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Spain’s far-right holds car protest against virus lockdown

May 23, 2020

(AP) Several thousand followers of Spain’s far-right Vox party gathered Saturday in their cars and on motorbikes in the center of Madrid and other Spanish cities to protest the Spanish government’s handling of the nation’s coronavirus crisis.

The party accuses the government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of lying about the impact of the health crisis and of violating Spaniards’ rights by confining people to their homes and closing businesses during the lockdown.

Vox called for protesters to attend the protests in their vehicles and thus skirt the ban on social gatherings in effect under the nation’s two-month long state of emergency designed to reduce contagion risks.

Vox called the protest the “Caravan for Spain and Liberty.” “We will never forget what they have done,” Vox leader Santiago Abascal said from the open-top bus leading the caravan as it inched down a Madrid boulevard.

“Do not doubt that we will make them face justice. They know it and fear our freedom. That is why they try to intimidate us.” Most cars and motorbikes were decked with Spanish flags. There were also small groups of people who participated on foot, with some not respecting the two-meter social distancing rules. Protests were also held in Barcelona, Sevilla and other provincial capitals.

Spain’s government says that the confinement measures have been necessary to save the nation’s hospitals from collapse and save thousands of lives. Sánchez said that the protesters were exercising their constitutional rights, but that he asked them “to respect the criteria, rules, and decisions that health authorities have made.”

“This government will preach for concord, peaceful co-existence, respect and tolerance, and not for hate and rage,” he said. Over 28,000 Spaniards have been confirmed to have died from COVID-19. The government says that all the information it makes public on virus deaths and infections are provided by the regions, some of which are governed by opposition parties. No region has accused the government of relaying incorrect data.

Spain’s left-wing coalition government declared a state of emergency on March 14. The lockdown applied under the state of emergency, which has limited the right to free movement and assembly, has successfully reined in the outbreak.

Abascal and another leading Vox politician both fell ill with the virus after holding a massive party rally in early March. The party apologized for going ahead with the rally but blamed the government for not warning the nation of the danger. Abascal and his colleague recovered.

Vox, which is strongly anti-migrant and anti-women’s rights, won its first seats in Spain’s Parliament in April 2019. It then made huge gains in a repeat election in November and is the third-largest party in the legislature.

“I’m here to ask for the government to resign. We are tired of being kept in prison,” said 47-year-old bank employee Almudena Camara at the Madrid protest. Saturday’s car protest follows a week of small protests in one of Madrid’s wealthiest neighborhoods and other cities that Vox has backed.

With its hospitals now able to handle the smaller load of cases, Spain is slowly moving toward gradually reactivating its economy and recovering social activities. On Monday, Madrid and Barcelona, the two hardest hit areas, will be able to join the rest of the country in reopening 50% of outdoor seating at bars and restaurants and gathering in groups of under 10 people.

Sánchez’s minority government of his Socialists and the left-wing United We Can party is under increasing pressure from opposition parties and some regional leaders to move forward with the rollback to reduce the already huge impact to the economy.

Spanish government spokeswoman María Jesús Montero said Friday that the right to protest “cannot be confused with a right to infect.” “This is a country where people can protest freely, but we would like them to transmit the truth about what is happening in this country, where the right to expression is protected,” Montero said.

Wilson reported from Barcelona.

Spain’s leader asks parliament for 2 more weeks of lockdown

May 20, 2020

MADRID (AP) — Spain’s prime minister appears before parliament on Wednesday to ask for its endorsement to extend the state of emergency that his government has used to rein in the country’s coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 27,000 people.

It would be the fifth two-week extension to the state of emergency, which is currently set to expire on Sunday. The government wants to extend it until June 7. “The path we are on is the only one that can possibly beat the virus,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told a chamber with only a handful of members to limit contagion risks. “Thanks to all the parliament members who have supported the state of emergency because with their vote they have saved thousands of lives.”

Since the start of the national lockdown on March 14, Spain has lowered a rampant COVID-19 virus contagion rate that was well over 20% to under 1% over the past week. More than 230,000 infections have been confirmed by laboratory tests in Spain.

Sánchez argues that Spain still needs to keep a tight, centralized control over the health situation as it starts to loosen restrictions and restart economic activity. Small shops have reopened in most of the country, but not in hard-hit Madrid and Barcelona.

The vote is expected to be close, although Sánchez’s minority government made up of his Socialists and an anti-austerity party has maintained the important backing of the center-right Citizens party and Basque regionalist party PNV.

Sánchez’s support has been waning with every vote to extend the state of emergency, which gives the government the power to restrict constitutional rights such as free movement and assembly — key to its sanitary lockdown. The main opposition conservative Popular Party and the far-right Vox party have said they will vote “No.”

Both right-wing parties accuse the government of being responsible for the impact of the pandemic that threatened to collapse the nation’s health system managed by Spain’s regions until the state of emergency centralized all efforts.

“You are like a headless chicken running around not knowing what to do,” Popular Party leader Pablo Casado told Sánchez. “To endorse your extension would be irresponsible.” Catalonia separatist parties, meanwhile, are clamoring for the end to what they consider an interference of the national government in their affairs.

The Citizens party gave its support after the government reduced its original petition of wanting a one-month extension and settling for two weeks. PNV was appeased by the government increasing the role of the regions in decision-making.

“Stop using the pandemic to seek political gains,” Citizens spokesman Edmundo Bal said. “We are facing a possible second outbreak. We need to move forward in an orderly manner.”

Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona.

Spaniards pour out for 1st exercise in 7 weeks of lockdown

May 02, 2020

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Thousands of Spaniards woke up early on Saturday to lace up their running shoes for the first time in seven weeks after the government ended a prohibition on outdoor exercise.

At 6 a.m. early risers poured into the streets dressed in athletic gear to run, bike, and speed walk, with many taking extra caution to loosen up atrophied muscles and avoid a twisted ankle that would ruin the joy of release.

A few tried running with a face mask despite the difficulty it causes with breathing. The masks will be obligatory to wear on public transport starting Monday to reduce the chance of infection from the virus that causes COVID-19.

“I feel good, but tired. You sure notice that it has been a month and I am not in shape,” 36-year-old Cristina Palomeque said in Barcelona after taking a break following a 20-minute jog. She had grown tired of following Zumba and yoga classes online.

“Some people think it may be too early (to go out), as I do, but it is also important to do exercise for health reasons,” she said. A brilliant sunny sky in Barcelona drew many to the maritime promenade to get as close as possible to the beach, which is still off-limits. People are supposed to respect a 2-meter distance, but the crowds in some spots made that impossible.

“We woke up very early so that we wouldn’t find it too full of people, but … it’s complicated,” 37-year-old Eduardo Conte said after a run along the Mediterranean beachfront. “I feel a rush (being back outside), but you have to take it easy so we don’t all end up with injuries.”

The scene was similar to that seen last weekend when Spain’s children were let out for a walk with a parent for the first time in six weeks. After some chastising by local officials in the worst cases, the population behaved better throughout the week.

The government has set up time slots for age groups and activities to prevent crowds from forming and exposing the most at-risk elders. People between 14 and 70 can now go out for individual exercise, and couples in that age group who live together can go for walks, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. People over 70 can go out from 10 a.m. to noon and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., with one caregiver if needed. Children under 14 are now allowed to go out between noon and 7 p.m. for walks with one parent, for up one hour, within 1 kilometer (half a mile) of home. They cannot play with other children.

Towns and villages with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants are exempt from the timetable dividing people by age groups. “I am convinced that over the coming months, until we have a vaccine, we are going to see more outbreaks (of the virus),” Sánchez said. “What we need to guarantee is that these outbreaks do not put our national health system in danger.”

Since Spain’s lockdown started on March 14, only adults have only been able to leave home, and only for shopping for food, medicine and other essential goods, and to walk dogs close to home. For two weeks all commuting was banned; now only unavoidable commutes to and from work are allowed, with authorities encouraging people to work from home.

Spain has detailed a complex rollback plan that will vary by province that will take effect on Monday. Those with the fewest cases and with health care resources to handle a rebound of the virus will be the first to enjoy a further loosening of the measures.

The lockdown, among the strictest in the world, has succeeded in reducing daily increases of over 20% in cases to under 1% and saving Spain’s hospitals from collapse. Spain has 25,100 confirmed deaths from the virus after a daily increase of 276 was reported on Saturday. That is down from daily death tolls of over 900 a month ago. Another 1,147 cases reported over the past 24 hours took the total of confirmed infections to 216,582.

The huge field hospital the military helped set up in a convention center in Madrid was closed on Friday. Madrid had already closed the makeshift morgue the army had established in an ice rink. In Madrid, police reminded athletes that parks were still off-limits on town hall orders.

“These are very strong restrictions, but it is what it is. We have to follow the instructions from the Health Ministry because they know more than us,” 52-year-old Manuel Garcia said in the capital. “This feeling of freedom is great. When this gets back to normal, all of us will feel even better.”

Renata Brito in Barcelona and Alicia León in Madrid contributed.

“Green light! Ants!” Spain’s kids get freedom from lockdown

April 26, 2020

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — After six weeks cooped up with 3-year-old twins, mother Susana Sabaté was finally able to release her energy-filled boys onto Spain’s sunny streets. Spain’s government lifted a home confinement rule for children under 14 years old after 44 days on Sunday, ending one of the most restrictive measures of its national lockdown to rein in a coronavirus outbreak that has claimed over 22,000 lives in the European country. Even Italy, with more deaths than Spain, has not kept its youngsters completely secluded.

“This is wonderful! I can’t believe it has been six weeks,” the 44-year-old Sabaté said in Barcelona. “My boys are very active. Today when they saw the front door and we gave them their scooters, they were thrilled.”

Sabaté’s sons wore child-size face masks as they went out. She said they were used to seeing both their parents wear them when they went out, so she believed that made it easier to convince them to put them on.

“We will see how long they last!” she said. Gustavo Tapia, Sabaté husband, said that taking sons Tomás and Zacarías for a stroll in the neighborhood was a joy. “It was as if we had rediscovered the street,” Tapia said. “They were really excited to see things that they had grown accustomed to seeing before. For example, when they saw a streetlight they started shouting ‘Green! Green!’ They also loved seeing ants and other insects.”

Spain’s 5.8 million children under 14 years old are now allowed to take walks once a day, accompanied by a parent for up to one hour and within a kilometer of home. Many children took out their bikes and scooters.

Kids can take one toy with them, but they are not to play with other children. They can accompany a parent on shopping outings for food, medicine or a newspaper. Parks remain closed in Barcelona and Madrid. Authorities recommend that both parents and children wash their hands before and after outings.

Authorities had resisted calls from some parents to let children outside until now, citing concerns that they could be a source of contagion even though children appear to rarely fall ill from the new virus.

The ban was lifted at 9 a.m. After a few early risers trickled out to otherwise deserted streets, many could not resist the draw of Barcelona’s beach promenade, the closest they could get to the sand that remains off-limits. Benches with views of the Mediterranean were packed with people, some of who, but not all, wore masks. Police told an Associated Press photographer that they were having difficulties enforcing the social distancing rules that families should stay a minimum of a meter apart.

Health Minister Salvador Illa said that the information he managed indicated that “the restrictions have generally been followed,” but that “we will evaluate the situation and take steps if necessary.”

Some local authorities, however, did single out rule breakers. Valencia’s lieutenant mayor Sandra Gómez posted a video on her Twitter account showing a group of children kicking a ball together in a park, with more people huddled in the background.

“Responsibility. We have opened the parks for people to walk in pleasant areas not for soccer,” Gómez wrote. “Imagine what those (owners of) closed restaurants and shops who are making an enormous economic effort will think you are doing. Warning: what doesn’t work will be taken back.”

Spain has one of the world’s strictest lockdowns as it fights to contain one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks that has infected over 200,000 people. Since the start of Spain’s state of emergency on March 14, adults can only leave home for essential shopping or to make unavoidable commutes to work.

The measures have helped reduce a daily contagion rate that was raging over 20% a month ago to under 1% by Sunday. That has reduced the intense pressure on hospitals that were on the brink of collapse.

Authorities have insisted that a further loosening of restrictions will depend on maintaining the positive tendency. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Saturday that he plans to permit adults to go out for exercise next week.

“It is important that we carry out this step (of letting children out) with a strict compliance of the rules,” Sánchez said. “We must not underestimate the enemy we face … Each family must act responsibly; as they have until now. If the outings are carried out according to the rules and we can confirm there are no more infections, this first relief measure will be accompanied by another one the following week.”

Parents still have no indication when schools will reopen. Only factory and construction workers are back on the job after a two-week stoppage of all industry. All non-essential retail stores are shuttered.

“It has been difficult because they have had classes online from 9 to 1 in the morning,” David Terrón, father of two boys, said on the streets of Madrid. “My wife and I are working from home and it has been very difficult to coordinate and look after them and pay attention to the clients and the boss and colleagues.”

For Terrón’s 10-year-old son Alberto, taking a walk is nice, but something is missing. “I want this confinement to be over so we can back to school with my friends,” Alberto said.

Iain Sullivan contributed to this report from Madrid.

Virus pain easing in Spain, Italy; UK braces for bleak days

April 06, 2020

MADRID (AP) — A week ago, emergency rooms and intensive care wards in Spain and Italy were overflowing with woozy, coughing coronavirus patients and literally buzzing with breathing machines. So many died that Barcelona crematories have a waiting list of up to two years, forcing some people to bury loved ones temporarily in cemeteries with the expectation of exhuming them for cremation later on.

But now the two countries that have suffered more virus deaths than anywhere else in Europe are starting to see their crisis ease, while Britain, where the prime minister was hospitalized in intensive care Monday, seems headed in the opposite direction.

Between them, Italy and Spain saw nearly 30,000 deaths and 265,000 confirmed infections in the pandemic. They, and other European countries that locked down weeks ago and ramped up testing, are now seeing the benefits.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte promised Italians Monday that they will soon ‘’reap the fruit of these sacrifices’’ in personal liberties made to fight the coronavirus. Conte declined during a press conference to say when the nationwide lockdown, now in its fifth week, would be lifted. The current measures expire April 13, but how and when Italy will enter a next phase of ‘’co-existing’’ with the virus will depend on a technical panel of experts. The country’s business lobby is also eager to restart production, which also has been significantly blocked by the lockdown.

Britain’s outbreak was headed in the opposite direction as the country reported more than 600 deaths Sunday, surpassing Italy’s daily increase for the second day in a row. “I think that we are just a week away from the surge of this,” the deputy chief executive of Britain’s NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, told Sky News.

In Spain, deaths and new infections dropped again on Monday. The health ministry reported 637 new fatalities, the lowest toll in 13 days, for a total of over 13,000 dead. New recorded infections were the lowest in two weeks.

Emergency rooms in the hard-hit Madrid region of 6.6 million were returning almost to normal a week after scenes of patients sleeping on floors and in chairs. Patients awaiting treatment in Madrid-area ERs went down Monday to 390 cases, one-tenth of the arrivals last week, the regional government said. The number of people being treated for coronavirus in intensive care stabilized at about 1,500 for five straight days.

Transport, Mobility and Urban Affairs Minister José Luis Ábalos said the figures show Spain is entering “a new phase of the battle.” “This new phase does not mean we can let down our guard. We are assessing the measures that we will need to adopt,” Ábalos said.

At the San Carlos Clinic Hospital in Madrid, nearly 15% of the hospital’s 1,400-strong staff contracted the coronavirus, in line with the national average, “Our priority at the moment is to bring health workers back to work,” said Dr. Julio Mayol, the facility’s medical director.

Still, there are fears for a new outbreak as Spanish authorities begin talking about loosening the grip on mandatory confinement, and the strain on hospitalizations will still be seen for another week while that in intensive care units for another two weeks, Mayol said.

Italy still has, by far, the world’s highest coronavirus death toll — almost 16,000 — but the pressure on northern Italy’s ICUs has eased so much that Lombardy is no longer airlifting patients to other regions.

In the northern city of Bergamo, one of Europe’s virus epicenters, hospital staff were still pulling long, difficult shifts even if the numbers of new patients had eased a bit. “There has been no reduction in the work,” said Maria Berardelli, a nursing coordinator at Pope John XXIII hospital. “There have been fewer admissions to the emergency room, but our intensive care units are still full, so the activity hasn’t been reduced.”

Illness has been compounded by shocking economic pain as all the world’s largest economies have ground to a halt, including in Italy and Spain. In France, which slightly trails its two neighbors to the south in deaths and infections, the government shut the country down two days after Italy — and has also seen a slight easing.

The U.K. initially resisted taking some of the tough measures seen in other European countries, which banned large events, shut schools and closed their borders to slow the spread of the COVID-19 illness.

The government’s first advice was that people should wash their hands frequently. As the number of cases soared, the response escalated to include the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops and a nationwide order for everyone but key workers to stay home.

Now, Austria and the Czech Republic are openly discussing how to ease some of the crippling restrictions. Austria’s chancellor said the plan is to let small shops and garden centers reopen next week, with limits on the number of customers inside, and the rest on May 1. The Czech government is proposing an end to the ban on travel abroad as of April 14 and the reopening of small stores.

AP reporters Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

Spain repeats election as Catalan crisis boosts far right

November 08, 2019

MADRID (AP) — Spain is holding its fourth general election in as many years — and the second this year — amid voter distrust and a renewed Catalan independence bid that has bolstered the far right. The latest polls in Spanish media hint at a close finish between the blocs on the right and left, suggesting that Sunday’s vote — amid increasing fragmentation and polarization — won’t help dispel the country’s political stalemate.

Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists appeared poised to again win the most seats in Parliament but fewer even than they won in April, when the interim prime minister was unable to get the support of his left-wing rivals to keep his party in power.

Repeated elections make it even harder to win over voters, said political analyst Pablo Simón, a professor at Carlos III University. “The public opinion is angry at the electoral repeat, with record levels of discontent toward the political class and great pessimism over how the economy will perform next year,” he said.

The incumbent is up against five other men for the job as prime minister. In recent days, he has tried to lure undecided and centrist voters by saying he will focus his next term on economic issues and by toughening his stand on Catalan separatists.

He has, for example, promised to bring back prison terms for those who hold banned referendums for independence, overturning a previous Socialist position. “If we want a strong government against precariousness and blockade, a progressive government against the extreme right, and a moderate government against the extremists, here is the Socialist party,” Sánchez said Friday, wrapping up an eight-day campaign in Barcelona.

The Catalan capital has been hit by a wave of mass protests, at times violent, after nine leaders of the wealthy region’s separatist movement were sentenced to prison for an attempt to break away from Spain two years ago.

The turbulence has fueled support in the rest of Spain for Sánchez’s opposition — the conservative Popular Party and the far-right Vox, whose leader ended the campaign calling for voters to support his “patriotic alternative” to oust the Socialist leader.

Even if Sánchez succeeds in rallying support from the anti-austerity United We Can and its new splinter, More Country, a Socialist cabinet likely will need either the backing of small regional parties or for the right-wing opposition to abstain.

The eurozone’s No. 4 economy has been functioning without a stable government since mid-2018, when Sánchez ousted the graft-tainted conservatives in a parliamentary confidence vote. The center-left minority government then crumbled in less than a year after losing the parliamentary support of regionalist parties.

Sánchez’s Socialists went from 85 to 123 seats in the late April election. But he needed support from an absolute majority, or 176 of 350 lawmakers, and a falling out with United We Can leader Pablo Iglesias left him without enough votes.

The latest polls show both of those left-wing parties could lose ground. The Popular Party, meanwhile, is recovering after losing more than half of its parliamentary representation in April, falling to 66 seats. Polls show the conservatives could win more seats in this election. But leader Pablo Casado’s chances to form government are lower than Sánchez’s, given that the party’s natural ally, the center-right Citizens, isn’t expected to do well.

“We cannot divide efforts, we cannot fragment all the momentum of change that Spain has,” Casado said before some 3,000 followers gathered for the final rally at the Madrid bullring. But the party benefiting most so far from the Catalan crisis has been Vox, with its mix of Spanish nationalism and populism.

In addition to calling for deposing Catalonia of its self-government powers and outlawing regional separatist parties, Vox has stepped up its anti-immigration rhetoric. The party has released campaign videos linking migrants with criminality, and its leaders have held rallies outside centers where authorities care for unaccompanied teenage migrants.

Vox won 24 seats in April, less than what polls had predicted but still an unprecedented victory for the far right, which had been on the fringes of the political mainstream since the end of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. This time, surveys predict Vox will win at least 40 seats in the Congress of Deputies.

The party now supports minority coalition governments of the Popular Party and Citizens in the regions of Madrid, Andalusia and Murcia, and its support was key for many other local governments, said Bonnie Field, a professor on Global Studies at Bentley University.

“If the right parties pulled out a surprise victory on Sunday, this arrangement would certainly be on the table,” Field said. Turnout is expected to be low in Sunday’s election, something that generally has benefited right-wing parties. But she noted that the Socialists succeeded in mobilizing voters in April by stirring the “fear of the radical right and the possibility of a right-wing government that depended on them.”

“We’ll have to see if that works again,” she added.

Far-right in Spain sweeps town with anti-migrant message

April 29, 2019

EL EJIDO, Spain (AP) — Surrounded by miles of greenhouses where migrant workers grow fruit and vegetables for the rest of Europe, this sleepy town on the sunbaked Mediterranean coast has become a beachhead for the arrival of the far-right in Spain, the latest country to be hit by the wave of nationalist populism sweeping the continent.

El Ejido was where the upstart far-right Vox party made its most impressive gains during Sunday’s national elections, with its promises to defend Spain’s unity and quash the separatist push in northeastern Catalonia, while also railing against the women’s movement and animal-rights activists who want to ban traditional Spanish bull-fighting.

That message helped power Vox to 10% of the vote nationwide, giving Spain’s parliament its first lawmakers from the extreme right since the 1980s. But it was in El Ejido, a town of some 85,000 residents with a large number of overseas workers key to its agriculture industry, that Vox struck its biggest victory with another of its banner causes: halting illegal immigration. In El Ejido 30 percent of the vote went to Vox, making the party the biggest victor in town.

The day after the election there were no Spanish flags hanging from the balconies of the town’s white-and-pastel-colored buildings, and no gatherings in its public squares. There was no sign of campaigning anywhere as residents of European and African descent strolled along its clean, tree-lined streets.

There was, however, an undercurrent of the populist anger that has helped catapult the far-right to election victories in Italy, Austria and Hungary. Juan José Bonilla, a lawyer and farmer who grows zucchini in the greenhouses known locally as the Sea of Plastic that blanket the surrounding Almería region, is Vox’s candidate in El Ejido for May 26 local elections to be held across Spain. On Monday, Bonilla celebrated Vox’s victory with a cake in the party’s bright-green color decorated with a photo of himself and one of the party’s national heavyweights.

While also mentioning his concern over the risk the Catalan separatists represent to Spanish national unity, Bonilla said it was Vox’s stance on immigration that drove the party’s cause in his town. “People want serious and strong steps to be taken to fight against illegal immigration,” Bonilla told The Associated Press. Traditional parties “have not known how to solve the territorial question (of Catalonia) nor immigration or the high taxes Spaniards are subject to.”

Juan Barón, a 41-year-old taxi driver who also has worked harvesting greenhouse tomatoes, said he voted for Vox because he believes migrants who work for lower wages are unfair competition. The government “helps the migrants more than people that are from here,” Barón asserted, repeating a largely unsubstantiated claim often heard from the anti-immigrant right that migrants get more public assistance than native Spaniards.

Vox won 24 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, the lower house of Spain’s parliament, making it the fifth-leading power in Spanish politics. Its gains came largely at the expense of Spain’s traditional conservatives, the Popular Party, which suffered its worst ever defeat, plummeting to 66 seats from 137 in 2016 elections.

In El Ejido, the Popular Party’s share of the vote shrank from 52% in 2016 to just 22% on Sunday. Unlike most European countries, Spain had kept a lid on the far right until Sunday. Most Spaniards wanted no reminders of the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, and the Popular Party had been able to attract a huge spectrum of voters, from the pro-business to those who embraced its patriotic rhetoric.

But corruption cases involving the Popular Party and its failure to stem the spread of secession sentiment in Catalonia have driven many voters to Vox and the center-right Citizens party. Vox leader Santiago Abascal, a former Popular Party member who took the helm of Vox in 2014, calls his ex-party “the cowardly right.”

Abascal compared his party’s showing Sunday to the “reconquering of Spain,” conjuring up the 15th-century campaign by Spanish Catholic kingdoms to end Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. Two of Europe’s far-right leaders, France’s Marine Le Pen and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, congratulated Abascal for Vox’s entrance into parliament.

“My warmest congratulations to @Santi_ABASCAL and his young and vigorous party @vox_es for its smashing entry into Parliament! Nations need enthusiastic supporters!” Le Pen wrote on Twitter. Vox won its first seats in any legislative body in Spain in December’s regional elections in Andalusía, when it also won the vote in El Ejido. That breakthrough came amid a spike in illegal immigration as Spain became the leading entry point for migrants to Europe last year, with nearly 60,000 people risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean from Africa on rickety boats and rubber dinghies, often after paying human traffickers.

“Defending our frontiers is not about being on the left or the right. What we want is a defense of our frontiers and the expulsion of illegal immigrants,” Abascal told Spanish television broadcaster Telecinco on Monday. “But we don’t say this to win votes. We say it because it is what we believe.”

El Ejido has 26,206 registered foreigners, most from Morocco. Spitou Mendy, who migrated to Spain from Senegal in 2001, picks vegetables in the greenhouses surrounding El Ejido. He credits the region’s agricultural boom to the hard work of laborers like himself from North and sub-Saharan Africa who came to fill jobs unwanted by most Spaniards.

“If we work here we must also live and sleep here, and have our lives here in Spain,” Mendy said.

Wilson reported from Barcelona.

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