By Ciara Nugent
September 24, 2019

More than 44 years after the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, a long-simmering political battle over his resting place may finally be at an end. Spain’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the government can exhume the former leader, against his family’s wishes.

Spain’s congress had approved a controversial plan to remove Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen, a sprawling mausoleum just outside of Madrid, in 2018. Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s centre-left Socialist Party have long argued that the dictator should not lie in a grand public monument, a monument he shares with some 34,000 victims of the three-year civil war he started by overthrowing Spain’s democratically-elected government in 1936. Many of the bodies belong to Franco’s opponents and most have never been identified.

But Franco’s grandchildren mounted legal challenges to both the exhumation and the government’s choice of reburial grounds — a public cemetery on the outskirts of Madrid — arguing that they have a right to choose what to do with their grandfather’s remains.

The court’s controversial ruling comes at a time of political chaos in Spain, just a week after Sánchez was forced to call Spain’s second election of 2019 — and fourth in four years — when he was unable to get enough support in congress to form a government.

Here’s what to know about the controversy over Spain’s exhumation of Franco.

Who was Francisco Franco?

General Francisco Franco led a military uprising against Spain’s government in 1936. The uprising ignited a three-year civil war, during which some 500,000 people died. Franco’s forces won the war and he went on to install a far-right nationalist dictatorship, which he led until his death in 1975.

Early on, Franco’s regime violently repressed political dissent, disappearing 140,000 people in the years during and after the Civil War. In 2008 the regime’s human rights abuses were declared crimes against humanity. The regime also persecuted minorities, tightly censored the media, and imposed strict gender roles on women for decades.

Who wants to exhume Franco?

Sánchez made exhuming Franco a political priority when he entered office in 2018. He argues that exhuming the dictator will help “heal the suffering of the Franco regime’s victims.” Last year, he also announced the creation of a truth commission to investigate the regime’s crimes.

“The issue of franquismo really activates leftwing voters,” says Lluís Orriols, a politics professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “And a plus [for leftwing politicians] is that it doesn’t cost anything, like popular social programs do.”

Sánchez’s deputy Carmen Calvo said after the Supreme Court ruling that the government would move Franco’s remains “as soon as possible” to Mingorrubio, a public cemetery on the north edge of Madrid.

Does anyone oppose exhuming Franco?

Franco’s exhumation tends to divide Spaniards along party lines. A 2018 poll for Spanish daily El Mundo found that 62.6% of Socialist voters back the exhumation, compared to just 13.1% of supporters of the main centre-right Popular Party. Lawmakers of rightwing parties abstained from a vote to legalize the exhumation in 2018.

“It’s an uncomfortable topic for the right,” Orriols says. “Their voters have slightly more ambivalent feelings about the Franco era. They’d rather just not touch it.”

While few defend the human rights abuses under Franco’s regime, many have argued that moving his remains serves little purpose and that his family should decide where he rests. “Sanchez has spent a year playing with [Franco’s bones] to try to divide us into reds and blues, but at this point this no longer matters to many Spaniards,” Alberto Rivera, leader of the centre-right Citizens, tweeted after the ruling.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right party Vox, which in 2018 became the first far-right political force to win seats in national elections since Franco’s death, attacked the exhumation as “profaning tombs and digging up hatreds”.

Why is Spain having so many elections?

The rise of new political forces, including Citizens, Vox and the far-left Podemos, has severely fragmented Spain’s party system since 2015, depleting the vote-share of establishment parties the Socialists and the Popular Party and making it harder for single parties to win majorities.

Sánchez was forced to call the latest election, set for November 10, after he failed to reach an agreement to govern with allies Podemos.

Polls suggest the new vote may not necessarily break the political stalemate, with no party predicted to win a majority.

 

Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com.

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