Election resurrects memory of Spanish dictator

VOX RALLY: Attendees wave Spanish national flags and Vox flags during a Vox party rally in Barcelona, Spain, on March 30. Angel Garcia/Bloomberg

On his deathbed, the Generalissimo wanted God to forgive his sins and his subjects to "keep the lands of Spain united."

Francisco Franco shut the country out of the 1968 revolution and the conception of the European Union while keeping a brutal lid on its multiple identities. After he whispered his final wish in the fall of 1975, Spain rushed to make up for lost time.

This young democracy went from a Roman Catholic dictatorship to embracing gay marriage in just a generation and its largely agricultural economy became a European powerhouse that plunged in and out of a global financial crisis.

But it wasn't equipped to handle the dizzying pace of change. Somewhere along the way, Spain's political system broke and the separatist forces that Franco suppressed are running amok. On Sunday, disenchanted voters head back to the polls for the fourth time in as many years hoping for an end to the deadlock.

Spaniards often bristle when foreign reporters trace their country's problems to the Civil War and the subsequent Franco regime that collaborated with Germany's Adolf Hitler during World War II. They say it's all in the past.

But Franco is everywhere in this election.

Last month, there was non-stop media coverage of his remains being dug up from a mountain mausoleum outside Madrid and carried by helicopter to a more low-key burial site in the capital. It became instant fodder in an election campaign that was picking up steam.

For many Socialists, the exhumation of the dictator is the signature achievement of acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who's been struggling for more than a year to exert control over a fragmented legislature.

"Spain arose out of forgiveness, but it must not forget," Sanchez said. "This decision brings to an end a moral outrage in the form of the glorification of the figure of a dictator in a public space."

Yet the nationalists of Vox, wrapped in the Spanish flag, are nostalgic for the traditions of the Franco years. They stand to benefit from a public backlash to the Catalan independence movement. Polls suggest they may double their 24 seats in only their second national ballot.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal accuses Sanchez of looking for "an excuse to rewrite history" and pandering to the Catalan separatists out of political necessity.

For the Catalan separatists, who tried to break up the country in 2017, the current chaos is fertile ground to push their claims for statehood. Franco stamped out the issue for a generation when he executed the man who proclaimed a Catalan state in 1934.

For most of the post-Franco era, Spain had a classic two-party system common in western democracies. The People's Party defended traditional values, while the Socialists pushed the envelope on social change. But as a result of the Catalan crisis, there are now five main parties that makes the coalition-building much harder.

Sanchez was able to oust his center-right rival with a brief alliance with the Catalan separatists. Now he's uncomfortably dependent on them. When violence flared after their leaders were convicted for sedition, he promised a firm reaction but didn't follow through.

That would have cost him votes in Catalonia, a traditional stronghold for the Socialists. In the rest of the country, he risks losing votes for appearing too soft. It's a far cry from Franco's time, when the Catalan and Basque languages were effectively outlawed.

Over the decades, Catalan parties turned themselves into kingmakers by cutting deals with either party, negotiating the transfer of power and money to their region in exchange for votes in the national parliament.

It made short-term political sense but had the effect of hollowing out the Spanish state. And the demands from the separatists just kept growing. The slow, steady slide toward fundamentalism has left the country basically ungovernable.

The Catalans have joined blocking majorities against both the left and the right over the past 18 months while the historic divisions between the PP and the Socialists have ruled out a German-style grand coalition.

In all this, the PP has purged its legacy of corruption, a Catalan revolution has come and gone, and a party of pro-market centrists called Ciudadanos rose from nowhere to almost win power and then imploded. Podemos, an anti-establishment movement that cropped up as result of the financial crisis, is also losing steam.

And yet, the question remains: what sort of country do voters want to live in?

Sanchez offers a vision of a plural, inclusive Scandinavian-style society while glossing over how he intends to pay for it. Under Pablo Casado, the PP has sketched out a Thatcherite revival. In the here and now, Spain's political tribes are still just butting heads as the world moves on without them.

For Sebastian Balfour, who teachers history at the London School of Economics, the empty rhetoric about Franco is pure diversion by a political class who doesn't know how to address issues such as chronic youth unemployment and job security.

"You don't see a lot of effort to address the real concerns that people have," he said. "There are a lot of new grievances, especially among the younger generations."

But for politicians on a permanent election footing, it's easier to talk about the dead guy.

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