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Why Spain's far-right Vox party is not like other nationalist parties in Europe

Key Points
  • Spain's far-right Vox party is expected to see a significant upswing in a general election on April 28
  • Vox's rise ihas been attributed to a backlash against Catalan independence.
  • Populist, nationalist parties have grown throughout Europe. 
Supporters of Spain's far-right Vox party wave Spanish flags during a campaign rally in Burgos, northern Spain on April 14, 2019, ahead of the April 28 general elections.
CESAR MANSO | AFP | Getty Images

Spain's far-right Vox party is expected to see a significant upswing in a general election on April 28 — but unlike other nationalist movements in Europe that have been a response to immigration, Vox's rise is down to a more homegrown crisis.

What parties like the National Rally in France (formerly, the National Front), the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Lega party in Italy have in common with their Spanish counterpart Vox is that they are all conservative, nationalist parties that have grown in popularity in recent years.

What differentiates Vox, however, is that while the others focus on immigration as a key part of their manifestos, Spanish voters have turned to Vox largely as a response to a pro-independence movement in Catalonia and perceived threat it poses to Spain's unity.

Catalonia in northeastern Spain has dominated the political debate in the country since a failed independence bid in 2017 and lack of resolution to the separatist movement.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has come under fire for being open to talks with Catalan separatists. And he could once again need their support to form a viable government should his Spanish Socialist Workers' Party fail to gain a majority of votes, as expected.

The failure to deal with Catalan separatists has angered many voters and has drawn many of them to Vox, which says it defends national unity.

Vox has gone further than other right-leaning parties in Spain by not only condemning the pro-independence movement in Catalonia but by taking an active role in a trial against separatist leaders; it also wants to ban separatist parties.

Vox has said it has been unfairly sidelined by the political establishment after Spain's election board excluded it from a televised debate between party leaders, saying its inclusion would not be "proportionate" to its popularity (as it currently holds no seats in the national parliament).

Rather than blaming the elections watchdog, Vox's leader Santiago Abascal blamed separatist parties for the decision, saying "it is clear who still commands in Spain: the separatists."

Unity 'under attack'

In Sunday's forthcoming general election, Vox could gain 11% of the vote that would give it as many as 27 seats in parliament. It is certainly on track to become the first far-right party to sit in parliament since 1982, Reuters noted.

That worries a lot of Spaniards who lived through the 36-year nationalist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco who ruled over Spain until his death in 1975.

With its pledge to "make Spain great again," Vox's critics say the party has worrying echoes of Francoist ideology. The party has also promised to repeal a 2007 law (the "Law of Historical Memory") that denounced Franco's fascist regime and ordered the removal of Franco-era symbols from public view.

VIDEO2:2202:22
Spain's Vox party not allowed to take part in election debates

"We're a party that relies on two basic ideas," Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, director of international affairs at Vox, told CNBC Wednesday.

"One is the unity of our nation — our nation is 500 years old and it's been under attack," he said.

"Unity is one of the things that needs to be very strongly defended in Spain. And the other is freedom — we defend the free market, we defend the freedom of Spaniards, we defend certain traditions. We defend things that nobody has been defending for the past 50 years," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe."

The party was founded in late 2013 and publicly launched in early 2014. Later that year, it elected Abascal, one of its founders, as its president.

Vox emerged amid a wider backdrop of populism in Europe. Euroskeptism and anti-immigration sentiment rose following a sharp increase in migration to the continent. In late 2018, the party made waves by gaining 12 seats in an Andalusian regional election.

The party is known for its conservative, family values and opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and feminism and advocates less bureaucracy, less state, less spending and more investment, according to its political manifesto.

It is an advocate for the free market, a recentralization of the state (it wants to abolish autonomous regions - like Catalonia - that it says have fomented separatism) and electoral reform.

People attend a campaign meeting of Spain's far-right party VOX on November 26, 2018 in Granada. With a tough line on immigration and Catalan separatism, Spain's tiny far-right party VOX is starting to make waves.
CRISTINA QUICLER | AFP | Getty Images

The party has also taken an anti-immigration stance (it initially wanted to expel 53,000 illegal immigrants from Andalusia) although it has promoted what it called "good immigration" from Latin American countries to help tackle a "population deficit" in the city of Zamora.

Vox's Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros denied to CNBC that that party was anti-immigrant or anti-Islam, however, saying those claims are "not true."

In Sunday's election, the governing socialist party is expected to increase its number of parliamentary seats, ahead of the People's Party (PP) and Ciudadanos. Vox is vying for fourth place with the left-wing Podemos party.

Unpredictable

Analysts tend to see the uptick in support for the socialists as a response to Vox and fears of the right-wing party. It's not impossible that the socialists fail to form a coalition government (they are not expected to gain enough seats to govern alone) and it could be left to the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox to form a governing alliance.

For its part, the PP has cautiously accepted a potential alliance with Vox.

Toni Timoner, U.K. Representative of the PP, told CNBC Monday in emailed comments that the PP would aim to form a standing coalition government with the centrist party Ciudadanos and that "support from the populist right party Vox will be welcome on a case-by-case basis, limited to specific agreements, negotiated and put in writing."

Antonio Barroso, deputy head of research at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC Thursday that Vox could be an unpredictable force in government if such a coalition came to pass.

VIDEO3:2803:28
Catalonia foreign minister: PM knows independence vote is unavoidable

"Vox's appearance is likely to inject further uncertainty into policy-making if a right-wing alliance is finally formed. There is no track record on how they might behave in parliament. It also is unclear whether they would prioritize cultural issues over economic reform, which would make reaching agreements to pass legislation more difficult."

How investors and markets react to the election result really depends on how easy it is to form a coalition government, and what form that government takes. Analysts expect it could take up to several months for coalition talks to be completed.

"Market reaction to the election outcome is likely to be muted as political risks in Spain don't relate to anti-euro parties or unsustainable fiscal policies," UBS' Chief Investment Officer for Spain, Roberto Scholtes Ruiz, said in a note Wednesday.

He believed Vox would not see the same kind of upswing in votes that other nationalist parties in Europe have seen.

But Vox's Espinosa de los Monteros said the party shouldn't be underestimated, saying election day on Sunday would be "a very surprising day for a lot of people who thought Spain would always be left-leaning, that Spain would always be in the hands of the progressives."

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