Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, who rose to power in 1936 though a military uprising that ended the Spanish Civil War, passed away over four decades ago. In the weeks leading up to his death in 1975, international news outlets reported daily about the Spanish dictator “still being alive.” Then, after his death, Saturday Night Live mocked the weeks-long reports of the dictator’s impending death by intoning that Franco “is still dead.”
Franco may be dead, but his ghost still haunts Spanish politics today.
Over the last year, the upstart right-wing, neo-Francoist party Vox emerged in regional and national elections. Through Vox, Franco’s ghost not only haunts the left but also Spain’s mainstream conservative Popular Party (PP), whose founders include mid-level officials from the Franco government.
Rise of Vox
In December last year, Vox won nearly a quarter of votes in a regional election in Andalucía, having won merely 3.2 percent three years earlier. In April, it gained 10.3 percent in the national election, and while this was well short of its 25 percent goal, it was the first time since 1982 that an extreme right party entered the Spanish parliament. Additionally, Vox would hold the balance of power in several regional governments, including Madrid.
Like other right-populist movements, Vox appeals to voters left behind by technological change and neoliberal globalization, defending bullfighting, gun ownership, and a moral economy defined in traditional patriarchal terms, including opposition to abortion, euthanasia, LGBT rights, and secularization.
The party’s regional strongholds include Aragon, a region with high unemployment and many empty villages, described in one analysis as “Spanish Ohio.” Where Vox holds the balance of power between Spain’s left and center-right parties, it insists that its partners scale back programs for immigrants, curtail visible LGBT celebrations, and reduce programs to curb violence and harassment against women, which Vox claims discriminate against men.
Vox and Spain’s Past
Vox plays down but does not deny its links to fascism and the Franco past. Like Franco’s nationalists, the party sees the Spanish Civil War as an extension of the Reconquista, the crusade by Catholic monarchs to take Iberia away from its Moorish rulers. This centuries-long epoch culminated in 1492 when the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the Moors and Jews, the same year that Columbus reached America and inaugurated the Conquista of America.
The wealth extracted from the New World made possible Spain’s “glorious century,” when Charles V and Phillip II made the country the first Western global hegemon. It is no accident that Franco’s grand mausoleum lies close to the equally massive Escorial Palace, built 400 years ago during Spain’s “glorious century” by King Philip II to commemorate his father.
Spain to exhume dictator Francisco Franco's body from mausoleum seen by many as a monument to fascism; his body will be reburied next to his wife in family tomb at a state cemetery (Photo credit: Reuters) pic.twitter.com/jy0w8mBC7C
— CBC News Alerts (@CBCAlerts) March 15, 2019
Now Vox’s anti-immigration policies, defense of conservative moral values, and resistance to unearthing Franco’s atrocities are ideologically bundled together by a vow to restore Spain “greatness” by returning it to the frontlines of defending “Western Civilization.”
Javier Ortega Smith, Vox’s secretary-general, neatly expressed this synthesis in a speech to the European Parliament in March. He scolded protesting feminist Deputies that without the victory of Catholic monarchs over the Moors, the imperial expansion, and the defeat of Ottoman forces at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, “all the ladies in this room would be wearing burkas.”
As it glorifies European “civilization,” Vox relies less on Euroscepticism and more on opposition to Catalan independence. But its reprisal of Franco’s suppression of Catalonian, Basque, and Galician languages and cultural traditions is too much for most Spaniards. Most of them regard regional autonomy as integral to defining their country. Vox’s plans to cut funds supporting bi-lingual education and culture play badly in Galicia and the Basque region, where its conservatism might otherwise appeal.
Spain’s most fearless Franco ghostbusters are drawn from the ranks of women. A viral photo of the leaders of the PP, the neoliberal Ciudadanos party, and Vox standing shoulder-to-shoulder before 50,000 rabid supporters in the capital inspired massive protests and a successful women’s strike in March. Women know – and some can personally remember – that females who stepped out of line in the Franco era had their heads shaved.
Not in Spain
“Everywhere else, death is an end,” observed poet Federico Garcia Lorca 1933, three years before Franco’s forces assassinated him. “Death comes, and they draw the curtains. Not in Spain. In Spain they open them … A dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man … [h]is profile wounds like the edge of a barber’s razor.”
Perhaps Franco is more alive today than he was at his death, thanks in part to Vox.
Still, perhaps Spain is all the better because Franco’s ghost cannot be interred with his body, even in a less glorious tomb. His vainglorious colossus will stand to remind Spaniards that it must make a reckoning with the past if it is to remain a country whose “greatness” is defined by welcoming immigrants, tolerance of difference, social solidarity, and gender equality.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.