Last month, after Spain’s conservative and leftist parties crushed the left in local elections, the winners in Elche, a small southeastern city known for ancient sculpture and shoe exports, signed a deal with consequences for the future of Spain — and the rest of us. of Europe.

The candidate from the conservative People’s Party had a chance to govern, but he needed the hard-right party Vox, which, in exchange for its support during council votes, received the position of deputy mayor and a new administrative body to defend the traditional family. They blackened their agreement under the cross of the local church.

“This coalition model could be a good model for all of Spain,” said Pablo Ruz Villanueva, the new mayor of Elche, referring to upcoming national elections on July 23, in which most polls suggest the liberal prime minister Pedro Sánchez will remove the liberal Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez. Spanish Socialist Workers Party. Vox’s new deputy mayor, Aurora Rodil Martinezwent on: “My party will do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

If Ms Rodil’s wish comes true, with Vox joining a coalition with more moderate conservatives, it would become the first right-wing party since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco to enter the national government.

The rise of Vox is part of a growing trend of hard-line parties rising in popularity and, in some cases, gaining power by entering governments as junior partners.

The parties have differences, but generally fear the economic consequences of globalization, and say that their countries will lose their national identities due to migration, often from non-Christian or non-white-majority countries, but also to an empowered European Union, which they believe only cares. the elites Their steady advances have added urgency to a now pressing debate among liberals about how to move past a suddenly more influential right.

Some argue that the hard right must be marginalized, as was the case for more than half a century after World War II. Others fear that the hard right has become too big to be ignored and that the only option is to bring them to power in the hope of normalizing them.

In Sweden, the government now relies on the parliamentary votes of a party with neo-Nazi roots, and has given it some influence in policy-making. In Finland, where the right has ascended into the government coalition, the nationalist Finnish party has risked destabilizing it, with a key minister from the far-right party resigning last month after it emerged he had made “Heil Hitler” jokes.

On Friday, the Dutch government led by Mark Rutte, a conservative and the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister, collapsed as more centrist parties in his coalition considered his efforts to curb migration too harsh. Mr Rutte had to guard his right wing against rising populists and a long-standing left party.

In Italy, the extreme right took power on its own. But so far, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, politically educated in parties born from the ashes of Fascism and a close ally of Spain’s Vox, has governed more moderately than many in Europe expected – bolstering some analysts’ argument that the reality of governance can be a moderating force. .

Elsewhere, hardline parties are breaking through in countries where they recently seemed contained.

In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s once-fringe party has become an established force as entrenched anger against President Emmanuel Macron has recently exploded over issues such as pension changes and the integration and policing of the country’s minority communities. He is not running again and the election is years away, but liberals across Europe shuddered when she passed him in some recent ballots.

And in Germany, where the right has long been taboo, economic uncertainty and a new surge in asylum-seeker arrivals have helped revive the far-right Alternative for Germany party. It is now the leading party in the formerly communist eastern states, according to polls, and is even gaining popularity in the wealthier and more liberal west.

While the parties in different countries do not have identical proposals, they generally want to close the doors and cut off benefits for migrants; hit the pause or reverse button when it comes to LGBTQ rights; and devise more protectionist trade policies. Some are suspicious of NATO and have doubts about climate change and sending weapons to Ukraine.

In an apparent recognition that the political complexion of the continent is changing, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said in Spain last week that the European Union needs to deliver tangible results to counter “extremist” forces.

In Spain, where the conservative People’s Party has a good chance of finishing first in the upcoming elections, Esteban González Pons, a leading party official, said that bringing left-wing parties, such as Vox, into government is a way to neutralize them. But he acknowledged that strategy carries risks.

“First, the worst case scenario: We can legitimize Vox,” he said.

“So, there is a second chance: We can normalize Vox,” he said, adding that if they govern well, “Vox will be another party, a conservative party within the system.”

At the moment the situation is fluid and there are indications that Mr Sánchez and his leftist allies are gaining support. Vox also seems to be losing ground as the Sánchez campaign and well-known artists and liberals throughout Spain focused on the threat of conservatives bringing Vox into government.

Spain has seemed in recent years to be a bright spot for liberals. Under Mr Sánchez, Spain has kept inflation low, reduced tensions with separatists in Catalonia, and increased the growth rate, pensions and the minimum wage. He is also generally popular in the European Union.

But the alliance between Mr Sánchez and deeply polarizing separatists and left-wing forces fueled resentment among many voters.

Mr. González Pons, a leading official of the People’s Party, does not think that concerns about Vox eventually joining forces with his conservatives are completely off-base. “We are pro-European and Vox is not,” he said, adding that Vox “would prefer something like a general Brexit, for all countries to regain their own sovereignty.” He said Vox has views on gay rights and violence against women that “are red lines for us.”

Those lines began to show as Elche’s new leaders sat on leather armchairs in the mayor’s office last week and tried to put up a united front. Mr. Ruz, the mayor from the conservative People’s Party, and his deputy from Vox, Ms. Rodil, took turns to hit the prime minister. But when pressed, the mayor admitted that his party recognizes gay marriage, and that he was more worried about hard-line parties like Alternative for Germany than his “partner”. However, he said, the People’s Party and Vox had similar voters, just different approaches to “implementation.”

“Can I say anything about it?” Ms. Rodil said with a wry smile. “We have a stance that is maybe a little more firm.” Vox, she said, believes in the “sovereignty of nations” and would like to make it harder for women to get abortions, positions she said some people in the mayor’s party “don’t stand for.” She said that the “ambiguous” attitudes of Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of the People’s Party, are “disturbing”.

Many, instead, are worried about Vox.

“We saw populism, supported by the center-right, growing in small towns,” said Carlos González Serna, the former socialist mayor of Elche, who lost the election. He said that instead of barring the far right, mainstream conservatives gave it an “umbilical cord” of legitimacy.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal split from the Popular Party amid a slush fund scandal in 2013. The party’s popularity grew in 2018 as more migrants arrived by sea to Spain than to any other European country. The nationalist Vox was also well positioned to exploit a backlash to the Catalan independence movement.

But Vox also found support among Spaniards unhappy with their country’s progressive shift on climate change and social issues, including gay rights and feminism. Their campaign billboards included candidates throwing LGBTQ, feminist and other symbols in the trash. In the city of Náquera, next to Elche, the newly elected mayor from the Vox party ordered to remove the Pride flags from the city buildings.

One resident, a 45-year-old truck driver named Maximo Ibañez, said he voted for Vox because the party spoke clearly, but also because he feels Spain’s groundbreaking laws explicitly protect women from sexual violence — complete with special courts and tougher sentences – to discriminate against men.

“It’s women who have the right to the presumption of innocence here,” he said.

One of Vox’s regional leaders joked that some women were too unattractive to be gang rapedand another said that “women are more warlike because they don’t have penises.”

Ms. Rodil, the new deputy mayor of Elche at Vox, said that her party had no quarrel with women, only with the notion that domestic violence must be seen through a gender ideology, and that a man, “just for being a man. , it’s bad that he has a gene that makes him violent.”

She argued that Mr Sánchez’s government had put women at risk with botched legislation that had the potential to let sex offenders out of prison. Mr. Sánchez apologized for the unintended effects of the so-called yes-is-yes law, which aimed to classify all non-consensual sex as rape, but which, through changes to sentencing requirements, risked reducing prison time or setting. release potentially hundreds of sex offenders.

As many in Europe say the time has come to start taking right-wing parties more seriously, some voters in Elche regretted not taking Vox seriously enough.

“I didn’t think they would form a government and the fact that they did surprised me,” Isabel Chinchilla, 67, said in a square that features three statues of the Virgin Mary. “I will vote in the national elections so that this does not happen again, because they are very reactionary in their vision of society.”

Rachel Chaundler contributed reporting from Elche.

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