During Spain’s four decades under the rule of Francisco Franco, the regime’s propagandists encouraged a myth that told of how a light in the window of the dictator’s study in his El Pardo palace never went out. The image was supposed to suggest that Franco never rested as he worked to implement his national-Catholic ideology, a variant of fascism.
That story was in fact based on a visit by the leader of the Spanish far-right Falange party, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, to Italy, where he met Benito Mussolini and noted that, late at night, “only Il Duce remained at work, next to his lamp, in the corner of a huge empty room, watching over his people”.
Since that time, it has been easy to draw myriad parallels between Spain and Italy. They have comparable populations (Italy 60 million, Spain 47 million) and similar-sized economies which each rely heavily on services, particularly tourism. Both were, along with Portugal and Greece, reluctant members of the unfortunately named “PIGS” nations whose high levels of debt fanned the flames of the euro-zone crisis, more than a decade ago.
Since Giorgia Meloni’s victory in last Sunday’s Italian election, debate has been raging in Spain about how in-step the two countries are politically, with many wondering whether the Spanish far-right party, Vox, can emulate its neighbours.
“I hope my victory paves the way for the triumph of Vox in Spain,” Meloni told Spanish news agency EFE in the wake of her win.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal responded to the Italian result by saying: “Meloni has shown the path for a Europe that is proud, free and of sovereign nations, capable of co-operating for the security and prosperity of all.”
Vox has undoubtedly benefited from Italy’s political earthquake, given how much ideological ground Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party shares with its Spanish counterparts. Clues to those similarities were in the speech Meloni gave in the Spanish city of Marbella in June, when she flew in to campaign on behalf of Vox ahead of the Andalucía regional election.
“They will say that you’re dangerous, that you’re extremists, racists, fascists, deniers, homophobes,” she told the Vox rally. “They will say that you’re despicable, that you don’t have leaders capable of governing, that it’s pointless to vote for you because you won’t win anyway.”
Vox’s aggressive line against immigration – its calls for the repatriation of illegal migrants echoing Meloni’s demands that the navy turn back those reaching Italian shores – has indeed caused it to face such accusations. Its hostility to LGBT organisations and to feminism have compounded such criticism. But the widespread belief that Vox “won’t win anyway” is perhaps where the differences between the Brothers of Italy and Vox become visible.
Although Vox made substantial gains in the last election, in 2019, becoming the third-largest presence in parliament, it is currently a long distance from the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the governing Socialists in polls. Despite the arrival of several new parties in Spain over the last decade – Vox, Podemos and Ciudadanos – the country’s relatively stable politics, which has been dominated by two big parties, remains.
Many believe that Vox has already reached its electoral ceiling, given that while the party has plenty of support among higher-income Spaniards, it holds little appeal for poorer voters, such as those suffering the current cost-of-living crisis. Also, the Catalan territorial issue, which was so crucial in driving up the popularity of the fiercely unionist Vox three years ago, has been relatively calm.
A more realistic ambition for Spain’s far right is to enter a governing coalition as the junior partner to the PP after next year’s general election, a formula that is already in place in the regional government of Castilla y León. The PP’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, is keen to avoid allowing a partnership with the far right to tarnish his moderate image, but he may have little alternative.
Elsewhere on the political spectrum, there is speculation that the arrival of the Eurosceptic Meloni, who appears to have little chemistry with France’s Emmanuel Macron, could benefit Spain’s Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez on the international stage.
A potential deterioration in relations between France and Italy should be watched carefully by Spain, says the Catalan commentator Enric Juliana. “The Spanish prime minister could emerge as the main defender of Europeanism in southern Europe, alongside the Portuguese prime minister, António Costa,” he noted.
Meanwhile, the lamp in the window invoked in the apocryphal Franco story – the lamp of the far right and fascism, as many see it – continues to burn in Spain, although not quite as brightly as across the Mediterranean.