- - Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Can a dead man — even a dead dictator whose legacy remains fiercely contested to this day — break the paralyzing gridlock in one of Europe’s key countries? An exhumation intended to boost the fortunes of Spain’s leftist parties may be having the opposite effect.

In a move that sparked a fierce national debate, Spain’s socialist government executed its long-planned relocation of the remains of former right-wing dictator Francisco Franco from the country’s main memorial commemorating the brutal 1936-1939 civil war to a more discreet resting place last week.

The event was meant to impress the far left, whose votes Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez needs to win Nov. 10 national elections. But the move may have backfired, causing outrage among conservative Spaniards who believe Franco saved Spain from communism and say the leftist government has dishonored that achievement.

Franco was resting in a massive granite mausoleum carved into a mountainside outside Madrid called Valley of the Fallen since his death in 1975 put an end to 40 years of conservative, autocratic rule. While demonized by leftists, his regime shaped modern Spain and gave way to a democratic transition under a constitutional monarchy.

With April’s elections forcing the Socialists to rule as a minority government and looming elections to break the gridlock, Mr. Sanchez said before the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month that no democracy could tolerate a dictator’s glorification in a public space.

Critics saw the move as part of an electoral strategy to rally the left around Mr. Sanchez’s shaky minority government in the run-up to the vote as the country faces economic recession and violent separatism in its richest regions.

“The Socialists kick off their campaign by desecrating tombs, unearthing hatred and undermining the monarchy,” said Santiago Abascal, leader of the growing far-right Vox party, which supported efforts by Franco’s family to block the exhumation.

An upstart party with no parliamentary presence until this year, Vox mobilized conservative populist voters by campaigning against illegal African immigration and with visceral denunciations of an independence movement in Catalonia.

Mr. Abascal once argued that Franco’s memory inhibited growth of the far right, but backlash against his exhumation has moved some more centrist voters his party’s way.

Mr. Sanchez “is playing with Franco’s bones to divide Spaniards between reds and blues for electoral purposes,” said Albert Rivera of the centrist Ciudadanos party.

Appearing before the press as Franco’s coffin was airlifted on live television, Mr. Sanchez justified his timing of his move: “We said from the beginning that the exhumation would be at the first possible moment, and this was the moment.”

The coffin was flown to a smaller mausoleum in a cemetery near Franco’s old official residence, where hundreds of admirers gathered to render homage. They flashed fascist salutes, waved flags bearing the Franco regime’s imperial eagle, sang his civil war battle hymn “Face the Sun” and shouted insults against Mr. Sanchez.

Franco’s grandsons stirred further controversy by saying government agents tried to block them from taking video of the inhumation.

Mr. Sanchez did little to soothe frazzled nerves by offering to unearth remains of thousands of civil war casualties buried at Valley of the Fallen, apparently against the will of their descendants.

Left’s banner issue

Unearthing civil war skeletons has become a banner issue for the far-left Unidas Podemos (UP) party, whose leader, Pablo Iglesias, has said there are more mass graves in Spain than Cambodia and has called for a purge of state institutions.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” Mr. Iglesias said after Franco’s exhumation. “The remains of Franco remain incrusted in the economic oligarchies and parts of the state apparatus from which they must be unearthed forever.”

But Spain’s left is practically imploding after months of inconclusive negotiations between Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Iglesias that degenerated into an open quarrel last month when they failed to reach agreement on forming a coalition government.

The UP lost almost half its parliamentary seats in May elections and could suffer further setbacks in November with a breakaway faction on a separate ticket.

Sanchez thought he could attract disoriented far-left voters by grandstanding on Franco,” said William Ogilvie, a political science professor in Madrid.

But Mr. Sanchez may have miscalculated. Opinion studies in the exhumation’s aftermath show the Socialists dropping below the third of the votes the party received in May elections.

The mainstream conservative Popular Party has showed slight gains, but the main beneficiary appears to be Vox. Support for the far-right party rose from less than 8% before the exhumation to more than 13%, which could turn Vox into the third-largest contingent in parliament.

Mr. Abascal capitalized on backlash and drew wild cheers at a rally held just hours after the exhumation by calling it a “morbid show of trashy television.”

Perceptions of government disrespect and desecration of gravesites also offended deep-seated sensibilities and beliefs of many Spanish Catholics, whose church leaders expressed displeasure despite the Vatican’s support for Mr. Sanchez.

“We are very saddened to see that ideological and political use is being made of such a sensitive matter,” said Auxiliary Bishop Luis Arguello, who presides over Spain’s Episcopal Conference. The abbot of Valley of the Fallen, which doubles as a basilica, called the relocation of Franco’s remains a “sacrilege.”

“Will we see parishes burn again?” said Madrid’s conservative community leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso, reminding Spaniards that 7,000 priests were killed by the leftist Spanish Republic that Franco ultimately defeated.

Reemerging fascist groups, such as Spain 2000, are increasingly taking on leftist militants and Catalan separatists in street scuffles.

Spain 2000 representatives say they are the political heirs of the Falangist movement, a onetime pillar of Franco’s regime that disappeared as political force since his death.

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