By Jamie Dettmer
The rhetoric would not have been out of place in the Spanish parliament in the early 1930s when monarchists and nationalists assailed a Popular Front coalition government consisting of Communists, Socialists and Catalan separatists in the run-up to Spain’s civil war.
Launching a no-confidence debate midweek on the Socialist-led minority government of Pedro Sánchez, Santiago Abascal, leader of the country’s ultra-nationalist Vox party, attacked what he described as the “totalitarian agenda” of “a socialist-communist popular front.”
The echo of the past was purposeful in a debate that was meant to be focused on the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Spain’s left-leaning El Pais newspaper. The newspaper dubbed the speech an “unacceptable regression back to a time of obscurantism, intolerance and closed societies.”
Sánchez survived the no-confidence vote, thanks to Spain’s center-right parties deciding not to back Vox in its bid to unseat the minority government. In the wake of his parliamentary win, Sánchez appealed Friday to Spaniards to pull together to overcome the daunting challenges the country faces, with the coronavirus being the most pressing.
“The situation is serious,” he said.
The country’s official tally of coronavirus cases is now more than one million, and the International Monetary Fund is predicting Spain’s economy will contract by around 13 percent this year, plunging it into its worst recession since the civil war of the 1930s.
Few analysts believe his appeal for unity will be heeded by his opponents. The central government has clashed for weeks with regional authorities over coronavirus measures.
A bitter feud between the government and the right-wing opposition over imposing tighter restrictions on the capital Madrid is adding to fears in some European quarters that the pandemic is straining the country’s political stability.
And history is playing a significant role in the country’s disunity, say analysts.
Spain has long been bitterly divided over its past, with partisans from left and right stoking historical controversies, arguing over the rights and wrongs of the country’s civil war, one steeped in civilian bloodshed and betrayals. The conflict, won by Gen. Francisco Franco’s nationalists, with the assistance of Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy, was a major geopolitical flashpoint of its day, drawing in the Soviet Union, which supplied arms to the Republican government.
After Franco’s death in 1975, the country’s politicians agreed to avoid confronting painful questions about Spain’s recent past for fear of undermining “national reconciliation.” The so-called pact of forgetting was an attempt to leave the past behind. But the war, and Franco’s dictatorship, is again oozing poison into the country’s already toxic politics.
Historical controversies are framing current disputes over judicial reform, the future of the monarchy, the relationship between the central government and the regions. Left and right are accusing each other of trying to weaponize history.
Sánchez is pressing on with plans to excavate more than 2,000 mass graves across Spain to exhume and identify victims of Franco’s nationalists. Last year, the right reacted with anger when the Sánchez government dug up Franco’s remains 44 years after his death, removing them from the Valley of the Fallen, a sprawling basilica just outside of Madrid, against the wishes of his family and after a long legal battle.
The government has unveiled a raft of new measures aimed at addressing the legacy of the Civil War, including banning associations that glorify the late dictator’s memory, including the Francisco Franco Foundation, and altering the way Francoism is taught in Spanish schools so there is no idea of symmetric responsibility for the conflict or atrocities.
“Our young people need to know where we come from. They need knowledge about what must never happen again,” according to deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo. “This is an important law for the government, but also for Spanish democracy,” she said last month.
Conservative politicians accuse the government of trying to use historical memory to distract from what they say is mismanagement of the pandemic. And they have been responding in kind, threatening to do away with monuments honoring Socialists.
This week, the Madrid authorities ordered the removal of a plaque commemorating Francisco Largo Caballero, the Socialist who led the Republican government in 1936. Largo Caballero fled Spain in 1939, dying in exile in Paris in 1946.
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional head, who has sought to defy the government on locking down the city, has accused Pedro Sánchez of “trying to change this country through the back door.” And partly using history to do so.
But the leader of Podemos, and Spain’s deputy prime minister for social affairs, Pablo Iglesias, says the pact of forgetting should be buried so that the country can advance “on the basis of republican principles toward a new social and political pact in Spain that better resembles the reality in our country.”