On the anniversary of Franco’s death, Spain elected a centre-right government but that doesn’t mean its far-right ghosts have been exorcised entirely.
Thursday 1 December 2011
On 20 November 1975, Spain’s fascist dictator General Francisco Franco was pronounced dead. On that same day 36 years later, Spaniards went to the polls for a general election in which, unlike elsewhere in Europe, the far right was almost nowhere to be seen. But that doesn’t mean the country’s right-wing ghosts have been laid to rest entirely.
Viewed in a certain light – and especially through a myopic leftist lens – the centre-right People’s Party’s landslide victory on the anniversary of Franco’s death could be seen as an ironic twist of fate, a disquieting rise of the phoenix. The party was, after all, founded by a former minister in Franco’s government and many of its elderly voters were supporters of the regime. Now the PP, led by Mariano Rajoy (who, interestingly, was born less than 100 kilometres from Franco’s birthplace in Galicia in north-western Spain), will have sweeping powers to pass laws and institute reforms.
In the run-up to election day, no one wanted to make too obvious the link between the dates – though it was evidently in the back of at least some voters’ and politicians’ minds. A few pundits boldly claimed that the socialist government had picked the date for the early election precisely to remind voters of Spain’s right-wing past and to discourage support for the PP. That suspicion was only underscored when socialist candidate Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba appealed to voters in an interview two days ahead of the election to prevent the right from taking “absolute power”.
For their own sake, the socialists have often pandered to Spaniards’ willingness to associate the PP with the party’s fascist roots, and outgoing Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero frequently cites his grandfather, who was shot by Franco’s firing squads, as his inspiration for going into politics.
But for all the theatrics, no one but the most die-hard leftists would seriously consider the PP to be a far-right party today. Yes, its policies on immigration, gay rights, abortion and other social issues are conservative, but they are not extremist. Yes, like Franco’s old party the Falange, the PP is traditionalist and Catholic, but it is not fundamentalist. And, yes, the PP has far-right fanatics among its supporters and voters, but it has rarely pandered to them explicitly.
Soft-spoken and notoriously indecisive, Rajoy, for his part, is hardly a reincarnation of the hard-line regime figures of the past. Neither is he a Spanish version of Marine Le Penn, the openly xenophobic rising star of France’s National Front, nor a Geert Wilders, the overtly anti-Islamic leader of the Dutch Freedom Party. That in itself begs a question: If Rajoy isn’t one of them, where are those far-right characters in Spain? In a country with the euro zone’s highest unemployment rate, a weak economy and a large number of immigrants, where are the Le Penns, the Wilders, the Umberto Bossis and the Timo Soinis?
The closest match is Josep Anglada, the leader of Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC), a far-right xenophobic party that sprung out of almost nowhere in local elections in May to win 65,000 votes, returning 67 councillors, 50 more than in the previous elections. But Anglada’s party only has a presence in Catalonia, and, despite fears to the contrary, its one-off success has not yet triggered the rise of like-minded parties in other regions or nationally. Notably, in the 20 November general election, the PxC garnered fewer than 60,000 votes, 5,000 less than in May.
Other far-right parties, especially those striving for nationwide appeal, are, frankly, little more than a joke. España 2000, an anti-immigrant nationalist party led by José Luis Roberto, a lawyer and former legal advisor to an association of brothel owners, picked up just over 9,000 votes in the election – equivalent to 0.03% of the total. Falange Española de las JONS, which considers itself the rightful successor to Franco’s old party, won less than 3,000 votes, down from 14,000 in 2008. And Democracia Nacional, which advocates halting immigration, leaving the European Union and reinstating the peseta, gained less than 2,000.
In total (and including the PxC), the number of votes for explicitly far-right parties in Spain amounted to less than 0.3% of all votes cast nationwide – hardly a figure to lose any sleep over. In fact, single-issue parties, such as the Partido Pirata, a Spanish offshoot of Sweden’s Pirate Party, which advocates legalising downloading copyrighted material from the internet, and PACMA, which wants tougher legislation to protect animals from mistreatment, did considerably better than most far-right groups. They won 25,000 and 100,000 votes respectively.
Far-right parties’ lack of appeal reflects two features of Spanish history and politics. Firstly, Spain’s fascist past is still relatively fresh in voters’ minds: few Spaniards will lend an ear to the messages of blatant right-wingers, let alone take them seriously. And, secondly, the PP – for better or for worse – has managed over the years to attract the votes of people who might otherwise look for more extreme alternatives.
It may turn Spanish leftists’ stomachs to know that right-wingers held a traditional mass and homage to General Franco at his tomb at Valle de Caidos outside Madrid on 20 November as voters handed power to a party that was born from the ashes of his regime. But perhaps they should take solace in the fact that though the PP may have far-right elements inside it, it also has many moderate conservatives and staunch democrats.
Under José María Aznar, the party ran Spain between 1996 and 2004 during a period of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity (not, it has to be said, entirely of its own doing), and its landslide election victory on 20 November was due less to Spanish voters wanting to bring the right to power than to punishing the ineffectual socialists. With Rajoy remaining mysteriously enigmatic about his plans, no one knows for sure what the coming years will bring. But surely, the devil you know is still better than the devil you don’t.
This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andrew Eatwell. Read more Andrew Eatwell at Iberosphere.