SPAIN will go to the polls on July 23 amid deep concern that the far-right Vox party may find themselves in government as part of a coalition with the conservative Partido Popular.

The snap General Election was called by prime minister Pedro Sánchez after his Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) suffered heavy losses across Spain in regional and municipal elections in May.

Sánchez has gambled on an early ­election acting as a wake-up call to ­moderate voters about the danger of ­ushering PP, and with them their ­possible far-right coalition partners, into power.

A coalition between the two parties could lead to Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal becoming the country’s deputy prime minister and further embolden Vox as they seek to emulate the far right’s rise to the centre of government across the ­Mediterranean in Italy.

Vox are the first successful far-right ­party in Spain since the death of the ­fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, but the Catalan MEP Clara ­Ponsati ­believes the impulses they embody have been ­present in Spanish politics ­throughout that time.

The National: Vox’s far-right leader Santiago AbascalVox’s far-right leader Santiago Abascal (Image: AP)

“It [far-right Spanish nationalism] was never quelled, just camouflaged for ­international eyes,” she tells me.

“These people from Vox were OK with what was going on because the project of ­Spanish uniformity was advancing ­without ­resistance. Now that there is ­resistance and the possibility to dismantle this ­despotic state, they want to take matters into their own hands. The agreement that allowed for a semblance of pluralist ­democracy to appear is not enough for them because it gives too much room for Catalans to pursue freedom.”

Ponsati was one of several Catalan ­cabinet ministers who went into exile in Belgium with the region’s president ­Carles Puigdemont in October 2017, three days after the Catalan parliament ­declared independence, which brought immediate charges of sedition and ­rebellion from Madrid.

She has strong connections with Scotland

Her time as minister of education in the Generalitat de Catalonia was bookended by two roles at the University of St Andrews, the first as director of the School of Economics and Finance and the second as a professor.

With Ponsati writing via email from Brussels, we talked at length about the looming elections, the state of ­Spanish politics, the Catalan independence ­movement and more.

To Ponsati, two factors have allowed an extremist party such as Vox to get close to real power in Spain: ­Catalonia and ­globalisation. “The far-right in Spain is mostly made up of civil ­servants, ­especially high bureaucrats, judges, ­policemen and members of the military and the foreign service,” she tells me.

The National:

“I would say it is the ‘deep state’ but in truth it is not that deep. It’s also on the surface. Catalonia has been their foe since the dawn of the modern state. You can actually trace some of the ­genealogies of their leaders that far back.

"Now they feel threatened and they feel politicians are not exploiting that fear that the ­average Spanish nationalist has.

"Now they have seen an opportunity to tap into that and finish the job of erasing the non-Castilian nations of Spain.

“They have also seen that everywhere in the world, the malaise that comes with globalisation can be very fruitfully blamed on immigrants, and so they have imported the themes of the international far right with a pinch of neo-Francoist salt.”

A poll by the newspaper El Mundo

Last week, PP’s lead over PSOE ­narrowed, with PP on 140 seats in the ­350-member lower house, down from 141 a week ­earlier.

Sánchez’s PSOE were on 102 seats with the left-wing grouping Sumar on 35 seats up from 30 a week earlier. Vox were on 35 seats, down from 36 a week earlier, meaning an alliance with PP would fall one seat short of the 176 seats required for an outright majority.

Ponsati believes there is “no good and no bad scenario” for Spain as a whole in this election, predicting familiar to’ing and fro’ing whoever takes power: “If the socialists win and make a government with the conservatives, as a grand ­coalition, the far right will eat up the ­opposition.

"If the socialists win and make a government with regionalists and the heirs of Podemos, the conservatives and the far right will spend the entire term mobilising their forces in regional and municipal governments.

“If the conservatives win and make a government with the far right, the left and regionalists will begin a cycle of protests. The cultural and political clash in Spain is at a standstill and only gesticulation and polarisation can define the next era.”

READ MORE: Clara Ponsati plans appeal after new Spanish arrest warrant issued

For Catalonia, however, she believes the best outcome is “severe punishment” for the Catalan nationalist parties “for the way they have been squandering the pro-independence majority in the past 10 years, and especially lately”.

“If that happens, perhaps starting afresh with a new movement for the ­national liberation of Catalonia will be on the agenda. That would be the best ­outcome both for Catalonia and for Spain, so that both can stop wasting everybody’s time and money, including Europe’s, by trying to pretend that there is another solution.

“Only if Catalonia leaves Spain can the force of Spanish nationalism be ­devoted to Spain’s own development and ­progress.”

Politically, the Catalan independence movement is not in a good place, ­Ponsati readily admits

However, she sees a lot of hope in Catalonia’s independence-supporting public. Certainly, walking around Barcelona at the moment, the symbols of independent Catalonia are as visible and widespread as ever.

The National: Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sanchez Spanish Prime Minister and Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sanchez (Image: AP)

“At the grassroots there is strength that gives hope that the movement may soon be back on track,” Ponsati says. “Our ­political parties have proved that they may be good at dealing with the interests of the Spanish state when it comes to ­negotiating with the Catalan people and getting some [devolved] power.

“But it’s plain now that they are ­manifestly bad at breaking up with this state and taking Catalonia to ­independence.

“The people have ­realised this and they are now looking for ­alternatives, and for the first time a ­relevant fraction of pro-independence people are not voting for their parties and are staying at home.

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“This is the first step towards ­remaking a political movement that retains the greatest majority there is in the entire EU for a single issue.

“If we overcome the incompetence of our leaders, we will be free.”

Felip Vivanco, a writer and reporter of nearly 30 years’ standing with the ­Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia, told me a PP/Vox administration in Madrid could even help revitalise the ­independence movement by sharpening its focus on a more compelling common enemy.

“The independence movement is ­slowly regaining momentum – very slowly, though,” he said when I talked to him last week. “Circumstances have played against it, and the division between ­parties and their strategies towards the Madrid ­government has divided the ­independence camp.

“We are in a period of rethinking, of rebuilding bridges, but a unitary vision is difficult. A win for PP and Vox can only fuel and empower the aspirations of the movement, which needs to find common ground again.”

Alliances are natural and unsurprising

Ponsati sees PP’s alliances with Vox, both current and prospective, as natural and completely unsurprising. “They [PP] don’t feel estranged from Vox: they are their friends, their family members, and former party comrades.”

She believes all signs point to PP doing whatever deals are necessary to gain power in this month’s elections.

“By accepting their [Vox’s] votes, the PP cannot claim at any stage that it is a liberal centre-right party,” said Vivanco. “They are opening their doors to a very dangerous Trojan horse that puts at risk the role of Spain as a modern, progressive and influential European country.”

Amid widespread despondency at Vox’s rising electoral fortunes, Ponsati gave a brilliantly withering and cheerful ­assessment of the long-term prospects for their proudly chauvinist outlook, which among a raft of odious attitudes includes a rejection of the concept of gender-based violence.

“There is nothing surprising about them. They reproduce all the topics of ­far-right parties across the west with an extra flavour of Spanish benighted ­backwardness,” she says.

“The attempt at bringing the culture wars to gender-based violence is just ­another way to appeal to the kind of voter who feels that feminist and ­egalitarian rhetoric and policies have gone too far.

“I think this is a lost cause for them, honestly.

“There is no turning back to their old world of bullfighting male supremacy. These are wounded males looking for a kind of dominance for which they are not prepared.”