Spain could be on the brink of being ruled by a coalition that includes a far-right party for the first time since Francisco Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975, fueled in part by frustration surrounding the drought and the environmental measures in place to ameliorate it.

Opinion polls indicate that the conservative Popular Party, led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has enough support to overthrow the president of the socialist government, Pedro Sánchez, but will not achieve an absolute majority. That leaves Vox, an ultranationalist, anti-immigration and anti-feminist group, as the likely kingmaker.

Part of the reason Vox has become Spain’s third-biggest party is that it has followed another key trend in modern far-right politics: fears that green measures in Spain, which is facing chronic droughts, will destroy the agricultural industry. Vox and the Popular Party, which already jointly govern the southwestern region of Extremadura, are backing a controversial plan to legalize and expand water extraction in one of Europe’s most important wetlands, much of which is already barren and lifeless, to feed the lucrative fruit industry.

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal, center, listens to the national anthem during a campaign rally in Palma de Mallorca earlier this month.Jaime Reina / AFP – Getty Images

And now, questions that were once considered resolved, such as the existence of man-made climate change and its possible consequences, are back under discussion, said Oriol Bartomeus, a professor of politics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“Global warming had left the political debate because it was something that was part of the general consensus, but now it is becoming more and more a polarizing issue,” he said. “So, if you are on the right, you are against the ecological transition. And that is very scary.»

For decades, farmers have been draining the aquifer in the Doñana area west of Seville in southern Spain, a region that includes the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Doñana National Park, to provide the thousands of gallons of water needed for the local berry economy, which involves growing mainly strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blueberries.

Needed An estimate 42 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of strawberries, according to the HEALabel Ethical Consumer Guide.

A law dubbed the “strawberry plan” passed in 2014 allowed for a large amount of drilling, but illegal wells proliferated nonetheless. The Popular Party, which controls the regional government in Andalusia, intends to declare an amnesty on the use of water from illegally drilled wells and expand irrigable land by up to 4,000 acres, with strong support from Vox.

Strawberry growing is big business: a local province, Huelva, provides 98% of Spain’s entire strawberry crop and 30% of the strawberries consumed in the 27 countries of the European Union.

A woman picks a strawberry in Ayamonte, Huelva, in 2022.
A woman picks a strawberry in Ayamonte, Huelva last year.Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images

But where once there was open water providing habitats for 500,000 waterfowl, some areas of Doñana now look like a desert. A report earlier this year from Spain’s national research council found that 59% of Doñana’s great lakes have not filled since 2013. Its largest lake, Laguna de Santa Olalla, dried up last year for the third time in 50 years.

“Cash crops are an important source of income for Spain and that is not going to last if drilling continues,” said Pieter de Pous, a climate policy expert at the Berlin-based environmental think tank E3G.

“This is the kind of question you have to start grappling with: How much future is there for that land use model?”

Vox, which says many families depend on illegal wells for their livelihoods, calls for much broader use of water, regardless of the impact such changes will have on the already degraded environment.

“Neither globalist agendas nor separatist concessions can prevent access to water for all,” Santiago Abascal, who helped found the party in 2013 and began leading it the following year, tweeted last month. He also called for Spain’s river basins to be connected to allow drought-stricken areas to benefit from water in other regions.

Interfresa, which represents soft fruit growers in Andalusia, told NBC News in a statement that up to 30,000 jobs could be lost due to lack of water and that it supports the Vox and Partido Popular water plan because it gives “legal security” to its affiliates.

UNESCO said in a statement earlier this year that it was «concerned» by the plan.

Abascal, who has called for a «reconquista» or reconquest of Spain, a reference to the victory of Christians over The Muslims, who ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula for centuries until 1492. This kind of dog-whistle rhetoric that falsely implies that the country has been taken over by foreigners, and mostly non-whites and non-Christians, is a frequent refrain among the right in Europe.

The latest data available for 2022 from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics show that just over 7.5 million people in the population of more than 47 million were born abroad.

While calling for lower taxes and an end to corruption, Vox also opposes measures against gender violence and pro-LGBTQ laws, and advocates for the expulsion of undocumented immigrants.

In 2020, Abascal told Sánchez in a parliamentary debate: «You lead the worst government in 80 years,» a period that includes the Franco regime.

Like other far-right movements across the continent, Vox has tried to portray green measures as part of a liberal conspiracy to increase control over people through «climate lockdowns» or to permanently change society by limiting agriculture.

“Many far-right parties in Western Europe do not necessarily deny climate change as a phenomenon. However, they deny that it is man-made and wrongly claim that the ongoing temperature rise is ‘natural,’” said Manès Weisskircher, an expert on far-right politics and ecological issues at the University of Dresden in Germany.

And Vox is part of a Europe-wide trend of far-right parties winning support at the polls. He has successfully forged links with nationalist parties across Europe, most notably with the Italian Brothers. Immediately after Vox obtained good results in the regional elections in June, Abascal traveled to Hungary to meet with its Christian nationalist leader, Viktor Orbán.

This international support is important and is part of the normalization of voting for an extremist party, experts believe.

“You can be a conservative voter and you can think about voting for Vox because in the end they are just normal: you have the same type of parties in the governments of Italy and Scandinavia,” Bartemos said.

«We are experiencing a certain normalization of thoughts and values ​​and political attitudes that just a few years ago were unacceptable.»

Although Vox did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment, Rafael Bardají, a political consultant who co-founded Vox as an offshoot of the Popular Party in 2013 and who is close to Abascal, acknowledged that he believed the party was on track to seize power in this weekend’s election.

“If the PP is around 140 seats or less and Vox holds at least 40 seats, I think it’s inevitable,” he said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he often visits on business. «All the polls now say that Vox is in crisis, but I don’t believe it as much as they say.»

Bardají no longer officially represents Vox and left its executive committee two years ago for health reasons, but continues to advise the party informally.

He also rejects comparisons with Franco, despite Abascal’s refusal to reject the dictator’s legacy. Instead, he says, the party honors tradition and country.

“I don’t think we’re as far-right as people try to portray us, like we’re fascists or something,” he said.

“Trump had that slogan ‘America first’: we want the Spanish people first. When it comes to illegal immigration and so on,” he added.