To take Spain left, prime minister digs up civil war’s legacy

Manu Fernandez/AP
The basilica at the Valley of the Fallen monument near El Escorial, outside Madrid, currently houses the tomb of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has ordered Franco’s remains to be moved.
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For people like nonagenarian Felipe Gallardo, Spain’s new prime minister brings hope for settling their family history. Last summer, Pedro Sánchez ordered former dictator Francisco Franco’s exhumation from a state-funded memorial. Mr. Sánchez also promised to locate thousands buried in unmarked graves after the 1936-39 civil war, of which Mr. Gallardo’s father is one.

That has yet to happen. But Sánchez’s bold move breaks the status quo on which Spain’s democracy was built, a consensus to leave the past behind.

Next week, Sánchez will be tested on two fronts: His budget will be voted on, and the Supreme Court is set to begin the trials of pro-secession, jailed Catalonian leaders. “Sánchez heads a very frail government right now, so he can’t pass groundbreaking policies in the social or economic realm,” says political scientist José Manuel Ruano. “He’s hoping that the symbolic measures help change the public opinion’s perception of the Socialist Party in hopes that will benefit him during the next elections.” Gallardo’s daughter, Purificación, agrees on a wait-and-see approach. But she says the Franco plan “means there’s no turning back. The real transition to democracy starts now.”

Why We Wrote This

At the heart of Pedro Sanchez’s government is a dramatic appeal to unresolved issues around the fascist era. But it may not be enough to bolster his party for the challenges of the present.

As symbolic gestures go, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went all out.

Shortly after his surprise elevation to high office in early June, Mr. Sánchez ordered the exhumation of Gen. Francisco Franco’s remains, with the intent to separate the former dictator from the more than 33,000 others buried at the national monument holding Spain’s civil war dead.

That has yet to happen. But Sánchez’s bold move was one sign that he is willing to go further than the left-wing governments before him to win over voters.

Why We Wrote This

At the heart of Pedro Sanchez’s government is a dramatic appeal to unresolved issues around the fascist era. But it may not be enough to bolster his party for the challenges of the present.

As the vulnerabilities of the smallest governing majority in Spain’s modern history emerge, analysts question the scope of Spain’s transformation under Sánchez and how much the young prime minister will accomplish. Some on the right see the Franco decision as digging up the past for revenge. But for those on the left, it is raising hope for the introduction of a thorough socialist agenda – and for a reckoning with the unresolved legacy of the Franco era.

Valley of the Fallen

For people like Felipe Gallardo and his daughter, Purificación, such a reckoning would be entwined with family history. Mr. Gallardo, who is in his nineties, left Spain with his young family and returned only after Franco’s death. His father was executed after the civil war and is believed to be buried in a mass grave, like tens of thousands of others. With Spanish government after government, Gallardo postponed his need for closure and didn’t press the issue of locating missing relatives.

“The years went by, and I realized the Socialists had no intention of addressing the subject. I lost all my faith in them,” he says.

That changed last summer when Sánchez ordered Franco’s removal from the Valley of the Fallen, the state-funded monument, basilica, and memorial that was built by the former dictator as an apparent attempt at reconciliation after the civil war. The 1936-39 conflict divided the country between leftist democratic Republicans and Franco's Nationalists.

This site of pilgrimage, 40 miles outside Madrid, is not neutral. It was built by Republican political prisoners, and besides Franco, tens of thousands of people, both Republicans and Nationalists, were moved from mass graves across Spain and buried anonymously there.

The country “cannot afford symbols that separate Spaniards,” Sánchez said in August.

Sánchez’s plan to open Franco’s tomb breaks the status quo on which Spain’s democracy was built. After Franco’s death in 1975, the transition to democracy relied on a consensus to leave the past behind. A 1977 amnesty law forbade the prosecution of war criminals and Franco officials.

“Despite the Socialist governments we had since Franco’s death, the right wing has been controlling Spain,” says Purificación. In 2010, she found her grandfather’s name in a book about the civil war and started the family’s search for him. “Now something seems to be changing,” she says.

Sánchez won a parliamentary vote of no confidence on May 31 against former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is implicated in an ongoing corruption scandal. Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has just one-quarter of the seats in Parliament, relying on a fragile alliance with Pablo Iglesias’s far-left party Podemos (“We Can”) and Catalan and Basque nationalists. Sánchez has been hailed by some for his progressive policies, an exception in Europe where right-wing populism has soared.

A more progressive Spain?

In June, the new prime minister unveiled a government that had more women than men, with women heading 11 of the 17 ministries, and announced that his team was “a government for an equal society, open to the world but anchored in the European Union.”

Shortly after, Sánchez offered a safe port for the Aquarius migrant rescue ship, which had been drifting in international waters with 630 people on board after being rejected by Italy and Malta. “It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligations,” Sánchez said when welcoming the ship in Valencia.

All these moves granted him the nickname of Spain’s Trudeau, an allusion to the Canadan prime minister’s style of politics, and raised hopes for boosting Spain’s center-left PSOE.

When the new prime minister hit the 100 days in office mark in September, the PSOE had reached a 30.5 percent approval rate, with the conservatives lagging behind at  20.8 percent. This peak in popularity happened at the same time Sánchez became the latest politician to deal with allegations around his academic degree and the resignations of two cabinet ministers. In December, Socialists’ support had dropped to 21.3 percent of Spaniards, while only 14.1 percent would choose the center-right People’s Party.  

According to Esteban Hernández, a journalist for the online newspaper El Confidencial, Sánchez’s vulnerability lies precisely in his attempt to follow Trudeau’s template instead of pushing for a “Roosevelt-like turn” on the left.

Manu Fernandez/AP
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (c.) presides over a weekly cabinet meeting with government ministers held in Barcelona, Spain, Dec. 21, 2018.


“What Trudeau and Sánchez are doing is to preserve an order that can no longer be preserved. Social democracy is in crisis, and it’s being attacked by a very strong right wing represented by [Matteo] Salvini in Italy and Trump in the US,” Mr. Hernández says. “What the left needs to do to be a viable option against those leaders is to take a sharp and solid Rooseveltian turn, the type that [Bernie] Sanders and [Jeremy] Corbyn proclaim. But there’s no such leader in Spain,” he adds. A new leader on the left needs a transformative approach, not just a refurbishing of neoliberal politics, disguised to look progressive on the surface but failing to really change the system, he says.

Hernández believes Sánchez is not a viable leftist option because his focus on women’s and immigrant’s rights, while addressing historical divisions, doesn’t alter the “power structure,” he says. Furthermore, he believes that Spain’s relative immunity to far-right nationalism will eventually give way. “We have a delay regarding what’s happening in Europe because our democracy is fairly recent. But we might catch up,” Hernández adds.

José Manuel Ruano, a political scientist at Complutense University in Madrid agrees that the majority of Sánchez policies have been symbolic, but he sees that as part of a strategy to build a progressive platform that gathers momentum for the next elections.

“Sánchez heads a very frail government right now, so he can’t pass groundbreaking policies in the social or economic realm. He’s hoping that the symbolic measures help change the public opinion’s perception of the Socialist Party in hopes that will benefit him during the next elections,” Professor Ruano says.

The government attempted a less than symbolic measure when it signed an anti-austerity budget deal with the far-left Podemos. The text – which includes significant raises in taxes and pensions as well as an increase in the minimum wage from €736 ($837) a month to €900 ($1024) – also states the need to “reverse the scars of austerity, reduce inequality, precariousness and property,” blaming former Prime Minister Rajoy for “seven years of cutbacks and suffocation.”

Next week, Sánchez will be tested on multiple fronts. His budget plan will be up for a vote, and two pro-Catalan parties are threatening to withhold support for the budget. Sánchez said in November that if the budget is not approved, the government may hold early elections. Also, the Supreme Court is set to begin the trials of the pro-secession Catalonian leaders. And several opposition parties are calling for protests against Sánchez this coming weekend for announcing that a “rapporteur” would be included in talks regarding Catalonia. Although the government downplayed the role as a note-taking coordinator, opponents of Catalan independence say that such a representative elevates the status of the region, which has been asking for a mediator. 

Dealing with the past

With the budget still in question, most analysts agree that the plan to remove Franco from the Valley of the Fallen is the most significant decision symbolically, given the right and left divisions still present in Spain today. Franco’s family has pledged to use all legal means to stop the exhumation of the dictator.

“There’s nothing truly progressive about Sánchez’s government when it comes to foreign politics or economics,” says António Costa Pinto, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon.

“But this announcement is the strongest weapon … the Socialists have against the center-right, which has always remained ambiguous about the legacy of the dictatorship.... Spain remains a singular case regarding other European democracies that condemn their fascist pasts. Even in Latin America, where there was also a pact of silence regarding the dictatorships of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, there were trials of political leaders or those who carried out torture and murder. In Spain, not a single person was tried for human rights violations.”

The Gallardo family stopped voting for PSOE years ago and is still distrustful of the Socialists’ progressive agenda. “We still have to wait and see what social and economic measures they will approve, but regarding Franco and the civil war, this announcement means there’s no turning back. The real transition to democracy starts now,” Purificación says.

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