There’s an hour till sunset and it’s still more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit as the DJ wraps up a set of old school Spanish punk and Argentine rock beneath the walls of the old city.
The crowd is a broad spectrum, at least in terms of their ages and, from the looks of it, their economic status also. Tattooed 20-somethings mingle with well-to-do señoras. There are metalheads, muscle-bound guys with an off-duty-cop vibe and families with kids, many wearing Spanish flags.
There are red-and-yellow hats and wristbands, banners tied around waists. One sausage dog even sports a red-and-yellow leash. As the 47-year-old far-right leader Santiago Abascal moves slowly toward the stage through a mob of supporters taking photos, the DJ plays their unofficial anthem – Viva España – and the chant starts to build: “Prime Minister! Prime Minister!”
The 600-odd nationalists who gathered in Toledo this week, a 35-minute hop by high-speed train from Madrid, are hoping that Sunday’s election will produce perhaps the biggest political shift in a generation. Abascal’s party Vox is poised to claim a seat in the government, giving the far right a hand in government policy for the first time since the end of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970s.
In Toledo, Abascal whipped up the crowd with attacks on Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, calling him an “illegitimate” leader whose government was based on “a lie” – a clear echo of Donald Trump’s birther movement. “Kick him out!” someone shouts.
“Yes,” Abascal responds in his typical measured style. “But in order to do what? – To change everything they have done.”
As a new generation of far-right parties advance across Europe in the shadow of Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine, a different kind of nationalism is coming into focus. Most have more moderate positions on Russia and talk of abandoning the European Union has died down in some places. What unites them is a hardline approach to cultural issues such as immigration, gender and identity.
Five years of Socialist-led governments have seen increased rights for trans people, more climate measures and outreach to Catalan and Basque secessionists, as well as provocation for traditionalists, most notably with the decision to move Franco’s body from his mountain mausoleum near Madrid.
Vox, in contrast, is offering nostalgia for the previous century when few people questioned gender roles or genders and Spain’s emergence as a wealthy economy had barely begun to attract the migrants who have transformed Spanish towns and cities since then.
It’s not a group of skinheads or neo-nazis, but rather a kind of deep-traditionalism. It harks back to a time that was free from what supporters see as the unnecessary complications of progressive politics and it is energized by outrage at the Catalans and the Basques who want to break up their country.
So it’s not just Sanchez’s policies that Abascal wants to undo. He’s also looking further back to the transition from dictatorship and what he sees as the original sin of Spanish democracy: regional autonomy.
The question of how to divide administrative powers between national and regional authorities is a pretty obscure subject in most countries. In Spain, it’s explosive.
The historic tensions between Madrid and the industrial engines of the Basque Country and, especially, Catalonia, mean that control of areas like fiscal policy, the courts, culture and especially education is bitterly contested. Those issues were at the heart of Catalonia’s bid for independence in 2017 and provided a backdrop to the 30-year campaign by the Basque terrorist group ETA.
After the suppression of regional identities under Franco, the founding fathers who drafted the 1978 constitution handed sweeping powers to the regions.
Abascal argues that those concessions have hollowed out the Spanish state and allowed local elites to take advantage of ordinary Spaniards. He wants to reclaim those powers for Madrid.
The election isn’t going to give Abascal a free hand to implement his plans, but he’s likely to have a big say in how the next chapter of Spanish politics unfolds.
The final GAD3 poll before a pre-election blackout began Tuesday suggested that Vox was on track to win about 30 seats, compared with 52 in the last election in 2019. But even with fewer seats, Abascal will have much more leverage, since the center-right People’s Party is set for about 150, enough to give the two parties a majority in the 350-strong parliament.
Other surveys suggest their margin might be narrow and there is a risk that the parliament could be deadlocked if they slip below the 176-seat threshold, because Vox’s hardline stance means it will be difficult to negotiate additional support.
If the polls are right, attention will shift to how Abascal and the PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo would negotiate their alliance. Any push to bring power back to Madrid is likely to provoke a furious backlash and risks sucking the country back into the bitter fight over national identity. That could unnerve investors.
Analysts are broadly positive about the prospects for investors under a PP-Vox government, but Abascal’s plans for massive tax cuts with little indication of how he’ll fund them is another possible risk, according to Bloomberg Economics.
For years, the success of the PP was in part based on its ability to keep hardliners like Abascal inside the tent. But Abascal quit the party in 2013 in protest at what he said was a weak response to Basque terrorism.
He founded Vox a year later and now refers to his former colleagues as “cowardly little right wingers,” saying that they regularly sell out ordinary Spaniards.
Tensions between the parties have increased during the campaign as the PP has started targeting Vox voters and appealed to the Socialists to forge a national consensus on issues like public health, education and regional autonomy.
“We all agree that the separatists shouldn’t put limits on policy for the whole country, we agree that we need a government focused on families,” Feijoo said in a July 14 video message appealing to Vox supporters. “Maybe we aren’t your party, but we are your solution.”
In the past, PP governments have left in place the progressive policies they inherited from the Socialists, tolerating gay marriage and the preservation of embryos for fertility treatment rather than revoking those rights.
Vox today portrays itself as the guarantor which will keep the PP in check in government and ensure that Sanchez’s legacy is swept away.
“We will rebuild everything they destroyed and leave the worst years behind us,” said Pepa Millan, a Vox candidate for parliament as she addressed the crowd this week in Toledo.
Behind her, as she handed over to Abascal, some 40 people were seated, many waved Vox banners or Spanish flags. In the center of the stage, by far the biggest was the gray flag of the Civil Guard, the military-style police force that has been an arm of the Spanish state for more than 170 years, through monarchies, dictatorships and republics.
“Don’t be afraid,” Abascal told the crowd. “Fear only creates tyrants.”