Spanish Elections And The Specter Of Franco

"When the wounds of a terroristic dictatorship are still relatively fresh --General Francisco Franco's regime started with a 1936 military coup and ended in 1975, thirty-six years later--any defeat of the far right is doubly important," writes Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
Published:July 25, 2023
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Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

"Spain has been clear. The bloc of devolution, of retrocession, that wants to take back all we have achieved, of machismo, has failed." This is how Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez characterized the results of Sunday's national election. Sánchez had called for this vote after his Socialist party did poorly in recent local and regional elections. Polls and most media outlets had forecast a wave of support for the far-right party Vox and the dominant conservative People's Party. Instead, the election produced a hung parliament, and Vox lost 19 seats.

Now a new government will be formed, with the large left and center-right parties dependent on support from the extremes (Vox on the right, Podemos on the left) and Catalan and Basque separatist parties.

To outsiders, this might seem to be a stalemate, and Spain as just another place riven by noxious polarization. Yet the relief expressed by Sánchez is shared by many. When the wounds of a terroristic dictatorship are still relatively fresh --General Francisco Franco's regime started with a 1936 military coup and ended in 1975, thirty-six years later--any defeat of the far right is doubly important. And Vox’s extreme positions, some of which recall those of that dictatorship, are being normalized every day as Vox governs in partnership with the People's Party in towns and cities around the country.

Pedro Sánchez celebrates victory in Spanish election.
Spanish Prime Minister and head of the Socialist Worker’s Party Pedro Sánchez celebrates the results of the election, Madrid, July 24, 2023. Alejandro Martinez Velez/Europa Press, via Getty Images.

That's why the stakes were high for this electoral contest. "I think it was a fight between moving forward and learning to live with the realities of today, such as the climate crisis, migration, diversity, and getting rights for people who never had them before, vs. going backward, including to the Spain of the dictatorship," the Spanish journalist Guillermo Fesser told me.

So, Spain has had a reprieve. And yet the specter of Franco hangs over the country. Whether it is repression of the left, persecution of gays, media and book censorship, or mass purges of the civil service, Spaniards know the price of the suppression of democracy.

They also have intimate experience with memory politics that encourage people to forget, or whitewash, traumatic histories. This was the "pact of forgetting" (El Pacto del Olvido) forged among elites after Franco's death to ensure a smooth transition from dictatorship. Over time, it created an atmosphere of self-censorship about the massive human rights abuses of the regime, enabling Franco's U.S.-assisted rehabilitation from a hardcore Fascist who gave refuge to Nazis after the war to a supposedly "soft" authoritarian who rescued Spain from Communist apocalypse.

Those who tried to disrupt these narratives were seen as troublemakers. In 2008, the distinguished magistrate Baltasar Garzón (who had prosecuted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet) found little support from his peers when he announced his intention to investigate crimes from the civil war and regime eras. As a former Republican Civil War combatant stated, during and after the dictatorship, “it was more important to forget than to remember."

That's why a Socialist government passed the groundbreaking Historical Memory Law in 2007, which would remove statues of Franco and street names praising protagonists and events of the regime. It also allocated state funds for the identification of victims thrown into mass graves by the regime.

And it's why artist Eugenio Merino made a sculpture of Franco inside a Coca-Cola fridge in 2012 and called it "Always Franco (Siempre Franco) to call attention to the Generalissimo’s continuing influence in Spain. Merino was promptly sued by the Franco Foundation for demeaning Franco's prestige. Interviewed in 2015, the head of that foundation, Jaime Alonso, promoted an extreme version of the denialism that surrounds Franco: far from overthrowing a democracy by staging a coup, Franco was restoring order and protecting "Christian, Western values" from the scourge of Marxism.

Eugenio Merino, “Franco Always/Siempre Franco,” 2012. Image from El Mundo.

Why does this history matter for the 2023 elections? Because Vox and the People's Party would like to repeal the Historical Memory law, placing civic education about the years of dictatorship in jeopardy. It could become more difficult to have exhibitions like the one now on view at Valencia's Museum of Ethnology, which gives the history of mass killings under the Franco regime.

Vox, like far-right parties in the US and elsewhere, also wants to impose censorship of books and curricula, take "ideology" out of schools, and eliminate Spain's Ministry of Equality. It is also ferociously against LGBTQ rights. "They want to go back to a time when diversity existed, but you could not speak of it," said Pau Vendrell, a gay father in Valencia. For Spaniards, this means the Franco dictatorship, when gays were confined in camps, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons and given electroshock treatments to "cure" them.

And while we may be used to far-right propaganda by the GOP and its foreign allies about the "hoax" of the climate emergency, Vox’s desire to remove Spain from the Paris Accords and abolish meteorological agencies (compromising the compiling of climate crisis statistics) recalls the terrible destruction of Spanish science during the regime, when researchers with the wrong political ideas were purged and the extremist Catholic sect Opus Dei policed academic life, setting national science back decades.

We shall see what kind of government materializes in Spain, but the stakes of containing the far-right are clear. What Sánchez calls a "retrograde, reactionary bloc" has a precise historical referent: for too many Spaniards, it is still "Franco Forever." Tellingly, in Merino's work Franco is not a prisoner of the fridge, but a barely-contained malevolent force who continues to haunt the country almost fifty years after his death.