Juan Gutiérrez is in a park, in the southern city of Jaén, waiting for a rally of the far-right Vox party to begin. He’s holding a Spanish flag and on his arm is a large tattoo of a cross.
“Religion is very important to me,” says the 23-year-old hotel worker. “And it’s one of the things that the left wants to take away from us: our religion, our culture, bullfighting – these are things they don’t respect which should be left alone.”
On Sunday, Gutiérrez and his fellow Andalucíans will vote in a regional election. With the Conservative Popular Party (PP) well ahead in polls, Vox has little chance of winning. However, the far-right party is expected to make gains and, if the PP fails to win a majority, Vox will hope to form a coalition with the Conservatives and enter a regional government for the first time.
Perhaps just as importantly, Vox has managed to ensure that much of the election campaign has been dominated by a culture war over an array of issues based around values and identity.
In 2018, the PP took control of the regional government after 36 years of uninterrupted rule in Andalusia by the Socialist Party. The president of the region, Juanma Moreno Bonilla, has sought to underline his management of the region’s economy, which is bucking its long-standing reputation as a drag on the rest of Spain by growing faster than any other region on the mainland. This economic progress has helped push the PP into a clear lead in polls.
However, much of the campaign has been taking place on a different terrain, one focused on culture, religion, animal rights, feminism and sexuality, and with Vox presenting itself as the last bastion of traditional values and common sense in the face of what it is. calls the “leftist dictatorship”.
“Andalusia has been one of the most important battlegrounds for the culture war in which we are immersed,” wrote right-wing commentator Ricardo de la Serna. “Something is happening in Spain, and in particular in Andalusia, which goes beyond politics.”
Debates on these issues have been particularly fierce in Spain’s south in large part because it is home to many of the practices and traditions which the far right wants to preserve, including hunting, bullfighting and elaborate religious festivities.
Vox’s election manifesto offers little in the way of concrete policy detail on economic or social issues – it proposes tax reductions, the closure of borders to immigrants and the re-industrialization of Andalucía. Elsewhere, it pledges to “protect the family from leftist attacks” and “support bullfighting and the rich traditions of the people of Andalucía”.
Vox has repeatedly called for Andalucía’s famous Holy Week processions and bullfighting to be given special status to ensure they are protected. During the pandemic, the party even proposed the creation of a bullfighting version of MasterChef on regional television.
“I’m not really interested in politics, but [Vox’s] proposals for bullfighting and for Holy Week make sense to me, ”says Manuel Jiménez, a 17-year-old. “Bullfighting is very important to me, it’s a symbol of Spain and the anti-bullfighting campaigns of the last few years don’t seem right,” he adds, referring to efforts by some parties on the left to ban activity in some. areas of Spain.
When Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, takes the podium at the Jaén rally, he addresses the issue of animal rights.
“We want to protect our agriculture, our livestock farmers, our hunters, and we want to defend them from fanatical ideas that try to ban everything,” he says.
Abascal also used the religious issue to take a swipe at environmental policy.
“We know that there are a lot of climate problems but there are those who don’t believe in any religion and yet who warn us every day that the end is nigh,” he says.
Political commentator Nuria Alabao noted that “using identity issues that have an emotional charge can be useful to mobilize an electorate which is no longer very interested in institutional politics. It’s not about showing you can govern, it’s about generating a coalition of discontent. ”
Vox has also focused its ire on feminism. The coalition government of Socialist prime minister Pedro Sanchez has campaigned in this area and recently approved the so-called “only yes means yes” law, which seeks to ensure that sexual encounters are consensual. Vox has attacked this legislation, as well as government efforts to clamp down on gender violence, which it insists on calling “intra-family violence”.
“You, with your laws, have criminalized 50 percent of the Spanish population – men,” Vox’s candidate for president of Andalusia, Macarena Olona, said during a campaign debate, addressing the three left-wing candidates.
The Socialist Party, which looks set to lose an election in the region for the first time in the democratic era, has been relatively timid on these issues and the conservative PP has kept its distance from the cultural debate.
By contrast, the Por Andalucía and Adelante Andalucía parties, who are to the left of the Socialists, have waded in. Teresa Rodríguez, the lead candidate for Adelante Andalucía, has been particularly vocal, calling the far right “the political arm of male chauvinist terrorism”.
“In a region that is susceptible to crises, women are the most vulnerable group,” Rodriguez told The Irish Times, as she was about to take part in an all-women campaign event near Seville. “It’s important to defend women’s rights in the face of a far right which denies the existence of gender violence.”
Rodriguez has rejected suggestions that parties should ignore Vox on the campaign trail, arguing that such a policy only benefits the far right by feeding its victimhood. Instead, she advocates engagement.
In one campaign debate, Olona erroneously claimed that a school textbook introduced by local authorities taught 10-year-olds to masturbate. Rodriguez responded by posting a brief history of her own experiences of masturbation on Twitter, concluding that open discussion of sexual themes was “much more useful and necessary than putting hunting and bullfighting in the school curriculum.”
Sunday’s election may not be decided by such issues, but this campaign has brought the culture of war to the center of Spanish politics.