Spain’s far-right Vox party looks set to continue its meteoric rise in Sunday’s general election, and it aims to use its growing influence to roll back decades of progress in women’s rights by blocking abortion access, repealing legislation on gender-based violence and shutting down the ministry of equality.
The party, which only formed a decade ago, may become a political kingmaker and a member of Spain’s next coalition government following the vote, according to opinion polls.
Feminist activists are concerned that it would try to rewind the clock to a time when Spanish women had very limited rights, with one campaigner telling CNN that Vox entering the national government would mean “going back 40 or 50 years at a stroke.”
Following a trend that is gathering pace across Europe, Spain is expected to swing to the right on Sunday after several years of left-wing rule. An average of the final opinion polls compiled by Reuters on July 17 forecast that the conservative Popular Party (PP) will win around 140 seats out of 350 in the legislature, and need to form a coalition to govern.
Teaming up with Vox, which is projected to receive 36 seats, would give a right-wing coalition a slim working majority.
How we got here
Current Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced snap parliamentary elections after the ruling coalition of his Socialist party (PSOE) and left-wing partners suffered major setbacks in May’s regional and local elections.
The PP made huge gains, defeating incumbent coalition members in numerous key regional and city governments, setting the stage and tone for Sunday’s election.
Entering into coalition with Vox would be controversial for the nominally center-right PP. Yet the party has already agreed deals to govern with support from Vox in various regional administrations in recent years despite criticism that it was helping to legitimize far-right policies.
Vox was founded in 2013 and has rapidly increased in popularity. In 2018, it became the first far-right party to win seats in a regional government since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. In 2019, it became the third-biggest party in Spain’s national Congress of Deputies.
Polls indicate that the party is projected to gain fewer seats in this vote than the last election, but if it makes it into the governing coalition it would mark a new stage in Vox’s rise from upstart outsider party to insurgent political force.
According to Paloma Román Marugan, professor of political science at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), the party’s platform centers on a hardline stance on illegal immigration, a desire to maintain the territorial integrity of Spain in the face of independence movements from regions such as Catalonia, and opposition to what it calls gender ideology.
In its manifesto, Vox promises to reduce regional autonomy, replace autonomous regional police forces – such as the Mossos d’Esquadra in Catalonia – with the national Guardia Civil, and impose tougher sentences on rapists and pedophiles, as well as rolling back a law guaranteeing equality for LGBTQ people, which was only published in March 2023.
The Vox manifesto also states that it will work for the “elimination of all gender legislation.” It wants to shut down the ministry of equality, which has come under attack from Spain’s right-wing parties since it was created in 2008 to implement policies on gender equality, and which party leader Santiago Abascal has claimed is full of “psychopaths.”
Instead, Vox wants to replace that with a family ministry, which would be responsible for promoting higher birth rates and a “traditional,” narrow vision of family life.
Its manifesto also proposes repealing a series of laws introduced in recent decades which aim to enshrine women’s rights, such as access to abortions or providing better protection against gender-based violence.
For example, Vox wants to get rid of the gender violence law and replace it with one “which protects every possible victim of violence in a domestic setting.”
That proposal reflects the party’s denial that gender-based violence exists, activists told CNN. Meanwhile, more than 1,200 Spanish women have been killed by current or former partners since 2003, according to data from the equality ministry. Demonstrations calling for better protection for women have attracted crowds of thousands in recent years and campaigners say that Vox’s proposed change in legislation would only endanger women further.
Many also wonder about the long-term effects of the PP, one of Spain’s historically largest political parties, entering into an alliance with such a group.
“The PP supposedly doesn’t share these policies, but it appears that it is choosing to sacrifice these advances in rights in order to get into power,” said Román.
“It’s a bit worrying for the country that it (the PP) is capable of saying that in order to be in government it is willing to give up ground on issues that really weren’t even up for debate in Spanish society, we had turned that page.”
Vox did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. The PP responded but only to refer CNN to interviews given by party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo on the campaign trail.
‘A very dangerous confrontation in Spanish society’
Laura Nuño Gómez, a political scientist, feminist activist and professor at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, explains that while this kind of adverse reaction to the redistribution of power in society can be seen in many countries, the situation in Spain is exacerbated by the pace of change since the end of the Franco dictatorship, under which women’s rights were severely limited.
Just 10 years after the end of the dictatorship Spain joined the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union, and had to make wholesale changes in order to meet the requirements of the organization in terms of equality, said Nuño.
“As progress has been faster, the opposition to gender equality policies has also been more intense and animated,” she said.
This reaction is partly explained by the perception that these policies are unnecessary as women have already achieved equality, and partly due to a persistent attitude that inequality between men and women is “part of a sort of natural societal order,” said Nuño.
“Vox talks a lot about gender ideology, but the real gender ideology is theirs, according to which men and women are essentially different and have a different social purpose,” she added.
If the party were to come into government it could severely impact the lives of Spanish women, said Nuño.
“I fear that they would try to implant their sexist ideas and, in some areas, such as sexual and reproductive rights and freedoms, there would be a counter-reform of unthinkable proportions,” she said.
Izaskun Gutiérrez Vecilla, a social worker at the Asociación Clara Campoamor, a feminist NGO which works to defend women’s rights, said that if Vox formed part of the national government it could mean “going back 40 or 50 years at a stroke, when crimes of gender-based violence were a private matter that were meant to stay behind closed doors.”
Vox, and Abascal, are clear as to their intentions for the country, leaving no doubt in Gutiérrez’s mind as to what is at stake on Sunday.
Two terms summarize Vox’ policies towards women, she said: “Denial, of gender-based violence, and destruction, of everything that the women of this country have achieved in recent decades.”
While the scale of Vox’s influence on a future government remains to be decided, the party has already shown what it is capable of, said Gutiérrez.
In local administrations where it has gained influence, Vox has been able to end equality initiatives and censure cultural events, she said.
Activists are deeply concerned about what the party’s success, and Sunday’s election result, might mean for the future of Spain.
“We have been able to see that they intend to implement a series of reactionary policies that bring about more sexism, more homophobia, more racism in our country, as well as a very dangerous confrontation in Spanish society,” said Gutiérrez.