BARCELONA, Spain—Chants of “viva España” echoed through the drab hotel conference room on Sunday night as Vox party supporters waited to see if they would be a new force in Spanish politics. A white-haired woman waving a Spanish flag danced awkwardly in front of a large television screen in a bid to brighten the mood. But early news from the TV pundits was making the crowd nervous.
A record 75.8 percent of Spaniards had turned out to vote. And Vox officials knew it was probably because so many people were afraid of their party.
“Vox is a party that generates a lot of sympathy and a lot of antipathy,” Juan Carlos Segura, a Vox candidate for regional office in Catalonia, told me. “A lot of people are scared because they think we’re an extreme-right party. But in reality, we are not.”
The world first noticed Vox in December when it unexpectedly won 12 seats in regional elections in Andalusia. Before then it had been a little-known fringe party promoting a hard-line nationalist, anti-immigration, and anti-feminist agenda. But growing public concern over Muslim migration and disquiet over Catalonia’s independence push bolstered its support.
Spain had not had a far-right party in its national parliament since democracy was restored in 1981. Many had long believed that the long period of right-wing dictatorship under Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, had made Spain immune to the nativist, nationalistic movements now on the rise across the rest of Europe. Suddenly, it seemed to critics, the barbarians were at the gate.
“I’m terrified,” one Catalan acquaintance told me before the election, saying his parents planned to send his gay brother abroad if Vox came to power. “These fascists, who are anti-women, anti–gay rights, and anti-immigration, come from the days of Franco. They descend from prominent business and families of that era. They’ve been lying dormant.”
While the party rejects the far-right label, its campaign has run on the promise of repealing domestic violence legislation, restricting abortion, and embarking on a new reconquista, or reconquest, a reference to the Christian knights who drove the Muslim Moors from Spain.
The party has been taking advice from former Trump Svengali Steve Bannon on how to sell its agenda. Slick social media postings projected a populist message of making Spain great again. Even in the left-wing stronghold of Catalonia and its regional capital Barcelona, Vox was campaigning hard to win over Catalans concerned about the dangers of separatism and to energize Spaniards who had been moving for generations to the relatively affluent northeast in search of jobs.
Catalans were exhausted by the independence movement, according to Segura. “The [Catalan] nationalists have access to public money, which they use for independence propaganda. A party like Vox, with great aspirations not only to end separatism but to eliminate Catalan autonomy and restore the autonomy of Spain, has had the confidence and support of many people during the campaign,” he said.
In cosmopolitan Barcelona, the party was putting forward its most presentable face, choosing Ignacio Garriga, black dentist and NYU graduate, as its highest-profile candidate. The son of African migrants, Garriga spent the campaign arguing for expelling tens of thousands of undocumented migrants.
“Vox is not racist. Just look at me,” he told the El Mundo newspaper. “Look into my eyes and tell me if I can despise my mother or my grandmother who are black.”
But the presence of two police vans and heavily armed officers outside Vox’s election night venue was a testament to the fact that Catalonia has at times felt like enemy territory for the Vox campaign. Every rally has been shadowed and harassed by hostile crowds of anarchists and independence activists.
“We like dialogue, democracy, and we are tolerant,” Segura said. “But parties of the extreme left don’t accept this. When we rally, they throw rocks at us, they physically attack many of our people, including children, with iron bars. No one from Vox is aggressive to anyone.”
At a rally in the neighbouring Catalan town of Terrassa on Thursday, mainly elderly Vox supporters had to run the gantlet of antifa demonstrators shouting, “Fascists!”
“They are like Franco,” said Alba, a member of the local antifa collective. “They’re primarily running against independence and that’s their principal slogan, but behind that is a fascist agenda. We’ve been in a financial crisis for years and years, and people blame foreigners and immigration, and Vox is popular for this reason. They also blame social problems on feminist movements.”
Vox had gone into election night hoping to win up to 37 of the 350 total seats in the Congress of Deputies and potentially enter a new right-wing coalition government. But as the night wore on, the mood in the gathering in Barcelona shifted from nervous to somber, even with a stirring ’80s rock version of the national anthem blaring over the speakers. It became clear that the ultranationalist wave was not going to be quite the tsunami they had hoped for.
Ignacio Garriga won a seat, but all the party’s other Catalonia candidates fell short. Across Spain, the party won just 24 seats with 10 percent of the vote.
Just as people were starting to leave, Garriga and his entourage entered the venue for the first time to announce he was happy with the result.
“Today is a day to celebrate, friends. Spain has stood up today. Today is the starting point of the reconquest throughout the length and breadth of the nation,” he told the crowd.
It’s not the triumph Vox had hoped for, but it’s still a momentous development for Spain. With seats inside Parliament, Vox will now be able to challenge conservative parties to embrace its ultranationalist agenda.
The party’s success has come at the expense of Spain’s traditional right. Partido Popular, once the conservative party of power, suffered its worst-ever defeat, losing 71 seats. Like Vox, it won just a single seat in Catalonia.
The biggest winner of the night was the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español, which had run a minority government before calling snap elections after Catalan independence parties withdrew support. The left-wing Unidas Podemos party, once a bitter rival to the Socialists, also did well, winning 42 seats.
With no party winning a majority, the coming days will be dominated by horse-trading to form a coalition or workable minority government. All signs are that the left will dominate. The Socialists may even be able to take power without needing the support of Catalonia’s independence party.
The right, for now, is in a smaller minority. But Ignacio Garriga promises it is just the beginning: “Spain has stood up and said that it wants 24 brave people to enter the Congress to say—until now—what no party has said.”