‘Spain faces a dangerous drift to the far right’, warns PM Sanchez

Spain's political parties were on Friday wrapping-up a brief but intense campaign ahead of Sunday's general election, the fourth in as many years, with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez raising the alarm over the far-right Vox.

'Spain faces a dangerous drift to the far right', warns PM Sanchez
Spanish far-right wing party Vox supporters unfold a 1000 sq.m. and 165 kg Spanish flag on El Sardinero beach in Santander ahead of Sunday's vote. Photo: AFP

With Spain caught in a months-long political impasse following an inconclusive April election, which Sanchez won but without a majority and unable to form a government, the November 10th vote seeks to draw a line under the chaos.   

And with just hours left until the campaign ends at midnight (2300 GMT), party leaders were criss-crossing the country to ramp up participation among a population exhausted by the ongoing deadlock.

In recent days, Sanchez has repeatedly raised the alarm about Vox's “aggressive ultra-rightwing” policies, warning the party would drag the country back to the dark days of Franco's dictatorship.

“I call on citizens to go and vote.. because we have to face up to some serious threats, we have to face up to the spirit of Francoism,” he told Cadena Ser radio on Friday.

Vox's rise has seen other rightwing factions rushing to burnish their own conservative credentials, with the Popular Party and Ciudadanos on Thursday backing a controversial Vox motion to ban all independence parties in Madrid's
regional parliament.   

Although a non-binding resolution, it was passed by the assembly in a move denounced by Sanchez as a “very dangerous drift”.   

Surveys suggest Sunday's ballot will end with a result similar to that seen in April, with Sanchez's Socialists winning but falling far short of an absolute majority.

But polls have also predicted a surge in support for Vox, fuelled by weeks of Catalan separatist protests, some of them violent, after Spain's top court jailed nine of their leaders over a failed 2017 independence bid.


The party leaders took part in a televised debate on Monday. Photo: AFP

Vox tricks

Vox made its parliamentary debut in May after winning 24 of the assembly's 350 seats, in the first significant showing by a far-right faction since Spain's return to democracy following the death in 1975 of dictator Francisco

This time it could double that number, polls suggest.    

Launched in 2014, Vox initially struggled to gain traction with its ultra-conservative stance, but over the past year, it has chalked up significant gains, largely over its unbending opposition to the Catalan separatists and its hardline stance on Spanish unity.   

“Vox is the only party that's been able to keep its voters mobilised since April,” said Ignacio Jurado, a political scientist at Madrid's Carlos III University.

“It's basically the national crisis with Catalonia which is the biggest driver of their support.”

But the party has repeatedly come under fire over false claims in its campaign, with more than 2,500 academics and researchers releasing a harshly-worded statement on Friday over its “calculated, systemic and recurrent” use of “falsified and manipulated data”.   

The unrest in Catalonia has loomed large over the election after days of dramatic footage of Barcelona in flames and masked protesters hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at riot police, who hit back with water cannon and foam

With the crisis far from over, separatist activists from Democratic Tsunami have called for a mass show of civil disobedience across the region on Saturday, prompting fears they could take over polling stations.

In anticipation of trouble, Madrid has sent a “significant” number of security forces to Catalonia to ensure security over the weekend, said Sanchez, who has come under mounting pressure from the right to suspend Catalonia's autonomy and remove its separatist president Quim Torra.

More of the same?

There is a risk Sunday's vote could end up prolonging the political paralysis that has gripped the eurozone's fourth-largest economy since the election of December 2015 when Ciudadanos and the radical leftist Podemos entered parliament.

That put an end to decades of bipartisan hegemony by the conservative Popular Party and the Socialists.   

With no single party able to secure the required 176 seats for a majority, the Socialists are likely to opt for a minority government, ING analyst Steven Trypsteen said.

“If enough parties abstain during the second vote to install the government, then a minority government could be formed,” he said.   

“The Socialists, as the largest party, will probably pursue this strategy. The stability of such a minority government would, of course, be low.”

READ ALSO:  Vox: Spain's far right party surges in polls ahead of election

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German Greens’ chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news

With Germany's Green party leading the polls ahead of September's general elections, the ecologists' would-be successor to Angela Merkel has become increasingly targeted by internet trolls and fake news in recent weeks.

German Greens' chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news
The Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock on April 26th. Photo: DPA

From wild claims about CO2-emitting cats and dogs to George Soros photo collages, 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock has been the subject of a dizzying array of fake news, conspiracy theories and online attacks since she was announced as the Greens’ chancellor candidate in mid-April.

The latest polls have the Greens either ahead of or level with Merkel’s ruling conservatives, as the once fringe party further establishes itself as a leading electoral force in Europe’s biggest economy.

Baerbock herself also consistently polls higher than her conservative and centre-left rivals in the race to succeed Merkel, who will leave office after 16 years this autumn.

Yet her popularity has also brought about unwanted attention and a glut of fake news stories aimed at discrediting Baerbock as she bids to become Germany’s first Green chancellor.


False claims

Among the false stories circulating about Baerbock is the bizarre claim that she wants to ban household pets in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Another fake story firmly denied by the party claimed that she defied rules on mask-wearing and social-distancing by embracing colleagues upon her nomination earlier this month.

Baerbock has also been presented as a “model student” of Hungarian billionaire George Soros – a hate figure for the European far-right and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists – in a mocked-up social media graphic shared among others by a far-right MP.

More serious online attacks include a purported photo of Baerbock which in fact shows a similar-looking naked model.

The Greens’ campaign manager Michael Kellner said that the attempts to discredit Baerbock had “taken on a new dimension”, that “women are targeted more heavily by online attacks than men, and that is also true of our candidate”.

Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock earlier this month. Photo: DPA

Other false claims about the party include reports of a proposed ban on barbecues, as well as plans to disarm the police and enforce the teaching of the Quran in schools.

While such reports are patently absurd, they are potentially damaging to Baerbock and her party as they bid to spring a surprise victory in September.

“She has a very real chance, but the coming weeks are going to be very important because Baerbock’s public image is still taking shape,” Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University told AFP.

In a bid to fight back against the flood of false information, the party has launched a new “online fire service” to report fake news stories.

READ ALSO: Greens become ‘most popular political party’ in Germany

Russian disinformation

Yet stemming the tide is no easy job, with many of those who peddle disinformation now using private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram rather than public platforms such as Facebook.

The pandemic and ongoing restrictions on public life will also make it harder for the campaign to push through their own narratives at public events.

Miro Dittrich of Germany’s Amadeu-Antonio anti-racism foundation claims that lockdown has “played a role” in the spread of fake news.

“People are isolated from their social environment and are spending a lot more time online,” he said.

Another factor is Russia, which has made Germany a primary target of its efforts to spread disinformation in Europe.

According to the European anti-disinformation platform EUvsDisinfo, Germany has been the target of 700 Russian disinformation cases since 2015, compared to 300 aimed at France and 170 at Italy.

As an outspoken critic of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, Baerbock may well become a target of such attacks during the election campaign.

By Mathieu FOULKES