(Bloomberg) -- The week before he was due to testify, Santiago Abascal told a group of conservatives in Madrid how a crowd of separatists had heckled and pushed him as he was sworn in as a local councilor in Spain’s northern Basque region.
One guest at that dinner in 2012 was outraged by how little backing Abascal says he was getting from his colleagues in the People’s Party, the country’s traditional defender of right-wing values. Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros decided that if the PP wasn’t prepared to support Abascal at the trial, then he would.
“In court, there were about a hundred people supporting the Basques and he was basically alone,” Espinosa de los Monteros said in an interview.
He’s not alone anymore.
Seven years later, the anger at separatists and the frustration with the PP that first brought together 43-year-old Abascal and Espinosa de los Monteros, 48, have crystallized in a new political party: Vox.
Borrowing liberally from Donald Trump’s populist playbook, Vox is set to redraw the country’s political map in this month’s election by becoming the first Spanish nationalist party to win multiple seats in parliament since the Franco dictatorship ended more than four decades ago. The group even aims to build a border wall around Spain’s North African enclaves to keep out immigrants.
The two men were among those who formed Vox in 2014 to defend what they consider to be traditional Spanish values from “left-wing extremists” like Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and separatists in Catalonia and the Basque region. When the Catalan crisis of October 2017 suddenly called the integrity of the Spanish state into question, they were catapulted to prominence.
“We are patriots,” Espinosa de los Monteros, now vice president of the party, said in an interview. “We support Spain and freedom.”
The risk for Vox though is that the 47-year-old premier may be the biggest beneficiary of their insurgency. Sanchez is using the rise of a Spanish nationalist party to mobilize his supporters while the PP suffers from the fragmentation of the conservative vote.
The emergence of Vox is an existential challenge for the PP, which remained Spain’s dominant conservative force for decades partly because of officials’ ability to keep right-wing fringe groups inside the party. Now its rookie leader, 38-year-old Pablo Casado, is heading for the worst election result in PP history as he loses votes to both Vox on the right and the liberals of Ciudadanos in the center.
The final polls before a blackout kicked in on Tuesday projected that Vox and the PP will match the PP’s vote in 2016, but win about 20 fewer seats. That would leave the three main parties opposing Sanchez some way short of the majority they need to oust him.
Abascal says Vox supporters should forget about tactical voting and just back the party that best matches their political convictions.
The “cowardly right-wing,” Abascal said at a recent Barcelona rally, “has abandoned you.”
“We need a radical change,” Abascal said to applause from the crowd of around 5,000 supporters. “Vox has come to defend Spain above all else.”
“I don’t think they’re nationalists. They’re patriots because they want to unite Spain”
Read More: These Are the Parties Fighting Spain’s Election
PP leaders say that Abascal’s verbal attacks are an insult to his former colleagues, some of whom were assassinated by the Basque terror group ETA.
Vox doesn’t share the euroskepticism of the continent’s other right-wing populists, but Abascal himself has flirted with France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban all the same. In March he met with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party, to discuss “alliances to defend the only possible Europe, one based on the respect of its sovereign states and the Christian cultural roots,” he said.
In Spain, Vox wants Catalonia’s regional government abolished as part of a sweeping recentralization of power. Abascal has also talked about building walls around the North African enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta to keep out illegal immigrants coming through Morocco.
Vox has mounted a defense of traditional hunting and bullfighting while arguing that the gender equality laws brought in by the Socialists have led to discrimination against men. When the party scored a breakthrough result in December to win its first seats in Andalusia’s regional parliament, as many as 70 percent of its voters were male, according to analysis by pollsters.
At times, Vox’s advocacy of traditional values has given rise to what their critics say amounts to racism, sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia. Vox leaders say Madrid should give priority to immigrants from Latin America who share cultural ties and values with Spaniards. While Spain was one of the first European countries to approve gay marriage nearly two decades ago, Vox officials insist that was a mistake and that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“Vox doesn’t have any hang ups about saying what’s wrong,” 20-year-old Carlos Jane said while he listened to the party’s leaders speak at a rally in Barcelona. “I don’t think they’re nationalists. They’re patriots because they want to unite Spain.”
To contact the authors of this story: Rodrigo Orihuela in Madrid at firstname.lastname@example.orgJeannette Neumann in Madrid at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles Penty at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ben Sills
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