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.