The Guardian • Issue #2065

The failure of the far right in the Spanish elections

Mass Graves and the Brutal Legacy of Francoís Dictatorship

Francisco Franco.

Photo: ad Alerta digital – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The recent Spanish general election is a turning point in the rise of the far right. Polls had predicted that the ultra-nationalist VOX party would win control, the first far-right party to do so since the death in 1975 of the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco.

Founded in 2003, VOX’s ideology is strongly against immigration, advocates stricter law and order policies, and is anti-abortion. The failure of the People’s Party-VOX electoral alliance has made a symbolic impact internationally, questioning any future conservative-far-right alliances in Europe.

Shortly before the elections, forensic archaeologists revealed to the public the mass graves of the political prisoners murdered during Franco’s brutal dictatorship. It was proof that the dictatorship had massacred its opponents. Such graves lay as a stark warning of the far right gaining power.

The conservative People’s Party (PP) of Alberto Núñez Feijóo emerged as a narrow winner with 33 per cent of the vote, but failed to gain the necessary parliamentary majority to govern on its own right. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) secured the second largest vote at 31.7 per cent. VOX had 12.4 per cent, losing more than a third of its seats. The PP has 136 representatives in the Congress of Deputies, the PSOE 122, Vox 33, and Sumar has 31.

With no single party winning enough seats to form a government in the 350-seat legislature, the Catalan and Basque independence parties will hold the balance of power. Parliament will convene in mid-August to select a new prime minister. The parties will then discuss their preferences and abilities to govern with the head of state, King Felipe VI.

The turn away from VOX is in part due to the revelation of mass graves of victims of the Junta. In 2019 Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez organised forensic archaeologists to excavate a mass grave containing the remains of the victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It was part of the healing process to come to terms with the Franco dictatorship, when more than 200,000 people were killed.

In June 2023 forensic scientists exhumed the bodies of 128 of the 40,000 who are buried at the Valley of the Fallen, now known as Valley of Cuelgamuros. A vast mausoleum at the outskirts of Madrid, it was built by Franco after his victory against the Republicans, using forced labour. The Republicans, the elected government, consisted of a coalition of socialist and communist parties. A Catholic Basilica is carved into the hillside with a 150-metre-tall cross above it. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, has called for Franco’s remains to be removed from the monument, which belongs to the Spanish state.

The exhumation of the graves is part of Gogora (Remembrance), the Basque Government’s “Search for missing persons from the Civil War” programme, in conjunction with the Aranzadi Science Society and collaboration from Orduna’s local government. In December 2022 forensic archaeologists had exhumed 53 bodies from shallow graves, dating from 1941, in the Basque town of Orduna. In the first concentration camp, set up from 1937 and 1939, an estimated 225 people died. The camp later became a prison from 1939 to 1941. These excavations are an effort to find the estimated 100,000 people missing since the dictatorship, many of whom lie in unmarked mass graves.

While 200,000 soldiers died in battle, after the end of the Civil War another 50,000 people were executed as “enemies of the state.” Over 500,000 prisoners, were held in 50 concentration camps and prisons. Homosexuals were confined in psychiatric hospitals. There are more than 114,000 people lying in 150 mass graves across Spain.

The White Terror, or la Represión franquista (the Francoist Repression), describes the political repression, executions and rapes, which were carried out by the Nationalists during the Civil War and during the first nine years of the Franco regime. Ideologically, the Roman Catholic Church legitimised the killing by the Civil Guard and the Falange (extreme nationalist political group founded in Spain in 1933) as the defence of “Christendom.” Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

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