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Eighty years after Franco took power, Spain riled by re-emergence of far right

By Les Whittington      

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal, a Trumpish anti-immigration nationalist, could be the possible kingmaker in a national election in a few weeks.

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal. His party won in several districts in a regional election in Spain in December. Photograph courtesy of HazteOir.org
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MALAGA, Spain—It was in this heavily populated, sun-drenched part of Spain east of Gibraltar that an ultra-conservative political party recently emerged on the national scene for the first time in four decades.

Wins in several districts in a regional election in December by Vox gave it a role in the new coalition government in Andalusia, and catapulted leader Santiago Abascal, a Trumpish anti-immigration nationalist, into the position of possible kingmaker in a national election in a few weeks.

No far-right party has managed such a role since this country transformed itself into a democracy in 1975. And it comes at a time of intense political tensions as Spaniards try to manage a long-overdue reckoning with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who rose to power in the bloody civil war that ended 80 years ago last week.

Spaniards are in a period of upheaval. Traditional political parties are at risk of being pushed aside in a wave impatience over economic prospects, which have not recovered for average citizens since the 2008-2014 financial crisis. The jobless rate is 14.5 per cent and a recent OECD study found it would take four generations for a low-income Spanish family to move into the middle class.

And, like Canada in the latter decades of the 1900s, national cohesion is threatened by separatism. This breakaway effort in the semi-autonomous northeastern region of Catalonia has created the worst crisis in decades.

Beyond that, the very soul of the country seems to have been exposed by the current Socialist government’s campaign to dampen the troublesome embers of Franco’s 36-year dictatorship.

In late 2017, Spain drew international attention when riot police clashed with Catalan separatists in Barcelona and other cities who staged an independence referendum despite a court ban and later issued a short-lived declaration of independence. The issue remains explosive, with 12 Catalan leaders on trial in Madrid on charges of rebellion and sedition. The trials are dismissed as political sideshows by Catalan separatists.

Nationally, Catalan parties helped centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his PSOE party take power last year in a vote of no-confidence in the previous conservative government. But in February, Sánchez, a 47-year-old economics professor, saw his budget voted down—precipitating an election.

Right-wing and centrist lawmakers voted against the PSOE’s budget in part because they objected to Sánchez’s efforts to find a political accommodation with Catalan separatists. And pro-independence Catalans in parliament deserted the PSOE because they didn’t think Sánchez was going far enough to meet the demands of the separatists.

Vox, an extreme nationalist party in the mode of other European populist movements, has won much of its support through its tough talk about repressing Catalan independence aspirations. Speaking of making Spain great again, Abascal and his associates want to outlaw pro-independence parties and end the country’s decentralized governance system.

Vox has also talked about banning all far-left parties, looser gun controls, expelling tens of thousands of “illegal immigrants” and opposing “radical feminists.” Among Vox’s election candidates, there will be no “trendy lefties, communists, separatists, or wimps,” Abascal tweeted.

And in a symbolic evocation of the traditional Catholic values and nationalist themes linked to Spain’s fascist past, the party is against Sánchez’s plan to exhume Franco’s body in June from its current burial place in a grandiose, cross-bedecked crypt the dictator commissioned called “the Valley of the Fallen.” Moving Franco’s remains from a site many see as a monument glorifying fascism to a regular cemetery in the Madrid suburbs is part of current efforts to finally come to terms with the horrors of Spain’s civil war and its aftermath.

A reminder emerged a few weeks ago when heavy rains uncovered a mass grave in a Madrid cemetery containing the remains of 3,000 people believed to be victims of the Franco regime.

Spain still has an estimated 100,000 people buried in unmarked pits and roadside ditches. Many are civilians executed during the war, plus an estimated 20,000 executed in Franco’s clampdown on dissent and political opposition after he assumed office in 1939.

Responding to criticism that Spain has covered up and ignored the atrocities of that period in its efforts to entrench post-Franco democracy, the Sánchez government has put its authority behind the search for missing victims of the Franco regime and will for the first time create an official census of these dead and civil war casualties.

“It is unacceptable for Spain to continue to be the second country after Cambodia with the largest number of missing people,” Justice Minister Dolores Delgado said when announcing the new search.

But, as with much else in Spain today, this effort hinges on the outcome of the April 28 election.

Les Whittington is an Ottawa journalist and a regular contributor to The Hill Times.

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