SANTANDER, Spain – Enthusiastically waving Spanish flags, supporters of the far-right Vox packed a convention center ahead of an election on Sunday, November 10, in which the party looks set to make big gains, fuelled by its tough opposition to Catalan independence.
Memories of the nationalism of Francisco Franco's decades-long dictatorship had left many Spanish voters reluctant to openly express far-right views – but over the past year, Vox has broken the taboo.
"Before it seemed horrible, but now it is less and less of a taboo to be part of Vox," said 31-year-old doctor Marcos Alvarez, one of about 2,000 people at the rally on Friday in the northern seaside city of Santander.
In the crowd were men, women and children, many of whom shared footage of the gathering on social media as the Spanish Foreign Legion's anthem, "Bridegroom of Death", blared from loudspeakers.
The elegant city of Santander has long been a stronghold for the conservative Popular Party (PP) in the northern region of Cantabria.
But Vox is steadily gaining in popularity, with the party hoping to have its first lawmaker elected in the region, capitalising on support from disaffected PP voters but also from those who once backed the centre-right Ciudadanos or the Socialists.
"I am from a fishing village and there are many people who have switched to Vox, even people who used to vote for the Socialists," said Alfonso Albeniz, 64, a retired fishing boat skipper and former PP supporter.
'Opposition to abortion'
Led by Santiago Abascal, a tough-talking career politician, the party entered parliament this year after winning 24 seats in an election in April, becoming the first sizeable far-right presence in the 350-seat assembly since Spain's return to democracy after Franco's death in 1975.
Vox has since offered to prop up conservative governments in several regions and cities, as Spain's political map becomes increasingly fractured.
Abascal, 43, on Monday, November 4, became the first far-right leader to take place in a televised election debate, taking the stand next to the 4 other main candidates, and reiterating a string of exaggerated and false claims, notably about immigrants and crime.
Opinion polls suggest Vox could double its number of parliamentary seats in the November 10 election.
"Vox is similar to other radical, populist rightwing parties in Europe," said historian Xavier Casals, referring to groups like France's National Rally and Italy's League party.
It emerged from the hardline wing of the PP, adopting issues that the party "had initially raised then dropped, such as opposition to abortion, gay marriage and laws against gender violence", said Casals, an expert in Spain's far right.
Separatists 'destroying Catalonia'
Abascal has also espoused a "Spaniards first" policy which is hostile to immigrants, whom he associates with muggings and gang rapes.
But it is the party's hardline stance on separatism that has become its "star issue," said Casals, saying Vox "could channel much of the reaction against secessionism."
The protests that swept Catalonia last month, which followed the sentencing of nine separatist leaders to lengthy jail terms over a failed 2017 independence bid, have fuelled anger among Vox supporters.
More than 600 people were injured in the protests, which saw demonstrators torching barricades and throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at police.
Albeniz, the former fisherman, said the separatists were "destroying Barcelona and Catalonia". At the rally, he broke into applause when Abascal reiterated his demand for a ban on all separatist parties and movements.
Make Spain 'great again'
Vox's campaign has centred on Abascal, a former PP regional lawmaker from the northern Basque Country, an area with a long history of separatism.
Vox's rallies frequently feature video footage of Abascal striding manfully through forests and fields and scaling mountains.
His higher profile has allowed him to show off his media skills, smiling and joking with the host of a popular talk show, brushing off suggestions he was "a fascist" in front of an audience of 4.7 million viewers.
Although the party has links with defenders of the Franco regime, it has been careful to keep these ties out of the public eye, with one supporter at the Santander rally asked to put away a Franco-era Spanish flag he was waving.
Even so, Abascal denounced the Socialist government last month after it relocated Franco's remains from a grandiose state mausoleum to a more discreet grave, saying it was "profaning" the late dictator's tomb.
At the end of the rally, Vox's regional leader Ricardo Garrudo made a call for a "free Spain", "united and great again" in an echo of a Franco-era slogan about making Spain "United, great and free". – Rappler.com