Last Sunday residents in Altsasu, a small town in Navarre, woke up to a massive police operation reminiscent of a time long gone. Spain’s Guardia Civil and Navarre’s regional police had secured the village’s entry points and the square where a political rally called by España Ciudadana, the platform sponsored by Ciudadanos and Albert Rivera, was scheduled to be held. Rivera did not pick Altsasu randomly. Our readers will recall that six young men from Altsasu received prison sentences of nine to thirteen years following a bar brawl with off-duty guardia civil officers who were on a night out with their partners. Despite the Public Prosecutor’s claim, the judges saw no grounds for a conviction for terrorism, but found them guilty of aggravated hate crimes instead. Needless to say, most people in Altsasu believe that the penalties are disproportionate and many events have been held in solidarity with the families. Therefore, it was expected that the Ciudadanos-sponsored rally would irk and bother the local population.
To make matters worse, though, far-right party Vox endorsed the rally and announced that their leader, Santiago Abascal, would attend. This presented Rivera and Ciudadanos with a golden opportunity to call it to avoid providing a platform for the far right. Instead, they decided to welcome them and went ahead with the rally as planned. That is how Abascal and his followers, bearing countless Spanish flags without a shield, turned up for a Ciudadanos political meeting amidst protests (even the local church bells rang in an attempt to drown out the speeches) and massive riot police presence.
Indeed, Rivera got the soundbite on the news that he was after. But so did Vox. And, truth be told, both parties are like peas in a pod when it comes to their rhetoric, particularly on the subject of Catalonia. Besides, as if he were trying to keep up, PP leader Pablo Casado spoke from Andalusia to say that he had already been to Altsasu to show his support for the Guardia Civil months earlier and did not make as much fuss as Rivera. So as not to appear disinterested, Casado sent local PP representatives to Sunday’s Altsasu event, which meant that all three political parties on the Spanish right were present at a rally for the first time. Altsasu mayor Javier Ollo rightly denounced that Ciudadanos were using his hometown as a “hostage” for their political confrontation strategy.
Indeed, the competition between the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox to woo conservative voters has driven the former two to radicalisation and abandoning the political centre while taking onboard the more extremist policies. For instance, MP Alejandro Fernández —the likely new leader of the PP in Catalonia— stated on Sunday that he would have had president Torra removed from office “from the word go” and argued for bringing back a longer, more rigorous period of direct rule in Catalonia. The trouble with choosing this sort of radical rhetoric is that there will always be someone whose rhetoric is even more radical; namely, Vox, who openly advocate scrapping devolved regional powers in Spain. For this reason the most dangerous aspect of the tension-based strategy endorsed by the PP and Ciudadanos is that it provides a platform for the most violent far right, it whitewashes their hate speech aimed at anyone who is different (immigrants, Catalan independence supporters), and it can truly end peaceful coexistence, not merely in Catalonia but in all of Spain.