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Spain's reinvigorated far right makes its presence felt

To understand Spain's polarized politics, a visitor to the southern farming town of Torre-Pacheco needs only to read the graffiti scrawled near a main square.

Next to a bull's-eye drawn on a wall are the crossed-out words "Go away, Moors" — an old term for Muslims from north Africa. These words are replaced with the phrase, "Go away, racists." And a third message reads, "Go away, reds."

The town, which relies heavily on foreign workers, nevertheless voted in droves Sunday for a party that vows to build walls to contain migrants and prioritize Spaniards in its policies.

A girl walks in front of Spain's far-right Vox party candidate Santiago Abascal, right, and Spain's caretaker Prime Minister and socialist candidate Pedro Sanchez in Torre-Pacheco, Spain, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. The Vox party has emerged as a political force in Spain by hyping the threat of migration and playing up Spanish nationalism in a country that has long thought of itself as being immune to the wave of populism sweeping Europe. (AP PhotoSergio Rodrigo)

Vicente García, a 55-year-old retired truck driver, backs the nationalist Vox party as "the only ones saying the truth," adding that he believes public subsidies and other services should go "first to Spaniards, second to Spaniards, third to Spaniards and, if something is left, then for others."

Hyping the threat of migration, but mostly playing up Spanish nationalism in response to a fresh bid to make the region of Catalonia independent, Vox emerged from the election as the third political force in a country that long saw itself as being immune to the wave of nationalist populism that has been sweeping Europe recently.

Vox has already joined forces with the other two right-of-center parties to take over many city and regional governments, influencing policy there. The party's proposals include imprisoning those who advocate for separatism, banning illegal migrants from enjoying free healthcare and cutting off funding for gender reassignment surgery. They also want to restrict abortion and protect both hunting and bullfighting.

Banners of Spain's far-right Vox party candidate Santiago Abascal, right, and Spain's caretaker Prime Minister and socialist candidate Pedro Sanchez are displayed in Torre-Pacheco, Spain, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019. The farming town of Torre-Pacheco, heavily reliant on foreign workers, voted in droves for Vox, which has vowed to build walls to contain migrants and prioritize the needs of Spaniards. (AP PhotoSergio Rodrigo)

In Torre-Pacheco, Vox came out on top with 38% of votes among its 35,000 inhabitants. The province of Murcia, where the town is located, was hit badly by the past decade's economic crisis. Murcia also turned out to be the first Spanish region where the far-right finished first.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, who speaks of "reconquering" Spain in terms that echo the medieval wars between Christian and Moorish forces, said Monday that "those suffering the consequences of illegal migration" had delivered their victory in southern Spain.

The win was a rebound from a loss of momentum over the summer, said Andrew Dowling, an expert on Spanish contemporary politics at Cardiff University. He said it was mostly due to protests in the restive Catalonia region that erupted last month, at times with rare instances of violence over the imprisonment of nine separatist politicians.

"Vox was the party best able to capitalize on its strong anti-independence message," Dowling said.

Garcia, the retiree, offered his own analysis of the results at a social center with newspapers spread on a table nearby.

"The right thing is to take care of the country, of all the country. Not Catalonia, nor Seville, nor Murcia, but all the country," he said. "Politicians should begin by lowering taxes and giving us a bit of space to breathe."

Vox won 52, or roughly 15%, of all the seats in Spain's Congress of Deputies. That was more than double than in the April election, when the party finally broke into the national parliament five years after branching out from the conservative party.

The win of the national-populist party reverberated across Europe, where like-minded politicians Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy praised Abascal for the strong showing.

The result also delivered a blow to Spain's chances to sort out its political deadlock any time soon. Interim Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who had called the election expecting to widen his support, now must find backing in an even more fragmented parliament.

Abascal was quick to say that Vox would vote against a Socialist administration, presenting his party as "a containment dam against separatism and the totalitarian legislation of the progressists who, for the first time in a long time, will have a firm opposition."

Political analysts also say the Socialists' traditional opposition, the conservative Popular Party, is likely to be even more reluctant to abstain and allow a Sánchez-led government because, despite rebounding in the election, it now must compete with Vox for the votes furthest to the right in the political spectrum.

Vox won't be limited to trying to break the political stalemate but rather will make an impact on Spain's political culture, said José Ignacio Torreblanca, the Madrid office chief of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Because Vox is "a campaign party rather than an institutional party," Torreblanca said, its success will hinge on whether Spain returns to a stable path or instead holds another election soon.

"If you don't stabilize the system and you don't move back to the normal gear of politics, then they will still be around because they are anti-system, an exceptional party."

Other analysts urged caution, saying that despite Vox's strong gains by winning 15% of the vote and a similar share of the parliamentary bench, the party is nowhere near becoming a viable "patriotic alternative," as Abascal has put it, to any of the traditional parties.

That's a stark contrast with other populist movements in Europe.

José Luis Ayllón, a former official in a previous conservative administration who now works as a communications consultant, said Vox voters cast their ballots largely as a "punishment for the political class because of the lack of agreement on a government."

"It has been a vote very much from people's guts, more than with the head," Ayllón said.

He added that he hoped in the near future, these voters "will see that there are other alternatives."