Digging Up the Dictator Proves Out of Reach for Spanish Premier

(Bloomberg) -- Pedro Sanchez’s hopes of leaving a mark on Spain by removing former dictator Francisco Franco from his mountainside mausoleum are grinding to a halt in the courts.

The Socialist prime minister rushed to finalize Franco’s exhumation before snap elections in April with a decree ordering the caudillo’s family to choose a new burial spot within 15 working days from Feb. 15. But that deadline elapsed with Madrid’s administrative courts still wading through 17 different legal challenges filed by sympathizers of Spain’s former ruler.

And that’s just the start.

There are at least three other legal avenues Franco’s supporters can explore that could mean months of appeals and Juan Chicharro, president of the Francisco Franco National Foundation, said he’s prepared to take the fight to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary.

“Sanchez tossed the idea out there to test the air and I don’t think he should have done that until they had prepared the legal steps to see it through,” the historian Jose Alvarez Junco said in an interview.

Contested Legacy

Shifting Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, the monument he built himself, has been a 15-year project for the Sanchez’s Socialists.

Former Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero pushed through the Historical Memory law in 2007, which formally condemned the Franco regime and established rights for its victims. He also appointed a commission that concluded that Franco’s body should be removed and that Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange movement, should be moved to a less prominent position within the mausoleum.

But those recommendations were ignored by the conservative People’s Party when it took power in 2011 and the initiative is likely to be mothballed again unless Sanchez can turn around Spanish opinion before the ballot on April 28.

Digging Up the Dictator Proves Out of Reach for Spanish Premier

Although the Socialists are projected to win most seats in the next parliament, polls show Sanchez will fall short of a majority and a coalition of right-wing parties is the more likely outcome. They would almost certainly shelve the project.

Franco governed Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975 after emerging victorious from a civil war in which an estimated half a million people died. He spent much of his first two decades in power overseeing construction of the Valley of the Fallen in the mountains northwest of Madrid, where a giant stone cross towers over the basilica where his body was eventually laid to rest.

Queues at the Tomb

Sanchez’s effort to change that situation sparked renewed interest in the monument, with traffic forming long tailbacks at weekends with Spaniards queuing to pay their respects or simply curious to see a unique and contentious place for themselves. Of the fascists who wreaked havoc in Europe in the middle of the last century, Franco is the only one to secure such a legacy.

“It’s quite scandalous for the Spanish left that a 20th century dictator in the line of Hitler or Mussolini should continue to have a public monument and such a prestigious burial place,” Alvarez Junco said.

Digging Up the Dictator Proves Out of Reach for Spanish Premier

The monument was ostensibly designed to commemorate the victims from both sides of the war but the use of 20,000 political prisoners to build it and Franco’s subsequent burial at the foot of the altar dispelled that notion. It has become a pilgrimage destination for Spaniards nostalgic about his fascist regime, who on many days can be seen laying flowers and kneeling down to touch his tombstone.

When the Socialists returned to power after a seven-year gap in June last year, it was one of the first issues Sanchez addressed. By August a decree had been approved ordering Franco’s removal.

But Sanchez quickly ran into trouble when the Franco family said it would move his remains to the Almudena cathedral -- one of the most prestigious burial grounds in Madrid and politically unacceptable for the Spanish left.

Although Sanchez almost certainly won’t see Franco finally removed before the elections, Rafael Fernandez Montalvo, a partner at the law firm Cremades & Calvo-Sotelo in Madrid, said his efforts won’t have been in vain, even if he loses at the ballot box. The legal framework he left will allow a future Socialist government to finish the job, he said.

“This will carry on beyond the elections,” he said. “There will be a law in place that will be applicable. It’s an important step forward.”

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