Against the backdrop of citizens’ protests against the Socialists’ austerity package, the Right made significant gains in Catalonia by focusing on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes.
Democratic municipal elections were held in Catalonia (four constituencies and forty-one counties) in 1979 for the first time after General Franco’s death, and since then the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) has always been the big winner. But in regional elections held on 22 May, the PSC lost 22 per cent of its base. It is now the second largest party in Catalonia with the centre-right Convergència i Unió (CiU) emerging as the largest political force in terms of numbers of votes. The Conservative People’s Party (PP), and the small far-right Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC) also emerged with more representation than before, the PxC securing 2.3 per cent. Led by Josep Anglada, the PxC, founded by former supporters of General Franco nine years ago, now has sixty-seven councillors across Catalonia (previously seventeen) and did particularly well in L’Hospitalet del Llobegrat (Catalonia’s second most populated city), Badalona (a residential city within Greater Barcelona, and the third most populated Catalonian city), Vic (Barcelona province) and the southern Catalonian town of El Vendrell. The PxC now has four town councillors in Salt, a municipality near Girona which witnessed serious anti-immigrant violence in January 2010 and further disturbances in 2011 after Mohamed Reda Lyanmani, a 16-year-old Moroccan youth, died after falling from a fifth floor window while running away from the police.
The centre Right and far Right blamed immigration for rising crime and a lack of jobs in Spain, a country which has the highest rates of unemployment in the EU (21.3 per cent, with youth unemployment running at 44 per cent, double the EU’s average). The PP, at a national level, tried to separate itself from some of the actions of its members. In April, the PP national executive distanced itself from its Badalona branch after members distributed leaflets with the slogan ‘We don’t want Gypsies’ and ‘Romanian Gypsies are a plague’. And this after the PP was forced to apologise for what it described as an error when in November 2010 an online game called Rescue, was placed on its website inviting its players to bomb illegal immigrants.
Right focuses on veil – Left follows
Central to the PxC’s campaign in the Barcelona province, according to a Scotsman reporter, was the release of a video which showed three attractive young women in miniskirts skipping with a rope in the city of Igualada, to the accompaniment of a traditional Catalan folk song. The scene then switches to Igualada 2015 and three women dressed in burkas are skipping to the rhythm of an Arab song. ‘You can avoid this nightmare becoming reality. In Igualada, vote Plataforma per Catalunya’ the video concludes. In a village of 108 inhabitants near Tarrés, PxC parish councillor Daniel Rivera put forward a motion to ban the burka as a ‘preventive measure, in case they come’.
In this, the PxC was merely reflecting the mainstream – as banning the burka was the hot local issue in Catalonia over the summer of 2010. As nine municipalities, including Barcelona, declared themselves in favour of bans on wearing the niqab and burka in municipal buildings, the PSC immigration minister, Celestino Corbacho commented that ‘at this rate we will end up with more bans than burkas’. The CiU – now the power brokers in Catalonia – was the most vocal of the electoral parties pushing for bans. In the run-up to the elections, the CiU declared that, should it win, it would ban the wearing of the full veil on municipal premises and consider banning it in all public spaces on the ground that it was an affront to personal dignity. Socialists in the Catalonian parliament were furious that the CiU then put forward a motion to ban the burka, not because the Socialists disagreed with the measure but due to the fact that the motion, they were sure, was a mechanism to wrong-foot them in the run-up to the regional elections. In fact, the Socialist-led council of Lleida, a city in the Catalan Pyrenees, was the first town to ban women wearing the burka or niqab in municipal buildings. (Such bans, which would extend to all premises managed directly or indirectly by councils, including, nurseries, social services and markets, have since been subject to legal challenge on the grounds that they would prevent women from gaining access to public spaces.) Lleida mayor Ángel Ros said that the ban was made on the grounds of ‘equality between men and women’ and had ‘nothing to do with Islamophobia … When the right does this it is guided by xenophobia, but we are guided by equality … This is an example of integration in which they respect the values of our society. Some cultural behaviour is a direct attack on our values.’ Ros also closed down the town’s mosque, a former garage used to service trucks, because it was too popular. In response to complaints from the town’s Muslims, Ros declared that the ‘municipality has no obligation to provide places of worship. Those that wish can pray at home, as I do.’ Lleida is the only large city in Catalonia in which the Socialists retained their absolute majority.
Local authorities incorporate anti-immigrant positions
The PxC is making fair progress in towns and cities that were former Left strongholds and are now experiencing rapid demographic change due to relatively recent immigration. Another factor in the relative success of the PxC is the way that local authorities are bending to its anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim positions. The PxC has its headquarters in Vic, a city in the heart of Catalonia where leader Josep Anglada, a former member of the fascist Fuerza Nueva, is a town councillor. In April 2010 Vic municipality announced that it would deny undocumented migrants access to health care. This – an apparent attempt to stem the influence of the PxC – has now emboldened it. The PxC now has five councillors in Vic. Following the 22 May election count, the PxC was also ecstatic about its gains in Badalona, which it had targeted. On the election trail, its candidate Xavier García Albiol (as reported by The Economist), warned that the city’s Moroccan, Pakistani and Chinese communities do not share Badalona’s ‘social, family and cultural values’. Albiol promised to withdraw housing benefits, school grants and other payments from ‘troublemakers’ and declared that Romanian Gypsies were a ‘bugbear’.
Although the PxC’s share of the vote is only 2.3 per cent, elections to the Catalan parliament are on the basis of proportional representation and the regional parliament has a low threshold for seats, just 3 per cent. Although small, the PxC could benefit financially and in terms of other resources with alliances with bigger European extreme-right electoral parties. In May 2010, it signed a friendship agreement with the Austrian Freedom Party, pledging joint action on immigration and on the ‘Islamisation of Europe’. The fact that the PxC has clear fascist roots might put off some of their prospective backers. At a meeting in 2010 of Manos Limpias (Clean Hands) a fascist trade union in Madrid, Josep Anglada let rip, declaring ‘We, the brave, have to expel all the Muslims out of our country and while we are at it, the South Americans too.’
With the Socialists depleted in the May regional elections, and a general election pending, it remains to be seen what forces in Spain will stand up to this rising anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment. One thing is clear – opposition is not coming from the town halls.