls in third place among Spanish voters, is especially fired up. Vox politicians called the immigrants’ arrival “an invasion” and demanded the “permanent militarization of the border” and the construction of a wall. Vox also threatened to withdraw its parliamentary support for the PP-led regional government of Andalusia if it gives asylum to any of this week’s arrivals. That would lead to a collapse of the region’s government, a snap election, and a likely boost for the xenophobic Vox.

In less than 24 hours at the start of this week, at least 6,000 migrants, including 1,500 minors, crossed the border from Morocco to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast. To elude the border fences at this outpost of the European Union, most of the migrants swam to a beach in Ceuta. Some crossed on rafts, and at least one person drowned. The border is normally quiet and strictly controlled by Morocco. But this week, Morocco decided to rattle Spain—presumably because Madrid had taken in Brahim Ghali for medical treatment. Ghali is the leader of the Polisario Front, a rebel movement in Western Sahara, which Morocco has annexed.

Ceuta, a 7-square-mile patch of territory with a population of only 85,000, was quickly overwhelmed by the arrivals. After border police lost control of the situation, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sent the Army to detain the immigrants and eventually send them back to Morocco. On Wednesday, the crisis seemed to have abated after Morocco reinstated controls on its side of the border.

But the political consequences for Spain will be long-lasting, because immigration has been pushed back to the center of the Spanish political debate. Pablo Casado, leader of the biggest opposition party, the center-right People’s Party (PP), called Sánchez unfit for office. The far-right, anti-immigrant Vox party, which currently polls in third place among Spanish voters, is especially fired up. Vox politicians called the immigrants’ arrival “an invasion” and demanded the “permanent militarization of the border” and the construction of a wall. Vox also threatened to withdraw its parliamentary support for the PP-led regional government of Andalusia if it gives asylum to any of this week’s arrivals. That would lead to a collapse of the region’s government, a snap election, and a likely boost for the xenophobic Vox.

In all likelihood, the crisis in Ceuta will have a similar impact in Spain as the mass exodus from Syria and other countries to Europe had in Austria, France, Germany, and Hungary in the last decade: boosting the country’s far-right, nationalist elements. The PP, in particular, faces the same dilemma that other conservative parties have faced across Europe: Can it win the next national election, due by 2023 at the latest, and unseat Sánchez—a Socialist heading a coalition that includes Communists—with a moderate message in what will surely be a divisive and emotional campaign? Or will the PP have to shift further to the right or otherwise adopt elements of Vox’s populism?

With Vox increasingly acting as a kingmaker in Spain, the PP will have to seriously consider moving to the right in order to win power.

That question—and a possible answer—has a face: Isabel Díaz Ayuso. On May 4, the PP politician was reelected by a landslide as president of the Madrid region. Greater Madrid—which accounts for about 14 percent of the country’s population and generates around 20 percent of its GDP—is often regarded as a bellwether for the rest of the country. Ayuso’s original campaign motto, “Communism or Freedom,” was later abbreviated to “Freedom” as she successfully appealed to Madrid residents’ pandemic lockdown fatigue. Unlike most European governments, she had not instituted a hard lockdown during the second wave of the pandemic in Madrid, which boosted support. Her decision to keep the city’s hospitality industry open was especially popular—including among immigrants, many of whom hold service-sector jobs.

Ayuso’s rule since first winning in 2019 and her recent electoral campaign have been a clear rupture with previous generations of PP politicians. The party’s current leader, Casado, is a traditional conservative who has tried to steer a middle road, combining opposition to Sánchez with support during the COVID-19 crisis. Ayuso, however, has openly played the populist card—without, so far, adopting Vox’s far-right positions. Besides her rejection of strict lockdown measures and promises of tax cuts, she has shown herself eager to dive into Spain’s culture wars. Her railing against Communists helped mobilize conservative voters in a region where the Communists are only a fringe party, part of a far-left electoral alliance that got a mere 7.2 percent of the vote on May 4. She has generally steered clear of anti-immigrant rhetoric, though she did blame the “immigrants’ lifestyle” for COVID-19 case surges.

Ayuso’s strategy has been an overwhelming success. Riding on her popularity, the PP doubled its share of the vote—from 22 percent in 2019 to 45 percent. She trounced the left and obliterated the liberal-centrist Ciudadanos party, which went from being the third-strongest party to losing all of its seats in the regional parliament. Ayuso’s populist style and anti-lockdown message also appealed to many voters who might have voted for Vox, whose support remained virtually unchanged despite the left’s implosion. Vox’s moniker for the PP—“derechita cobarde,” or “cowardly little right”—no longer resonated with voters, to whom Ayuso looked anything but cowardly.

Still, to become president of Madrid, Ayuso will need a majority of the votes in parliament, which makes it all but certain she will depend on the support of Vox. That means that the far-right will remain, as in Andalusia, the key for the PP to hold on to power in Madrid. That will give Vox the stage to push its own, more extreme policies. Rocío Monasterio, the head of Vox in Madrid, has risen to political stardom with fierce attacks on immigrants. During the recent campaign, Vox planted billboards in Madrid showing an older woman next to a young man, presumably of Arab ethnicity, with the phrase “Your grandma gets a 426 euro pension a month; [an undocumented minor] gets 4,700 euros.” With Vox increasingly acting as a kingmaker in Spain, the PP will have to seriously consider moving to the right as a strategic choice to win power.

This mainstreaming of the populist right has happened at the same time as the populist left has collapsed. Support for Unidas Podemos, a left-wing populist alliance whose dominant faction first emerged during the euro crisis, has cratered. Its founder and leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias—a self-proclaimed communist and admirer of the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez—has quit politics.

The Madrid election thus cements Spain’s switch from the temptation of left-wing populism for that of right-wing populism. In fact, Ayuso’s victory has catapulted the PP to the top of the national polls, and the debacle in Ceuta makes it very unlikely that Sánchez’s languishing popularity will be resuscitated.

The big question, then, is how the PP will try to leverage Spain’s shift to the right and bolster its newly-acquired national lead. One result could be a PP that follows Ayuso’s example—and adopts a populist message that mobilizes voters but stops short of adopting the more extreme positions of Vox. But with the pandemic likely to be under control soon and lockdowns no longer an issue, immigration may play a much bigger role in the political debate again, as was clearly visible this week. At that point, an Ayuso-style moderate populism will be vulnerable to attacks from the right—whether from Vox or the more extreme elements of the PP.

The other result could be a PP that abandons its Christian-democratic roots to adopt a more nationalist stance—following the example of the British Conservative Party, which adopted many of the far-right UK Independence Party’s positions, or the U.S. Republican Party, which morphed into a nationalist-populist movement under former President Donald Trump. After the Ceuta crisis, the temptation to do that will be stronger, no matter what Casado wishes. The refugee crisis triggered by Morocco this week may well end up turning Spanish politics more nationalist, populist, and anti-immigrant.

Pablo Pardo is the U.S. correspondent for El Mundo. Twitter: @PabloPardo1

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