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‘Ticking time bomb’: Spain’s Vox party stirs controversy over abortion rights

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Spain’s hard-right Vox party has delivered a stark warning about the pitfalls of bringing ultraconservatives into government by challenging a political consensus on abortion rights ahead of elections this year.

In the only region of the country where Vox is in a coalition government, it triggered days of recriminations by proposing that abortion clinics give women a chance to see images of the foetus and listen to its heartbeat — measures to dissuade them from terminating pregnancies.

Juan García-Gallardo, Vox’s vice-president in the Castile-León regional government, said the aim was to ensure women were “as informed as possible” in deciding whether or not to pursue “the social tragedy, because of the mark it leaves on women, of having an abortion”.

The plan, which was branded coercive by critics after its announcement on January 12, sparked a bout of conservative infighting and was eventually rejected by the centre-right People’s party, Vox’s partner in the region north of Madrid and the main opposition to Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez.

But it has put a spotlight on the PP’s potential need to ally with Vox to form a national government if it beats Sánchez in a general election expected in December — and delivered a brutal lesson about the consequences of hard-right radicalism.

Ignacio Garriga, Vox’s secretary-general, told the Financial Times his party was promoting pro-family policies in a region suffering from depopulation and that the lesson for the PP should be clear. “They should listen very carefully to what Vox says in the election campaign because we do what we say . . . We have very clear principles. We are not going to renounce them under any circumstances.”

García-Gallardo has spoken approvingly of strict abortion rules introduced by prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary, which require women to listen to a foetal heartbeat before they can terminate a pregnancy. His initiative also had echoes of ultrasound requirements in Republican-led US states, which were superseded by last year’s landmark Supreme Court decision to let them ban abortion outright.

Ignacio Garriga said Vox was promoting pro-family policies in a region suffering from depopulation © Alberto Ortega/Europa Press/AP

“What we’re seeing is a replication of the culture war that the far-right is waging in many democracies,” said Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Madrid. “It’s obsessed with abortion because it can draw a contrast with the liberal model that prioritises citizens’ autonomy above everything.”

Last year, Vox became the PP’s junior partner in Castile-León after regional elections, making it the first hard-right party to hold power since Spain’s return to democracy more than 40 years ago after the Franco dictatorship.

As outrage mounted, the regional president, Alfonso Fernández Mañueco of the PP, said last week “there is not going to be any change” to abortion procedures. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the PP’s national leader, underscored his party’s longstanding support for abortion rights, saying: “Not in Castile-León, nor anywhere governed by the PP, can a woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy be coerced.”

Feijóo had wanted to put a focus on the prime minister’s backing of two contentious legal reforms: a flawed sexual consent law that resulted in shorter jail sentences for some sex offenders; and changes to the penal code to reduce punishments for Catalan separatists who tried to rip the region away from Spain.

But the PP lost the initiative and the abortion row became a boon for Sánchez. His government ordered Castile-León to withdraw the protocol and threatened legal action. On Saturday in Valladolid, the regional capital, Sánchez said anyone wanting to know what a national PP-Vox government would do “should look at what Mañueco and Vox are doing here in Castile-León”.

The PP is leading the ruling Socialists in most polls but those surveys suggest it would struggle to win an absolute majority, meaning the only path to a conservative government would be a pact with Vox. Regional elections in May are likely to create more potential alliances.

“The big question to ask the PP is whether it is willing to govern with us,” said Vox’s Garriga.

Feijóo has said his ambition is to avoid doing so. On Monday the PP leader unveiled a proposal to remove the need for coalitions in city government by enabling the party that wins the most seats to govern even without a majority. But that change, and any similar reform at regional or national level, would require the backing of the Socialist government, whose spokesperson was dismissive of the idea.

“A coalition with Vox is a ticking time bomb,” said Alicia Gil-Torres, a political consultant and professor at the University of Valladolid.

One of the party’s goals in Castile-León was to generate a buzz to attract more voters disillusioned by mainstream politics, she said. “They have a hornet’s nest and every now and again they’re going to jam a stick into it to stir things up.”

The president of the regional government in Castile-León, Alfonso Fernández Mañueco, left, and its vice-president, Juan García-Gallardo, right
The president of the regional government in Castile-León, Alfonso Fernández Mañueco, left, and its vice-president, Juan García-Gallardo © Claudia Alba/Europa Press/AP

The specifics of its ultraconservative abortion stance do not even resonate with all its loyalists, Gil-Torres added. In Spain, where abortion was decriminalised in 1985, 70 per cent of people say it should be legal in all or most cases, according to an Ipsos poll. But a small number of hardcore Catholic voters are vehemently opposed to terminating pregnancies. And running campaigns on wedge issues has proved successful for rightwing hardliners in other European countries and the US.

In Castile-León 2,597 women underwent abortions in 2021 and 70 per cent of them were carried out at the Ginémedica clinic in Valladolid, the only one in the city.

José Manuel Muñoz, its managing director, said protesters outside his workplace had in the past called him a murderer, waving manipulated images of foetuses and praying with rosary beads. Due to recent legal changes they now limit themselves to holding placards addressed to patients that say: “You are not alone. We can help you.”

Muñoz described the Vox proposal as “absolutely barbaric” and noted that the type of ultrasound it contemplated can even be harmful to a foetus. “It’s sad because Spain has come so far — too far to now go backwards.”

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