Spanish far right’s role in regional coalition triggers alarm

Popular Party laud Vox deal for ‘regional stability’ but critics portray it as ‘terrible news’

An agreement between Spanish conservatives and a far-right party to govern together in the region of Castilla y León is an unprecedented move which has drawn condemnation from domestic opponents and from some high-profile European politicians.

On Thursday, the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox agreed to form a coalition administration in the region, following an election in February. Although the PP, which has governed Castilla y León for the last 35 years, won the vote it fell short of a majority. The PP’s leader in the region, Alfonso Fernández Mañueco, has agreed to give Vox control of three local government departments and a vice-presidency post.

“We have guaranteed the political stability of Castilla y León,” he said, describing the deal as a “triumph”.

However, critics have cast it as a disastrous move, which could drag existing policies away from the centre ground and provide a spring board for the far right.

Vox has previously provided support via confidence-and-supply deals to the PP in local governments in Andalucía, Murcia and Madrid. However, this is the first time that Vox, or any far-right party, has formed a formal coalition in a local or national government in Spain’s democratic era, making it a watershed deal.

Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez said it was “terrible news for Spanish democracy and the PP”.

The news also caused concern beyond Spain's borders. In a severe blow to the PP, Donald Tusk, Polish leader of the European People's Party (EPP), of which the Spanish conservatives are members, described the accord as "a sad surprise".

“It is a very strong signal for us that we have to fight . . . against this desire to build a seemingly bigger political power, but at the end of the day it means a capitulation,” he said. “And I hope that it’s just an incident or accident, not a trend in Spanish politics.”

Former EU commission Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who was a candidate in the current French presidential race, also expressed dismay.

In Spain, much of the worry about this development is focused on how Vox will influence policy in the region. There is speculation that the party's hostility to feminism, LGBT groups and Muslims will be felt now it is in government.

But the Castilla y León deal also appears to have national repercussions and Tusk’s hope that this would be a one-off agreement looks fanciful. An election in Andalucía, where Vox is strong, is due in the coming months and a barrage of regional and municipal votes next year is scheduled to be followed by a general election.

“Everybody can see that this deal is not restricted to Castilla y León – it’s the first episode of something which from now on is going to become the norm,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autònoma University.

“Vox is no longer going to be happy offering its support from outside government,” he added. “From now on its intention will be to get inside governments.”

New right-wing coalition

However the far right’s higher profile could benefit Sánchez’s Socialists, who have long warned voters of an extremist threat on the right.

As members of the regional parliament took their oaths on Thursday there were already signs of the acrimony the new right-wing coalition is expected to bring: several Socialist members of the chamber refused to shake hands with the new speaker, Carlos Pollán of Vox.

All of this follows weeks of turmoil for the PP. Last month, party leader Pablo Casado was ousted due to a feud over corruption allegations with his PP colleague Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of the Madrid region. At the beginning of April, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, president of Galicia, is expected to be voted in as the new leader.

The timing of the Castilla y León deal – three weeks before he is expected to take the party helm – was fortunate for Núñez Feijóo and meant he did not have to take responsibility for a contentious decision. Instead, he pointed out that the accord had prevented a repeat election.

However, once Núñez Feijóo is confirmed as the new leader, his party’s relationship with Vox will be arguably the single most pressing issue he faces. The rest of Europe will be watching very closely how he handles it.