On March 8 2020, thousands of Spaniards were summoned to join two radically different mass gatherings in Madrid: a demonstration to celebrate International Women’s Day, and a VOX meeting in which Santiago Abascal was going to be re-elected as the president of the radical right political force for the next few years. The party’s choice of March 8 was not a coincidence. As a matter of fact, it was thought of as a vitrual “counter protest” to one of VOX’s main hobbyhorses: what they call “gender ideology” or “feminist supremacism”. Just two days after their meeting, VOX’s general secretary Javier Ortega Smith announced that he was infected with the virus that later also reached other members of his political party – including Vox’s spokesperson in the Spanish congress, Macarena Olona, and even their leader, Santiago Abascal, as well as other members of the current government like the Minister of Equality, Irene Montero, or the vice-president Carmen Calvo. On March 14 2020, the Government declared a state of emergency for 14 days – later extending it 14 days more. In a humiliating public climbdown, VOX apologised publicly for holding a public meeting at a time when the pandemic was just about rearing its head in Spain whilst also at the same time they blamed the Government, a leftist coalition, for having authorized it as well as the 8M demonstration.
How has VOX responded to the COVID-19 pandemic so far?
During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, VOX policy has been focusing on the same issues that built its political identity upon, although this time they have done so by directly associating the pandemic with these issues – namely gender, migration, separatism, and what VOX calls the “socio-communist government”. On March 19 2020, VOX accused Podemos on Twitter for allegedly deleting all “graphic material” related to the International Women Day demonstration, which took place in several Spanish cities only a few days before Spain entered quarantine. In fact, the radical-right group described the demonstration as the ground zero event that “triggered” the pandemic in Spain. And even though the very same day VOX had organized a mass meeting too, the demonization of the feminist mass demonstrations came days before the party’s apologies. Clearly, rather than being concerned about mass gatherings as a key vector in the spread of the virus, VOX was mainly preoccupied with condemning the political assumptions that underpinned the demonstration, namely a feminist call for women empowerment, and therefore posing a challenge to their inherently chauvinistic poltiics. In one of their many accounts in social media, VOX followers posted the photo below that makes a pun between the name of their political antagonist “Unidos Podemos” and the word “pandemia” (or pandemic), establishing a biologised symmetry between Podemos and their own imagined political virus of left-wing politics:
Party General secretary Ortega Smith was harshly criticised because he posted a tweet, which he quickly deleted, in which he informed his followers in a video that his “Spanish antibodies” were going to win over the “damn Chinese virus” until he defeated them. His choice of qualifiers was particularly unfortunate not only because it framed the illness as an intercultural battle, but also because it reinforced the stigmatisation of the Chinese community in Spain, particularly worsened since the outbreak of the epidemic. The situation has even caused the reaction of the Chinese embassy with calls to stop sinophobic racism.
Besides directly blaming the Chinese for the virus, VOX has also taken advantage of the crisis and the demands for more restrictive lockdowns to talk about migration in general. Party leader, Santiago Abascal, demanded that “irregular immigrants” pay to be medically attended during the current virus crisis. Blinded by their own ideology, it is impossible not to see the counter-productivity of such suggests: If listened to, for example, this proposal could cause immigrants to not visit the doctor if experiencing symptoms for fear of having to pay high fees, which would jeopardize attempts to successfully tackle the crisis. VOX’s demands are, therefore, without a doubt a product of the party’s inherently racist views and fears on immigration rather than its caring for the safety of Spaniards – as they are trying to frame it.
The COVID-19 Pandemic & VOX’s Ideology of a United Spain
VOX has strongly criticised the Spanish Government regarding the implementation of the measures adopted to solve the crisis, particularly the alleged lack of national coordination or uniformity. In order to unify Spain’s measures against COVID-19, VOX claims that “real national unity” must take place. The party suggested that all of Catalonia’s “provincial powers” (competencias) must be centralized under the government of Madrid against any “separatist privileges”, thus undermining the province’s force and, most importantly, its nationalist government – a threat to VOX’s much desired uniformity of Spain. VOX accused the Government, specifically leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, of trying to impose a “communist agenda” with their neglectful action against COVID-19. To be precise, party leader, Santiago Abascal, said that “chavist” Iglesias is “taking advantage” of the crisis by putting forward communist-like policies – such as “centralizing all power” in the hands of the Socialist-led Government -to effectively deal with the crisis, an accusation which contradicts VOX’s own demands in regard to Catalonia. Another of VOX’s secretaries, Macarena Olona, even went further – saying that, by quickly accumulating power, the government has led “the greatest coup in the history of [Spanish] democracy” and allegedly “suppressed” (amordazado) the Opposition.
Such calls for unity are part of a longer-term strategy for VOX. VOX, for example, has clearly illustrated this idealization of Spain as a united nation by ending its tweets with #ForceSpain (#FuerzaEspaña) since the outbreak of COVID-19. Further reinforcing the idea of what the party might consider to be natural unity, along the motto #fuerzaEspaña VOX has been promoting images of a “standard” Spanish family – a white heterosexual couple with two small kids. In the image (below), we see such a family gazing at the flag of Spain in the horizon as their hope for progress. The poster reads: “With unity and responsibility, we will get over this”, a message clearly directed against the Spanish Government and what VOX considers its lack of accountability.
Ironically, unity is precisely what VOX is putting at risk through its irresponsible use of hate speech. VOX accusations against the feminist demonstration of 8M has demonized an ongoing fight for gender rights and equality, using fear politics to abate its advancing. Moreover, the Catalonian government has reacted to VOX’s suggestions for strict centralization with resentment, associating them with (neo-)Francoism, thereby strengthening support for Catalan nationalism. Finally, the party’s racist rhetoric has also gone to far as forcing Spain’s ethnic communities to demand tolerance towards them, thus demonstrating the level of intolerance VOX holds for them. As the minds and hearts of many Spaniards become more and more alienated amidst the pandemic, the radical right achieves nothing but discord, hate, and conflict, and preys on physical isolation to create a disunited nation, i.e. the exact opposite of their political aims.
Dr Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in English and German Philologies, University of Granada. See her profile here.
Ms Bàrbara Molas is the Head of Doctoral Fellows at CARR and Doctoral candidate in Department of History, York University, Toronto. See her profile here.
© Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero & Bàrbara Molas. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).