An­other right-wing star ris­ing in Europe

Abas­cal sees Trump as model

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARTIN AROSTEGUI

MADRID | As con­ser­va­tive, eu­roskep­tic, anti-im­mi­gra­tion par­ties be­gan rack­ing up sig­nif­i­cant wins across Europe in re­cent years, Spain was a sig­nif­i­cant out­lier to the trend.

San­ti­ago Abas­cal is out to change that.

As head of the new VOX po­lit­i­cal move­ment, the 42-year-old so­ci­ol­o­gist wants to up­end Span­ish pol­i­tics and shift the cen­ter of grav­ity to the right in the same way Pres­i­dent Trump has dis­rupted con­ven­tional po­lit­i­cal bound­aries across the At­lantic.

“We stand for the same lawand-or­der and so­cial con­ser­va­tive causes as Trump,” Mr. Abas­cal said in an in­ter­view, not­ing that he has talked about his plans with for­mer Trump cam­paign strate­gist and White House aide Steve Bannon. Mr. Bannon “gave us ad­vice and helped set up con­nec­tions with other like-minded par­ties” through or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Al­liance of Con­ser­va­tives and Re­formists in Europe, which has links to the U.S. Repub­li­can Party.

Fol­low­ing the trail blazed by Bri­tain’s UKIP, France’s Na­tional Front, the Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many, and the Five-Star move­ment in Italy, VOX has rid­den the back­lash to open im­mi­gra­tion to elec­toral suc­cess. Spain’s rightwing startup is poised to pick up its first seats in Euro­pean Union par­lia­men­tary elec­tions next year

and is given a shot at be­com­ing the first far-right party to en­ter the Span­ish par­lia­ment since democ­racy was re­stored in the mid-1970s.

Many Span­ish po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts look upon Mr. Abas­cal as a show­man with few prospects of reach­ing power. Even with his in­creas­ing promi­nence, his party scores in low sin­gle dig­its in opin­ion polls.

He is la­beled a “fas­cist” by the left­ist me­dia and is shunned by lead­ers of main­stream cen­ter-right par­ties, the Peo­ple’s Party and Ci­u­dadanos.

Mr. Abas­cal launched his group in 2014 by rais­ing a 200-square-yard Span­ish flag over the Bri­tish colony of Gi­bral­tar on Spain’s south­ern tip. The re­turn of Gi­bral­tar has been a long­time goal of Span­ish na­tion­al­ists. Some VOX ac­tivists es­caped by swim­ming back to Span­ish ter­ri­tory as Gi­bral­tar’s au­thor­i­ties is­sued an in­ter­na­tional ar­rest or­der for the leader of the raid, who hap­pened to be Mr. Abas­cal’s at­tor­ney.

Span­ish pol­i­tics in re­cent years has been con­sumed by the sep­a­ratist cri­sis in Cat­alo­nia, while much of the coun­try’s pop­ulist en­ergy ap­peared to be on the left, har­nessed by the rad­i­cal so­cial­ist United We Can party as it be­came a vir­tual part­ner of Prime Min­is­ter Pe­dro Sanchez, head of the cen­ter-left So­cial­ist Work­ers Party.

Some po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors say the ap­peal of VOX is badly un­der­es­ti­mated.

“They ig­nore Abas­cal at their peril,” said Je­sus Zu­loaga, ed­i­tor of the Madrid news­pa­per La Ra­zon. “He speaks with a clar­ity lack­ing in other Span­ish politi­cians.”

VOX re­lies on the charisma of its leader as well as a mix of old and new po­lit­i­cal tac­tics. It has staged street ral­lies in Madrid — a re­cent one at­tracted 10,000 peo­ple as the party un­veiled its man­i­festo — but it is also heav­ily in­vested in so­cial me­dia, In­sta­gram and the Whats App on­line mes­sag­ing ser­vice. Paid mem­ber­ship in the party has dou­bled to about 13,000 in the past four months, the Reuters news ser­vice re­ported.

Although he has com­pared notes with Mr. Bannon, Mr. Abas­cal said he wants his party to chart its own path.

“VOX does not re­spond to any in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est — only to the in­ter­est of Spain,” he told Reuters. “We want to de­cide the next Span­ish gov­ern­ment, and we be­lieve we may have a shot at it.”

In the in­ter­view, Mr. Abas­cal cited two rea­sons why right­ist re­ac­tion has been slow to take hold in Spain. Spain’s con­ser­va­tives have been stig­ma­tized by rel­a­tively re­cent mem­o­ries of the dic­ta­tor­ship of Gen. Fran­cisco Franco, who was sup­ported by the fas­cist La Falange move­ment un­til his death in 1975.

Mi­gra­tion fears

A sec­ond and more press­ing rea­son, Mr. Abas­cal said, is that Spain is just now start­ing to feel the im­pact of mass im­mi­gra­tion, which has caused po­lit­i­cal earthquakes in Ger­many, Italy, Aus­tria and a num­ber of Eastern Euro­pean coun­tries. As Italy’s new pop­ulist gov­ern­ment shuts the door on waves of im­mi­grants seek­ing to en­ter the Euro­pean Union from North Africa, Spain has sud­denly be­come a des­ti­na­tion of choice.

Over the past year, Spaniards have been ex­posed to TV im­ages of boat­loads of mi­grant Africans land­ing on their south­ern beaches and vi­o­lently break­ing through bor­der fences of Spain’s ter­ri­to­ries on the North African coast.

Over 50,000 im­mi­grants have poured il­le­gally into Spain this year, more than triple the flow of pre­vi­ous years, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures. The prob­lem is fur­ther com­pounded by a French gov­ern­ment de­ci­sion to send thou­sands of Africans who have en­tered France from Spain back across the bor­der.

Although main­stream con­ser­va­tive par­ties have re­frained from rais­ing the is­sue, Mr. Abas­cal con­tin­u­ously at­tacks the Sanchez gov­ern­ment for dou­bling down on of­fers of so­cial aid to im­mi­grants.

“We are pay­ing for the priv­i­lege of be­ing over­run not by cul­tures which share our val­ues and be­liefs and con­tribute to our so­ci­ety, but by those threat­en­ing to im­pov­er­ish and Is­lam­i­cize us,” he said, warn­ing of at­tacks by Is­lamist ter­ror­ist cells, which have al­ready struck in Madrid and Barcelona.

Left­ist politi­cians ac­cuse VOX of fear­mon­ger­ing and dem­a­goguery, but Ra­jae Nayaf, a Moroc­can lawyer work­ing for a Span­ish com­pany in Tang­ier, said Mr. Abas­cal has a point. She said im­mi­grant traf­fic has greatly in­creased since Mr. Sanchez came to of­fice be­cause “he has in­vited them in.”

VOX’s pop­u­lar­ity has risen ac­cord­ingly. The party hardly regis­tered on opin­ion polls two years ago, but two re­cent sur­veys placed its sup­port at about 5 per­cent of the vote. That would be enough to se­cure sev­eral par­lia­men­tary seats un­der Spain’s sys­tem of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Mr. Zu­loaga said VOX’s grow­ing share of the elec­torate could be enough to un­der­cut the cen­ter-right forces, the Peo­ple’s Party and Ci­u­dadanos, and thus clear the way for an­other left­ist vic­tory.

But Ra­mon Per­alta, a law pro­fes­sor at the univer­sity of Madrid and ad­viser to VOX, noted that in Spain’s frac­tured po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, “small par­ties with lit­tle rep­re­sen­ta­tion can hold de­ci­sive sway over what are in­evitably mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments these days.”

Mr. Sanchez’s gov­ern­ing coali­tion was formed with crit­i­cal sup­port from a hand­ful of Cata­lan and Basque sep­a­ratist law­mak­ers who en­abled him to muster a vot­ing ma­jor­ity in the congress. Con­ser­va­tive crit­ics say Mr. Sanchez is “hostage” to rad­i­cal sep­a­ratist groups and that the per­ceived weak­en­ing of na­tional sovereignty is play­ing into the hands of VOX.

“The sep­a­ratist coup in Cat­alo­nia has been trans­ferred from the re­gional gov­ern­ment in Barcelona to the prime min­is­ter’s palace in Madrid,” said Mr. Abas­cal, who ac­cused Mr. Sanchez of se­cretly in­ter­fer­ing with the ju­di­cial sys­tem to se­cure par­dons for im­pris­oned lead­ers of Cat­alo­nia’s failed in­de­pen­dence bid last year.

For Mr. Abas­cal, the fight is per­sonal. His fam­ily was per­se­cuted by the sep­a­ratist ETA in his na­tive Basque re­gion, where he started in pol­i­tics as a town coun­cilor for the Peo­ple’s Party in the 1980s. His par­ents’ cloth­ing shop was torched by the rad­i­cal pro-in­de­pen­dence group.

VOX mil­i­tants clashed with Basque sep­a­ratists last week­end when they turned out for a rally or­ga­nized by the Peo­ple’s Party and Ci­u­dadanos to com­mem­o­rate the lynch­ings of three mem­bers of the Span­ish Civil Guard gen­darmerie in the prov­ince of Navarra a decade ago.

VOX re­fused an or­der by lo­cal po­lice to leave the town square.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

SHAK­ING UP POL­I­TICS: San­ti­ago Abas­cal’s fledg­ing far-right party VOX is try­ing to grab a foothold in Spain. “We stand for the same lawand-or­der and so­cial con­ser­va­tive causes as Trump,” he says.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

San­ti­ago Abas­cal ral­lied thou­sands of peo­ple in Madrid last month as head of VOX. The fledg­ling party re­lies on the charisma of Mr. Abas­cal as well as so­cial me­dia. Paid mem­ber­ship in the party re­port­edly has dou­bled to about 13,000 in the past four months.

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