This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.
When the reactionary populist party Vox came to power in Andalucia in Spain, it did so riding a wave of misogyny in the name of equality. This strategy, which has allowed Vox to form coalitions in regional and national governments with other right-wing parties, has helped transform what might have been a fringe player in a plurality system into a significant force in local politics, one wielded as a cudgel against the institutionalized improvements made by the left in the name of equality.
“Opposed to what it calls the dictadura progre — the ‘dictatorship of the progressives’ — Vox claims to be the sole party representing the traditional (‘authentic’) values of the Spanish people,” write authors Alba Alonso and Julia Espinosa-Fajardo, in “Blitzkrieg Against Democracy: Gender Equality and the Rise of the Populist Radical Right in Spain.”
One way that Vox took up this mantle was protesting existing laws on gender-based violence — specifically by using those laws to show “how gender equality policies had gone ‘too far’ in Spain and to portray feminism as part of the establishment.”
Vox in Spain follows a path taken by many radical reactionary wings in democracies, which treat inequality as an issue settled in the past, and modern interventions as attacks on traditional families.
This strategy was paired with claims that Spanish women face special threats from foreign men, a challenge Vox believes should lead to stricter immigration policies. Paired, the policies express a patriarchal control over women framed as protection from hostile forces, and treat inequality as a past issue already solved, one that current laws go beyond. By looking at party manifestos, agreements made with other center-right parties to hold and share power once elected, and policies implemented when in power, Alonso and Espinosa-Fajardo offer a clear picture of how the party turned its beliefs into action, and in turn used that to undermine and dismantle existing gender protections in the country.
Like many far-right parties claiming a populist mantle, Vox turned to trends showing a declining birth rate as cause for both criminalizing abortion and banning immigration. In addition to ending abortion, Vox argues “that public resources for these services should be entirely reoriented to protect the life of the “unborn” and the “freedom” of women to be mothers.” This framing, hardly confined to one reactionary party in Spain, imagines a generous state for mothers as an alternative to abortion care and access to reproductive rights. That the generosity of the state is linked to ending care, rather than paired with the continued right to bodily autonomy, reveals the hollowness of claiming the change as an expansion of freedom. (It is, as the authors follow up, also a policy perspective that restricts the right to parenthood to exclusively heterosexual couples.)
In its work attacking existing legal frameworks for gender-based violence, Vox has rhetorically attacked the government caseworkers responsible, the government data used to document claims, and the entire concept of a gender frame for understanding violence. Public faith in the data collected by the government has made the Spanish public resistant to some of these attacks, but the party persists in calling for an end to funding any organization promoting gender equality.
Vox regularly frames “equality policies as part of an allegedly ‘totalitarian’ project,” write the authors. “By fostering an atmosphere of general distrust toward institutions, professionals, and [civil society organizations], Vox actively delegitimizes critical components of the equality architecture and pushes for significant — and unprecedented — setbacks.”
Taken altogether, Vox in Spain follows a path taken by many radical reactionary wings in democracies, which treat inequality as an issue settled in the past, and modern interventions as attacks on traditional families. Understanding the mechanisms of reactionary policy masquerading as a defense of freedom is essential to limiting its success.