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Spain’s turning point on the road from Franco

Supporters gather outside of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workerss Party) headquarters in Madrid. Photo by Legan P. Mace/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images - Credit: LightRocket via Getty Images

The Spanish election marked a major turning point for the country’s relatively young democracy, as it emerges from Franco’s shadow, says PAUL KNOTT. But its future path is not yet certain.

The 24 seats won by Vox in Spain’s general election last weekend made it the first openly far-right party to enter parliament since the country’s transition to democracy, which followed the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

But Vox’s 10% share of the vote was below expectations and does not represent a new strand of opinion in Spanish politics. The real story is the splintering of the right, the success of the left and the need for Spain to enter a new era after the largely successful early decades of its modern democracy.

Vox stood on a platform of dismantling equality and a series of established rights for women and gay people. It expresses virulently anti-Muslim propaganda and has called for a new ‘Reconquista’ of Spain.

This is a somewhat bizarre attempt to connect today’s mostly working-class immigrants to the once-powerful Moorish rulers expelled in the 15th century, whose legacy in ancient cities such as Cordoba and Granada are amongst the greatest glories of Iberian civilisation.

The party is also aggressively Eurosceptic, pro-bullfighting, anti-regional autonomy and advocates reducing taxes on the rich.

Although it attempts to present itself as a new force, many of Vox’s personnel, including its leader Santiago Abascal, are really refugees who have splintered off from the fringes of Spain’s main right-of-centre party, the Popular Party (PP).

There is nothing new either about a small percentage of Spanish voters hankering for the ultra-conservative nationalism of the Franco period. Such views were always present but previously subsumed within the PP.

PP leader Pablo Casado’s efforts during the election campaign to recapture this lost far-right support by adopting elements of Vox’s agenda proved catastrophic. His party lost over half of its previous 136 seats.

Rather than being a threat, the fact that such a reactionary programme was openly offered for the first time in decades and resoundingly rejected by the vast majority of the electorate probably did Spanish democracy a service.

A core part of the pact agreed between all of Spain’s main democratic forces during the post-Franco transition was to let bygones be bygones. There was no ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission or formal reckoning with the issues of the recent past.

Instead, parties of the left, such as the Socialists (PSOE) and Communists, were legalised and allowed to participate fully in the democratic process, while those on the right who carried inheritances from the Francoist regime were allowed to carry on largely unquestioned.

This approach proved to be a stunning success. The final Francoist spasm came with a failed coup attempt in 1981. Otherwise, Spain’s progress in securing its democracy and bringing much greater freedom to the lives of many its people, particularly women, was rapid and remarkable.

Prosperity increased as the country emerged from being a faded, dusty backwater into a dynamic modern economy. The distinct nations within Spain, notably Catalonia and the Basque country, were granted considerable autonomy, although violent Basque separatism continued to be a problem until more recently.

Spain’s accession to the EU in 1986 played a significant part in these positive changes. The European rules and values to which Spain was required to adhere provided a crucial framework for its development. The substantial funds it was allocated to improve its infrastructure helped as well.

But this era of entrenching Spain’s democracy is now over. While the far right was emphatically defeated this time, it has nonetheless emerged from the shadows to which it was previously confined within the PP and gained its own foothold.

The wider right includes another relatively new party, Cuidadanos, which won 55 seats in the new parliament. This fragmentation means that right-of-centre and nationalistically inclined voters are now up for grabs. There is no guarantee that the extremists will not find ways to attract more of them the next time around.

As memories of the Franco dictatorship fade and those born after it ended become the majority of the electorate, Spain’s pragmatic handling of its past has the potential to become a problem.

A lack of accounting for the abuses, iniquities and failures of fascism increases the opportunity for the far right to indulge in myth-making about it to bolster its support.

The Socialist Party (PSOE) of re-elected prime minister Pedro Sánchez has shown signs of recognising this problem and the need for a new approach. Although Sánchez did not win an absolute majority, he has significantly improved the position of the precarious minority government over which he previously presided.

PSOE is likely to be supported by the biggest grouping to its left, the Unidas Podemos alliance of the United Left and Podemos parties. It should also receive the tacit backing of most of the Basque and Catalan groupings in parliament, who are repelled by the anti-autonomy right.

PSOE’s stronger, although still slim, mandate gives Sánchez more scope to tackle some of Spain’s democratic renewal and dark political legacy issues.

Perhaps the most symbolic and politically fraught of these matters is the relocation of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen monument near Madrid which glorifies his regime.

This step will require careful management but is necessary to reduce the site’s significance as a rallying point for the far right.

The Catalan issue is even more delicate and has done much to fan the flames of nationalism around Spain since the disputed October 2017 referendum on independence for Catalonia. It is also of more direct and greater immediate significance to the lives of many Spanish citizens.

PSOE’s re-election provides a much-needed opportunity to take the heat out of the Catalan situation. Unlike his centre right opponents in the PP and Cuidadanos, Sánchez has carefully preserved some room for negotiation with Catalonia by keeping his rhetoric measured.

The strong performance in the 
election of the pro-independence but conciliatory Catalonian Republican Left party will help him. As will Sánchez’s government no longer being as dependent on the more strident Catalan nationalists for its survival as it was before the election, which the nationalists’ withdrawal of support precipitated.

This outcome creates a narrow but workable chance to reopen Spain’s post-dictatorship autonomy agreements. If the opportunity is taken, the aim will be to produce a new deal that can convince a majority of Catalans to stay within Spain’s federal structure, without alienating too many other Spanish citizens in the process.

Spain and prime minister Sánchez still have a treacherous path to tread as the country enters its new era. But the defeat, for now, of the right-wing parties who risked throwing Spain’s post-dictatorship advances into reverse and deepening confrontation with its autonomous nations means that the route to renewed progress remains open.

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