Theodoros Benakis

Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero: “VOX has not come to stay mute but to make noise and be noticed”

Flickr/Contando Estrelas/CC BY-SA 2.0
The leader of the Spanish far-right VOX Santiago Abascal delivers his speech at the Palacio de Vistalegre in Madrid, October 2019.

While far-right parties are spread across Europe, Spain seems to be immune to the hate speech, the racism and xenophobia. However, the latest electoral results show a tough racist movement already existed many years ago growing slowly and taking advantage of modern technology in communication, mainly social media.

The VOX party’s rhetoric is xenophobic with particular focus on Muslims, against equal rights for women and LGBT. Also, it supports a strong state without regional autonomies.

In practice, VOX denies all the achievements of the post-Franco democratic Spain.

European Interest asks Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero a specialist of the VOX and far-right movements in Spain to explain the spectacular rise of the party as well as the reasons behind its successful electoral performance.

Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is a lecturer at the University of Granada (Spain), Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and co-editor of the academic journal GRETA. She has provided insightful analysis of the far-right phenomenon in Spain, enlightened by a narrowly known side of the Spanish political and social life.

European Interest: The electoral rise of VOX came as a surprise for many in Europe. In an article you wrote last April, you analyse the role that symbolism plays in VOX campaigns. The careful and accurate choice of words and symbols by the leaders of the party appears to have facilitated its spread in Spanish society. Why did the other parties fail to understand the dynamics of symbols? What were some of the deeper reasons that led to a considerable part of Spanish society being mesmerised by VOX rhetoric? 

Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero: VOX bursting into the Spanish political scene was as unexpected as striking. First, because Spain was one of the few exceptions in Europe that did not have a clearly defined far-right party but also because of the new language and symbology they imported, the same phenomenon that happened with Podemos a couple of years earlier though on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

VOX’s rhetoric relies deeply on symbols, past historical figures and carefully selected events from the history of Spain. The national emblems: anthem, crown and flag are the symbols that identify the basic tenet of their policy: the construction of an unbreakable nation impervious to any threat that could damage our culture, traditions or history. As Wodak stated some  years ago, their discourse is built upon the two main pillars of right-wing populism: the politics of fear and the arrogance of ignorance.

VOX plays on the role of the state as a parens patriae who offers security, protection and stability. An examination of the semantic associations of the most frequent terms in their political programme unveils the chief pillars upon which the discourse of VOX is constructed: the concept of nation España (Spain), the idea of ‘family’ and the notion of ‘security’.

VOX does not use any paternalist, condescending language to talk to their younger voters; on the contrary, they are treated as peer, developed citizens whose support is essential

Both the historical figures chosen as role models (The Catholic Kings, Don Pelayo or the Great Captain) as well as the historical events selected as landmarks in their discourse (the Battle of las Navas de Tolosa, the Reconquest or the Cortes of Cádiz) belong to the distant past. And any reference to Franco’s regime is deliberately avoided. The power of semiotics as a tool to create and reinforce political communities seems to have been underestimated by the rest of forces but has proven to be very profitable for Abascal’s party.

In linguistic terms, VOX’s language appeals to emotion following the trend of populism in the last decades. Their lexical preferences reveal a straightforward and polarized discourse in which words such as “traitor”, “enemy” or “fear” are highly frequent. That communicative assertiveness may look appealing to those voters who feel the discourse of other parties excessively bland and encourages them to take side. VOX’s rhetoric is uncomplicated, confident and determined.

In another article you wrote last August, you describe the success of VOX in using social media and mobilising the youth. You claim that such an exploitation of the net and especially of Instagram secured for VOX an “army” of teenagers that will support it in the next legislative elections. If I understood correctly, the main practice was to reproduce the speeches of the leaders through the internet – the modern way to communicate a thoroughly traditional way of propaganda. Is this the “secret” of the VOX success among the young?

As you mentioned, in the article I wrote last August I argued VOX has been by far the most communicatively efficient Spanish political force in social media. This has been a constant in my studies since I started analysing the discourse of the party in December 2018.

The majority of comments found in their numerous accounts in the most popular social media platforms reproduce the political speeches of their leaders, loudspeak their actions- always presented as successes- and belittle the other adversaries stressing the contradiction between their words and facts. Their online discourse is a perfect example of the new kind of propaganda that has evolved from being more centralized to involve a bigger range of actors as well as the need to adapt its practices to the new technological developments and demands.

On the other hand, and I think this is maybe the most relevant part, VOX takes young voters very much into account and plenty of their messages are specifically directed at them. Just to give you a meaningful example, at the beginning of last summer, VOX addressed the youngsters sitting for their university entrance exams on the day the tests started wishing them luck and enhancing their responsibility as the future of a country who rely upon committed and hard-working students.  In that sense, young people felt they counted, they had a role to play in Spain and they were not unnoticed by the political class.

When one of their young voters was attacked by some hooligans last August because he was wearing a bracelet with the Spanish flag and the name of VOX on it, the party immediately showed him their support transmedially. The message conveyed with these actions is that any member of their electorate is equally important to them without distinction.

The Catalonia process was the catalyser that boosted VOX to their political success and the party increased in a 20% the number of supporters after the Islamist terrorist attack in Las Ramblas in August 2017 and specially the Catalan referendum

I mentioned in the article from last August the campaign “Cañas por España” (Beers for Spain) that allowed VOX’s younger voters to meet the political leaders of the party or public figures ideologically close to VOX in an informal context. That campaign was an attempt to bring politicians closer to the young sector of the electorate in a more intimate, direct way.

Indeed, from a discursive point of view, it’s  highly interesting to study their interactions in social media: VOX does not use any paternalist, condescending language to talk to their younger voters; on the contrary, they are treated as peer, developed citizens whose support is essential.

Reading carefully the party’s programme, it is not difficult to identify some clear resemblance to the Francoist narrative. The Popular Party is the direct successor of the Popular Action, which was formed by moderate circles of the Francoist regime and absorbed the pro-Franco part of the Spanish society. Since the Popular Party moved to moderate lines searching its modernisation, may the VOX rise be explained as a “revenge” of the Francoist Spain? Is VOX a modern far-right party or it moves under the shadow of Franco’s legacy?  

The lukewarm policy of the Popular Party in the last years of Rajoy’s presidency both on ideological (e.g. the abortion law) or political (e.g. the referendum in Catalonia) key points progressively disappointed a great part of their electorate (including a big number of politicians now in VOX) who did not have another alternative to vote for. VOX’s came to cover that political gap and give voice and representation to that sector of dissatisfied supporters of the Right. However, VOX’s sudden stardom could not have been founded solely on that segment of voters so the phenomenon is way more complex.

I don’t think VOX moves under the shadow of Franco’s legacy basically because the socio-historical context and the voters’ profile are radically different. It’s true that both have a great deal of ideological points in common (the plate-armored unity of the nation, the ultra defense of the Catholic faith or the conception of the family as the primary social cell just to mention a few) but the times we live in have brought new realities non-existent in the pre-constitutional period, for instance the immigration issue, the idea of Europe or the threat of independence movements. VOX simply follows the patterns of the far-right populism that has been emerging in Europe in the last decades.

Indeed, what is interesting when one scrutinises VOX’s discourse, is the fact they have tried eagerly not to be associated with Franco or the pre-constitutional regime, constantly rejecting the label “extrema derecha” (extreme right) and claiming they are a party of “extreme necessity”. Still, although Abascal has always been very careful to deny any link with the dictator’s policy, he was the only leader who openly talked his exhumation. Both the Popular Party and Citizens overlooked the topic and Casado (the leader of the conservative party, Partido Popular) avoided to make any comment about it probably as an attempt to distance themselves from the far right both past and present. The incursion of VOX in the Spanish political landscape readjusted the positions in the right and centre-right and displaced them to a more moderate area.

It may seem shocking too that those towns with a higher number of immigrants voted for VOX  particularly bearing in mind VOX’s  immigration measures

Do you think that VOX’s anti-constitutional positions – against the Autonomous Communities, the regional structure of the country – can derail stability in Spain given that the Catalonian question is still on the table? Also, does VOX anti-Muslim rhetoric as well as its positions against social minorities represent a threat to the cohesion of Spanish society?    

Actually, since its inception VOX’s discourse has promised exactly the opposite: stability. That was extremely relevant regarding the Catalonia issue and absolutely key in their overnight success: VOX offers stability, unity, security and protection whereas the Catalonia issue was depicted as a real threat to the cohesion of a nation who could be dismembered irreversibly unless strict measures are taken. The Catalonia process was the catalyser that boosted VOX to their political success and the party increased in a 20% the number of supporters after the Islamist terrorist attack in Las Ramblas in August 2017 and specially the Catalan referendum. Their proposal to eradicate the system of autonomous communities and their transferred powers emphasizes the strength of a central power unlikely to be affected either by internal (Catalonia) or external (immigration) menaces.

In relation to their position to social minorities, specially during the Andalusian campaign in December 2018, VOX claimed their preference towards non-Muslim immigrants based on the overused trope of the potential incompatibility of some non-Western cultures with the Spanish traditions. That bias was overtly displayed on a set of inappropriate remarks addressed to members of the Muslim community such as the derogatory comments made on Najat Driouech. Although in  the last political campaigns their statements have been more lenient and less explicit on that topic, some of the measures presented (for example, the eradication of the subject of Islamic religion at schools) will directly affect the Muslim community and it’s very likely that political decisions of that sort could definitely imply a fracture with that minority.

Is the rise of VOX reversible?

I think it is way too early to anticipate what is going to be VOX’ development. Let’s not forget the party was born in December 2013 and although they have had a dazzling success, their political life has been too short and full of extraordinary events (three elections in the last year, two of them national). It’s undeniable they have progressively conquered a privileged position in the Spanish political arena but we will have to wait to see if they hold a coherent line once in the Parliament, stick to the promises made and maintain the political style displayed during the electoral campaign. For now, they have kept the same tough and inflexible attitude on certain topics, for example, gender violence or the Catalonian issue. Also, very interesting will be to witness how solid the internal structure of the party is, especially with the preceding example of Podemos, who also had a remarkable beginning but became weaker very soon afterwards due to the premature internal divisions, among other factors. We should not overlook the development of the far-right movements in the neighbouring countries in Europe and see how that political environment can affect VOX. One thing seems clear though: VOX has not come to stay mute but to make noise and be noticed.

What about the party’s electoral base? Is it a conservative and right-wing electorate or does it also attract other types of audiences?    

The elections’ results from last November were quite unusual since 8 million of Spaniards changed the political option they had supported 7 months earlier, and 2 million of votes were abstentions. The great winner, undoubtedly, was Abascal’s party.

VOX represents an attractive phenomenon to many different sectors for diverse reasons. The biggest expected percentage of voters were those who came from the more extreme ideological positions within the Popular Party but the results in the last elections showed that a great number of former voters for the Socialist Party (about 200.000) chose VOX, a fact that some analysts have interpreted as a punishment vote to Sánchez for not having reached an agreement with Podemos and the subsequent electoral process.

VOX has always contended they are the party “of common sense” and claim to represent “the Spain that gets up early”, that is they address the man on the street rather than the socio-economical elite. It may seem shocking too that those towns with a higher number of immigrants voted for VOX  particularly bearing in mind VOX’s  immigration measures. The vote of the younger generations should not be underestimated either as we discussed above. All these factors show VOX is a complex phenomenon that needs to be analysed in depth.

Explore more