How plans to dig up Franco’s body fuelled a far-right surge in Spain

Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th April, 2019)

It seems strange to find a massive monument to fascism in one of Europe’s leading democracies. But travel less than an hour north of Madrid and, on a clear day, you will see a cross 500ft tall towering over pine-covered mountain slopes.

This is the burial spot for General Francisco Franco, the last dictator to rule in Western Europe. His tomb sits inside an overbearing granite basilica built to gargantuan scale with the forced labour of his imprisoned enemies.

It was hard to read the inscription on the stone bearing his name when I visited last week due to all the flowers. Red roses, yellow irises, white carnations – all left by admirers of ‘the Generalissimo,’ who ruled Spain with an iron rod for 36 years after the end of civil war. 

Yet almost half a century after his death in 1975, the ghost of Franco has risen to haunt today’s bitterly contested and highly unpredictable Spanish election, picking at long-buried scars from the nation’s bloodstained past.

For the Socialist prime minister expected to win today’s election wants to move Franco’s remains – and this has helped stoke a surge in support for a far-Right group called Vox in a country long thought to be immune to such populism after recent dark memories of dictatorship.

‘I think this move is a very bad idea,’ said Isabel Vargas-Zuniga, a 22-year-old law student visiting the tomb as mist and rain cloaked the site last week. ‘You should not bother the dead and we should not play with history.’

She was with her friend Juan Bosco, 30, who works in property, and he said he would be switching his vote to Vox. ‘I like them because they are brave and say the things lots of other people think but don’t dare say. They don’t follow political correctness.’

Such enthusiasm has helped Vox shoot from near-obscurity to mounting a strong challenge to the traditional conservative party from which it emerged and which was in government until last year. Polls predict Vox could win up to 40 seats in parliament.

One newspaper found its leader Santiago Abascal – who packs a pistol and talks about ‘reconquest’ of Spain in a deliberate echo of the drive by medieval monarchs to defeat the Muslim Moors – to be the most popular choice for prime minister.

About a third of Vox support comes from younger voters like Bosco – generations that, as one political analyst pointed out, were raised amid the flag-waving and feel-good patriotism of Spanish football triumphs in top international tournaments.

‘They are reclaiming the flag and saying you can be happy to be Spanish,’ said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, an expert on populism and senior policy fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. ‘The question, is how far can they go?

‘Their rallies are very happy, not like angry Nuremberg rallies. This is what makes them so interesting – and potentially dangerous.’

So will this fascinating contest, in a political landscape pockmarked by corruption and rocked by the country’s richest region, Catalonia, trying to secede, see the populist Right march into one of its final European frontiers: the 350-seat Spanish parliament?

Vox was launched only six years ago when Abascal quit the conservative People’s Party (PP), which traces its roots back to its foundation by Francoist ministers after the restoration of democracy.

He pushes a similar agenda to other Western nationalist politicians – including demands for deportation of tens of thousands of undocumented migrants, and a wall around Spain’s enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, funded by Morocco.

Critics accuse the party of bigotry and hate – and it has had to sack candidates for Holocaust-denial and homophobia. Others standing include two retired generals who signed a letter defending Franco when moving his remains was first mooted.

The party enthusiastically defends hunting and bull-fighting, and a former matador is on its list of candidates. In another sign of how Spanish politics is fracturing, a small animal rights party seeking to end the ‘sport’ is also predicted to win seats.

They join a crowded field that shows the shattering of Spain’s old two-party system. First, the Left splintered after the 2008 financial crisis hit the nation with such force, with the arrival of the far-Left Podemos. Now it seems to be the turn of the Right.

There are many reasons for Vox’s rise beyond immigration, especially its forceful response to Catalonia’s recent bid for independence, but the party seized with glee on the divisive plan to exhume Franco in Spain’s bitterest election in decades.

Ironically, the furore sparked a surge in visitors to the Valley of The Fallen, the vast and vainglorious monument that includes remains of more than 33,000 others killed in the Civil War in unmarked graves alongside the victor who sparked the conflict.

The site was commissioned by Franco in 1940, the year after the Civil War ended, in what he called ‘a national act of atonement’. Supporters such as his great-grandson argue it represents ‘reconciliation between the two Spains’ – but few others agree.

Some half a million people died in the Civil War – and almost half were slaughtered far from battlefields. It is thought Franco’s forces killed three times as many civilians as their Republican enemies on the Left.

Pedro Sanchez, the Socialist prime minister, is using the issue – just like Vox – to leverage votes in his country’s version of the culture wars seen across the West. 

He says the dictator’s remains will be dug up in June unless thwarted by the courts. ‘Vox is the only party that can stop it,’ said Pilar Gutierrez, the daughter of Franco’s planning minister and president of Movimiento por Espana, which wants the Church to beatify the late dictator. ‘We have an obligation to defend a person who was good for us.

‘Franco doesn’t just belong to his family. He belongs to all the Spanish people who admire him and honour him and do not want this exhumation to take place.’

Clearly the views of a woman who calls her cat Caudillo – the Spanish equivalent of the German word Fuhrer – lie firmly on the political fringe. Yet it was striking how often the subject of the Civil War and Franco came up in my conversations about the election.

When I asked Isabel, the young lawyer I met beside Franco’s tomb, how she was voting, she told a tale about her great-grandmother being gang-raped by international recruits for the Republicans in the Civil War to explain why she would never vote for the Left.

Later, visiting the town of El Ejido in southern Spain, a group of friends chatting on the street – all former agricultural workers in their 70s – argued over both Franco’s legacy and today’s politics when I asked about the election.

‘I like Vox,’ said Francisco, 75, a farmer. ‘They are very good and descended from the ideas of Franco, who made this country work. We had nothing in this town – no water, no houses. He helped ordinary people and it’s a lie that he killed people.’

His friend Jose snorted with derision, saying he disliked Vox and its values. ‘Franco was very bad. There are lots of dead bodies under us,’ he said, pointing to paving stones beneath our feet. ‘They are buried from here to Almeria.’

This sprawling town, 20 miles from Almeria, was at the heart of Vox’s breach of Spain’s far-Right taboo when the party unexpectedly won 11 per cent of the vote in regional elections in Andalusia last December.

It came top in El Ejido – where one restaurant features pictures of Franco on its walls – with almost one third of the vote.

Wandering around as a weekend fiesta began, it was not hard to find supporters. ‘I have already voted for Vox by post,’ said Abdullah Mohad, a father of six running a sweet stall. ‘They speak clearly and say what everyone really says behind backs.’

Mohad said he switched from the Socialist Party along with many friends. When I asked why, he talked about pandering to ‘terrorists’ in the Basque and Catalan regions, reflecting local resentment over preferential treatment for these places.

El Ejido sits amid the ‘Sea of Plastic’, thousands of ugly greenhouses that scar the glorious mountain foothills beside the Mediterranean. They are filled with migrants from Africa tending rows of fruit and veg.

These workers told me they often slaved away for seven days a week in sweltering temperatures for less than £700 a month. ‘We are not happy. We are paid so little and the work is so hard,’ said Omar, from Gambia.

Vox wants tighter migration controls and restrictions on public expressions of Islam in its manifesto. Its leader has also raged against ‘NGOs that collaborate with mafias and go to the African coast to collect human trade’.

Yet despite a surge in migrant numbers landing on Spanish shores last year after Italy tightened controls, with 160 a day arriving on average, studies indicate this is much less of an issue than in other front line European states.

The elderly farmer Francisco was the only person I found who had concerns on this front, claiming there were too many workshy undocumented migrants – although he also admitted employing two Africans in his own greenhouses for €40 (£34.50) a day. Vox also plays for the traditional Catholic vote with opposition to Leftist gender equality laws, same-sex marriage and abortion.

Abascal joined fellow far-Right leader Marine Le Pen on her failed French election campaign two years ago. There are signs its rise has pulled other parties to the Right.

Pablo Casado, 38, the conservative PP leader, has taken a tougher line on immigration, talks about abortion and turned fierce fire on Left-wing supporters of Catalan ‘coup-mongers’. He has also indicated he could be open to a coalition deal with Vox.

Further along the coast in Cadiz, the Vox list of candidates for election is headed by Augustin Rosety Fernandez de Castro, a naval veteran and one of hundreds of former military chiefs who signed the manifesto defending Franco.

He told a local paper: ‘I am outraged that people want to exhume a body against family wishes for ideological reasons. Francisco Franco had a long history of service to the nation and forms part of the tradition of our armed forces.’

The 71-year-old proclaims on his Twitter page: ‘Spaniards. The nation is in danger. Come and defend it!’ Last week he used his social media platform to call Gibraltar a ‘parasite’ and accuse its residents of being tax-dodgers.

Vox denies it is pandering to Spain’s despotic past. ‘We are liberal on economics and conservative on moral questions,’ said Ivan Espinosa, one of its leaders. ‘We have no memory of Franco.’

Juan Montabes, professor of political science at Granada University, said there had always been a slice of the Spanish population nostalgic for Franco. ‘The extreme Right-wing in Spain smelt of the past.’

He said Vox refreshed the cause by fusing anger over Catalonia with tensions on migration, fuelled by the smart use of social media. ‘It mixes those two issues up and has an anti-political discourse attractive to a lot of young people.’

Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy remains a tribute to its people. But today we will discover if plans to dig up a dictator’s body has helped inflame the far-Right again – and if the populist surge continues its march across Europe.

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