Francoists in the Shadows

The far right in Spain's main conservative party

by Clara Gutman Argemí

Illustration by Georgianna Stoukides

published September 13, 2019

Vox, the nationalist, anti-immigration party that broke into Spain's Congress of Deputies last April, may be new to the Spanish political scene, but the far right itself is not. The Spanish and international media has put forward a narrative that portrays Vox as the first significant appearance of the far right on a national scale. While not strictly incorrect, this framing can misconstrue the role the far right has played in Spanish politics.   

The freshman Vox party and its 24-seat début made national and international headlines: this is the first time a far-right party has held more than one seat in Congress since Spain's transition to democracy in 1975, following the end of Francisco Franco's 40 year-long dictatorship. Vox's victory has pulled the far right back into the Spanish political discourse after years of media coverage that comfortably treated Spain as immune to the far right. The Guardian wrote that Vox has “gained a foothold unseen since Franco's death.” The New York Times also described Vox's 2019 breakthrough as the "crossing of a significant threshold" and that, for the first time since Franco, “Spain was not immune to the advance of far-right parties that have made inroads elsewhere in Europe.” The Times also claimed that “Vox is Spain's first far-right party since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975,” but this is actually false. Before Vox, far-right sympathizers found an explicit home in Fuerza Nueva, a neo-fascist party that held one congressional representative between 1979 and 1982.

Coverage that presents Vox’s rise as the first instance of the far right having significant weight in national politics is misleading and even dangerous. Focusing on the institutional absence of far-right parties before Vox suggests that the far right was previously absent from the political sphere, when a closer look shows that far-right sympathizers have never lacked a voice in Spanish politics.

The far right in Spain is hard to characterize, but Spanish far-right tendencies since Franco have generally emphasized nationalism, the unity of Spain, and xenophobia. Some far-right factions have espoused explicitly neo-fascist views and practices, such as “national-Catholicism” and paramilitary violence.

Beyond the national stage, minority far-right parties have long had a scattered institutional presence in local politics throughout the country. Vox's breakthrough is significant because it is the first time that far-right sympathizers have left the parent party and grabbed the megaphone for themselves on the national stage—but not because it's the first time they have had a voice.

The Independent sat down with historians and investigative journalists who have traced Spain's far right from the Franco era to the present. These interviews revealed that the Partido Popular (PP)—the establishment, center-right party founded by one of Franco's ex-ministers that has been running the country on and off for over 20 years—accommodates politicians and voters whose ideologies range from traditional conservatism to Francoism and neo-fascism. Spain is the only western European country grappling with the legacy of a fascist dictatorship whose far right is within the main conservative party.

None of this is news to Spaniards. Ask locals in Barcelona whether they think the country was immune to the Far Right before Vox, and you tend to get different variations on the same answer:

“Oh, come on.” (¡Sí, hombre!)

The phrase is often accompanied by a downward-twisting smile, a soft snort, or a mirthless chuckle.


Vox and the tradition of the far right in Spain

The absence or presence of the far right in Spain is a delicate subject, because discussion of it brings back memories of the fascist-style military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1939 and 1975. Francisco Franco seized control of Spain through a military uprising that sparked a civil war, during which he received military aid from Hitler and Mussolini, whom he considered allies and role models. The Francoist era is remembered for its state-controlled takeover of private life, political repression, and exaltation of “national Catholicism.” The dictatorship is living history, too. If you wander any town in Spain, most people over the age of 50 can tell you stories about growing up with the Catholic cross and the portrait of the Caudillo on the classroom wall.

Spain's transition to democracy in the late 1970s was a complex affair which historians still try to make sense of today, but it is no secret that the transition was led by the ruling political class of late Francoism—the same political class that founded the PP. Since 1975, the PP has insisted on telling the story of how it brought democracy to Spain: “Spain has no violent Far Right because we in the AP and the PP have made it moderate, constitutional,” Manuel Fraga Iribarne , a prominent official in Franco's government, told El País, Spain’s largest newspaper, in 1996. The Far Right has also largely been treated as absent from the Spanish political sphere by the media.

So, when Vox began stirring up political campaigns in 2014, it received little attention. It first caught the public's interest in 2018 when it gained regional political representation in Andalucía, a largely agricultural region in southern Spain, but it was not considered a main player in the country's political landscape until after the 2019 national elections. During the lead-up to the elections, Atresmedia, the media company that controls the country's televised electoral debates, banned Vox from participating on the grounds that its screen time would not be “proportional” to its political import, since it held no seats in Congress. Two nights later, when Vox secured those 24 seats, its representative Javier Ortega Smith delivered a victory speech: “After tomorrow, they won't silence us again.”

Who is the “us” that Ortega-Smith was referring to, and why do they feel silenced? Vox's electorate features a higher proportion of male voters, agricultural workers, and active-duty soldiers and veterans of the military than any other Spanish party, according to a study by the Spanish Center for Sociological Investigations. Its voters oppose Catalonia's independence efforts and are concerned by corruption, unemployment, and an establishment political class they perceive as decadent. Although Vox itself rejects the label of “far-right,” most English-speaking news outlets categorize it as such, and place the party within the larger pattern of post-2008 nationalist populism that is sweeping across western, central, and now southern Europe. Vox has run campaigns with the slogan “Make Spain Great Again” and promises to protect its voters from the threats of feminism, immigration, and los progres (Spanish slang for “the liberals”). If Ortega-Smith meant that Vox has been silenced as a movement, his statement resonates with a familiar argument made by other nationalist and populist representatives, like Donald Trump and the leaders of Brexit: the media is guilty of silencing or ridiculing the buildup of populist movements.


The PP's Francoist representatives

Paul Preston and Julián Casanova, two internationally recognized experts on modern Spanish history consulted by the Independent, keep the term "far right" context-specific when characterizing events in post-Francoist Spain. Preston is the Príncipe de Asturias Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics, specializing in the Spanish Civil War and the 40 years of dictatorship that followed it. His book, The Spanish Civil War, is one of the leading academic references on the topic. Casanova is a professor of contemporary history at the University of Zaragoza and a visiting professor at universities across Europe, Latin America and the US. Both historians make frequent appearances on Spanish media and contribute to El País.

They agreed that what is now Spain's main conservative party originated from the ruling political class of late Francoism.

In May 1977, two years after Franco's death, Fraga —who had been Franco's Minister of Information and Tourism before serving as the regime's ambassador to the United Kingdom—founded the Alianza Popular (AP). That party rebranded itself as today's Partido Popular (PP) in 1989, winning its first national election in 1996. In EU politics, the PP operates within the same international coalition as Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, the European Popular Party. The coalition is, according to its website, the political family of the Center Right.

Large families, however, often unite members from diverse backgrounds. The European Popular Party is no exception: the Partido Popular's origins are notably different from those of Merkel's establishment group. According to Casanova, the original Alianza Popular, while not itself a far right party, was “a coalition of notable Francoists.” Casanova points to Carlos Arias Navarro, AP's senatorial candidate for Madrid during the 1977 elections. Before becoming President of Franco's government, he was a fascist veteran of the Spanish Civil War nicknamed “the little butcher of Málaga” in 1937 for overseeing the execution of 4,300 people in the city of Málaga suspected of supporting the Republican cause.

While Arias Navarro himself was not elected in 1977, AP gained 16 seats in Congress that year. Seven of those representatives did not support the Constitution of 1978, the legal document that grounds Spain's democracy today; nor did AP support a 1977 law that granted amnesty to the dictatorship's political prisoners. For Casanova, this behavior, along with various AP members embodying “the image of the past,” shows that AP housed several Francoist higher-ups at that time.

Preston said that the late Francoist governments to which Fraga belonged were “very right-wing,” but he is “reluctant” to call them fascist or “far-right in the sense of the golpista far right”—a reference to the coup-staging Francoists of the 1930s.

The Francoists of the 1970s and ’80s were not advocating violence. Instead, they wanted to adapt right-wing politics to a democratic system while keeping the ruling political class of late Francoism in charge of the right. So, when AP became today's PP, “it welcomed those ex-Francoists” of Fraga's generation, said Casanova. While highlighting that the PP is “undoubtedly a democratic party in the formal sense,” he notes that “every time the past is brought up—historical memory, the Republic, the Civil War, the Dictatorship—PP representatives respond by using Francoist arguments.”

Take the example of Fernando Suárez González, Vice President of Franco's last government. Suárez González represented the PP in European Parliament from 1987 to 1994. In a 2018 interview with El Mundo, he agreed with the claim that Spain's present-day Right has a “Francoist DNA,” saying “How could it not? The mistake is to think that that's a problem!” This sheds light on the paradox at the heart of the PP: the party is proud of its Francoist roots while also framing itself as a champion of democracy.

PP representatives haven't just voiced views sympathetic to the dictatorship. The party has also shown a permissive—even supportive—attitude towards present-day expressions of Francoism outside the PP, such as the National Francisco Franco Foundation (FNFF).

Established in 1976, the FNFF is a private organization dedicated to "broadcasting and promoting the study ... of the life, thought, legacy and works of Francisco Franco Bahamonde," according to its website. El País reports that the FNFF has praised the Generalísimo Franco and denied that the regime was a dictatorship, adding that the current Socialist government is considering outlawing the Foundation.

Between 2000 and 2003, under the presidency of the PP's José María Aznar, the FNFF received €150,000 in government funds. The public money was supposed to pay for the digitization of the FNFF's archives, but Raquel Ejerique, an investigative reporter for the online newspaper, exposed that the FNFF organization instead used some of the money to update its headquarters' facilities, including buying a new paper shredder. While investing public money in digitizing historical documents is not unusual, the digital files have not been released to the public, which is required given that the funds came from tax money. The government has also denied that any of the money was used for purposes other than digitizing the FNFF's archives.

“It's surprising that the FNFF is a legal foundation ... as though it were pro-democracy, when its goal is to extol the dictatorship,” Ejerique told the Independent. She explained that taxpayers who donate to the FNFF get a tax deduction, in accordance with a law that applies to all foundations that “benefit the public”— a definition that includes the FNFF. The law was passed in 2003, under the PP's mandate.

Beyond her coverage of the FNFF, Ejerique is facing criminal charges for investigative work related to the PP. After exposing that the PP's president of the Madrid region obtained a master's degree through a rigged grading system, she was accused of “embezzling secrets,” for which she faces a possible five-and-a-half-year prison sentence. She and her editorial team await trial. The charge of “embezzling secrets” has been justified on the grounds that an academic transcript is private information that should not be published. Ejerique, however, believes the charge is being unjustly wielded. “Lawyers have told us that journalists should not be prosecuted on those grounds. We’re only doing our job.”


The PP's ‘orphaned’ far-right voters

A 2010 study by the Spanish Center for Sociological Investigations shows that, between 1993 and 2010, 90% of Spaniards who self-identified as far-right voted for the PP. “Unlike what happens in other European countries, here the Far Right is inside the main conservative party,” sociologist Félix Ortega of the Complutense University of Madrid told the online newspaper Público.

The historians consulted by the Independent agree. “The civilian Extreme Right has been relatively well accommodated within the Partido Popular,” said Preston, describing those voters as having “[taken] refuge in the PP until their moment arrived.” Casanova added that the part of the electorate that never condemned Francoism was “accommodated and comfortable within the PP.” Xavier Casals, a Catalan historian specializing in the post-Francoist extreme right, took care to stress that the ideology of some of the PP's voters does not reflect the ideology of the party as a whole, and said that “the PP has simply included those orphaned [far-right] voters who did not have a party of their own.”

While not all of its voters subscribe to far-right ideology, the PP has historically remained an attractive platform for the far right to voice its views. But, after 2008, things began to change. The new Ciudadanos party emerged as a center-right player that directly competed with the PP, attracting its conservative voters; Vox emerged as an explicitly nationalist party that attracted the PP's far-right electorate. Preston attributed the emergence of Vox, which was founded by two ex-PP representatives and an ex-PP militant, to “resentment of corruption under the Andalusian Socialists and anti-Catalanism.” Vox is different from the neo-fascist Fuerza Nueva of the ’70s and ’80s, the party that held one congressional representative in Congress for three years, in that it “arises out of the heat of the reactivation of the extreme right elsewhere in Europe,” which “was not possible before the 2008 crisis,” said Casanova. Preston added that Vox “is ideologically similar to Fuerza Nueva but it has not advocated violence in the manner of Fuerza Nueva” and other far-right militant groups.

Fuerza Nueva dissolved in 1986, giving some of its sympathizers enough time to fold into the PP and climb the party's ladder, until they eventually became its representatives. This is the case of Josep Bou, the PP's candidate for Mayor of Barcelona during the 2019 race. Before the mayoral elections, photojournalist Jordi Borràs published a document revealing that Bou had joined Fuerza Nueva in 1978. The PP candidate denied the allegation.

“Publicly, I told Bou that if what I had exposed was not true, he was welcome to take me to court,” Borràs told the Independent. Bou has not pressed charges.

This is not Jordi Borràs’ first time in the public eye: In 2018, he gained the national media's attention after he was assaulted by a far-right sympathizer who identified himself as a police officer. “What bothers [the mainstream right] the most is that I show them their resumé, that I shine a light on their past,” he said. “There's a tendency in the Spanish state to deny its origins.”


CLARA GUTMAN ARGEMÍ B’22 would like to thank Lluc Salellas and Jordi Borràs for helping with the research for this piece. Moltes gràcies pel cop de mà.


Quotes given in Catalan or Spanish were translated into English by the author.