Spain could be about to be governed by a coalition that includes a far-right party for the first time since the Francisco Franco dictatorship ended in 1975, propelled in part by frustration surrounding a drought and the environmental measures that are in place to ameliorate it.
Opinion polls indicate that the conservative Popular Party, led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has enough support to unseat socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, but will fall short of an outright majority. That leaves Vox — an ultranationalist, anti-immigration and anti-feminist group — the likely kingmaker.
Part of the reason Vox has become Spain’s third-biggest party is it has followed another key trend in modern far-right politics: fears that green measures in Spain, which faces chronic droughts, will destroy the agricultural industry. Vox and the Popular Party, which already jointly govern the southwestern Extremadura region, back a controversial plan to legalize and expand water drilling in one of Europe’s most important wetlands, much of which is already arid and lifeless, to fuel the lucrative fruit industry.
And now, questions that were once considered resolved, such as the existence of human-made climate change and its likely consequences, are again up for discussion, said Oriol Bartomeus, a politics professor at Barcelona’s Universidad Autónoma.
“Global warming had gone out of the political debate because it was something that was part of the general consensus — but now it’s becoming more and more an issue of polarization,” he said. “So, if you are on the right, you are against the ecological transition. And that’s very scary.”
Farmers have for decades been draining the aquifer in the Doñana area west of Seville in southern Spain, a region which includes the UNESCO-listed Doñana National Park, to provide the thousands of gallons of water needed for the local red fruit economy, which involves growing mainly strawberries, raspberries, cranberries and blueberries.
It takes an estimated 42 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of strawberries, according to the ethical consumer guide HEALabel.
A law dubbed the “strawberry plan” passed in 2014 allowed huge amounts of drilling, but illegal wells proliferated regardless. The Popular Party, which controls the regional government in Andalusia, intends to declare an amnesty on the use of water from illegally drilled wells and expand the irrigable land by as much as 4,000 acres — with Vox’s strong support.
Strawberry farming is big business: One local province, Huelva, provides 98% of Spain’s entire strawberry crop and 30% of the strawberries consumed across the 27 countries of the European Union.
But where there was once open water providing habitats to 500,000 waterfowl, some areas of Doñana now resemble a desert. A report earlier this year from Spain’s national research council concluded that 59% of Doñana’s large lakes haven’t been full since 2013. Its largest lake, the Santa Olalla lagoon, dried up last year for only the third time in 50 years
“Cash crops is a major, a major earner for Spain and that’s not going to last if you’re just going to keep drilling down,” said Pieter de Pous, an expert on climate policy at the Berlin-based environmental think tank E3G.
“This is the sort of question you need to start grappling with: How much of a future is there for that model of land use?”
Vox, which says many families rely on the illegal wells for their livelihoods, is calling for much wider use of water regardless of the impact such changes will have on the already degraded environment.
“Neither globalist agendas nor separatist concessions can prevent access to water for all,” Santiago Abascal, who helped found the party in 2013 and began leading it the following year, tweeted last month. He also called for the water basins of Spain to be connected to allow drought-hit areas to benefit from water in other regions.
Interfresa, which represents red fruit growers in Andalusia, told NBC News in a statement that up to 30,000 jobs could be lost because of a lack of water and that it supports the Vox and Popular Party water plan because it gives “legal certainty” to its members.
UNESCO said in a statement earlier this year that it was “concerned” by the plan.
Abascal, who has called for a “reconquista,” or reconquest of Spain, a reference to the victory of Christians over Muslims, who ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries until 1492. This sort of dog-whistle rhetoric hinting falsely that the country has been taken over by foreigners — and most often nonwhite non-Christian ones — is a frequent refrain among the right wing in Europe.
The latest available data for 2022 from Spain’s National Statistics Institute, shows that just over 7½ million people in the population of more than 47 million were born abroad.
While calling for lower taxes and the stamping out of corruption, Vox also opposes anti-gender violence measures and pro-LGBTQ laws, and advocates for the expulsion of undocumented migrants.
In 2020, Abascal told Sanchez in a parliamentary debate: “You head the worst government in 80 years” — a time frame that includes the Franco regime.
Like other far-right movements across the continent, Vox has sought to portray ecological measures as part of a liberal conspiracy to either increase control over people through “climate lockdowns” or to permanently change society by limiting agriculture.
“Many Western European far-right parties don’t necessarily deny climate change as a phenomenon. However, they deny that it is human-made and wrongly claim that the ongoing temperature rise is ‘natural,’” said Manès Weisskircher, an expert in far-right politics and green issues at Dresden University in Germany.
And Vox is part of a Europe-wide trend of far-right parties gaining support at the ballot box. It has successfully forged links with nationalist parties across Europe, most notably with the Brothers of Italy. Immediately after Vox performed well in regional elections in June, Abascal traveled to Hungary to meet its Christian nationalist leader, Viktor Orbán.
This international support matters and is part of the normalization of voting for an extremist party, experts believe.
“You can be a conservative voter and you can think about voting Vox because in the end they are just normal — you have the same kind of parties in governments in Italy and in Scandinavia,” Bartemos said.
“We have been living through certain normalization of thoughts and values and political attitudes that just some years ago were unacceptable.”
While Vox did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment, Rafael Bardají, a political consultant who co-founded Vox as an off-shoot of the Popular Party in 2013 and who is close to Abascal, acknowledged that he believed the party was on course to take power in this weekend’s elections.
“If the PP goes around 140 seats and below and Vox keeps at least 40 seats, I think it’s unavoidable,” he said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, which he often visits on business. “All the polls now are saying Vox is in crisis, but I don’t believe it as much as they are saying.”
Bardají no longer officially represents Vox and left its executive committee two years ago for health reasons, but he still informally advises the party.
He also rejects comparisons with Franco, despite Abascal’s refusal to reject the dictator’s legacy. Instead, he says, the party honors tradition and the country.
“I don’t think we are as far-right as people try to portray, like we are fascists or something,” he said.
“Trump had that slogan ‘America first’ — we want Spaniards first. When it comes to illegal immigration and so on,” he added.