Happy with the reign in Spain

November 17, 1995

It is 20 years next week since Franco gasped his last and relinquished his hold on Spain. But although his democratic successors have been accused of corruption, Huw Richards finds little desire in the kingdom for a return to the bad old days.

Some countries never escape British attention: the United States, a cultural and political relative of vast global influence; France, the antithesis against which national identity has formed for most of the past three centuries; and Germany, the main rival this century. Others drift in and out of focus. Spain compelled attention in the 1930s as it tore itself apart in a civil war whose enduring fascination has been shown again this year with the success of Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom. But for much of the time since, it has existed in the British mindset as a southern exotic compound of sunshine, unfinished hotels and bullrings. It will, however, come in for its 15 minutes of attention next week with the 20th anniversary of the death of Francisco Franco, victor of the civil war and dictator from 1939 until he died on November 20 1975.

Those who look closely will find something strangely familiar. The government has been in power since the early 1980s, having narrowly won an unexpected further term in 1992. But the past three years, beset by endless scandal and mounting unpopularity, have left many supporters wondering whether it might have been better off losing. In this sense, it is rather like Britain - except that it is a mirror image, with the centre-left in power in the form of premier Felipe Gonz lez's Socialist party (PSOE) and the centre-right Popular party (PP), led by Jose Maria Aznar, desperate to end years of exclusion. Spaniards have grown as accustomed to the sight of grim-faced former officials being driven to the prison at Carabanchel on the outskirts of Madrid and ministers denying complicity with state-sponsored terrorism as the British have with the goings on that have prompted the Scott and Nolan enquiries. A relatively pro-government newspaper like El Pa!s, the largest selling paper in the country, devotes up to half of the home politics coverage in its weekly international edition to the heading Corrupc!on y Esc ndolos.

All of which, as in Britain, breeds cynicism and contempt for politics. But what is lacking is any sense of this as being emblematic of a wider national decline. While British views of the past 20 years habitually divide on left-right lines, few Spanish voices argue that 1975 was better than today. In part, this reflects longer-term trends. Paul Preston, Pr!ncipe de Asturias professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics and biographer of Franco, says: "For Britain the past 300 years have been, on balance, pretty positive - imperial glory, military success and prosperity. Spain's past 300 years have been very different - defeat, loss of empire and a sense of isolation which was reinforced under Franco." Looking at the shorter term, Paul Heywood, professor of politics at Nottingham University, says: "If you had told Spaniards 20 years ago that 1995 would find them as a established democracy, member of Nato and the European Union, they would have been very happy." That viewpoint is reinforced by Juan Pablo Fusi, professor of history at Madrid University, who says: "Our elections are clean, communications and infrastructure are much better, we are much more affluent than 20 years ago, and more people go to university. We have our economic problems, but they are no worse than those of other European countries."

Franco lies in his megalomaniac civil war memorial of the Valle de los Caidos, hewn out of mountain rocks north of Madrid, as dead politically as he is physically. Twenty years ago, the joke doing the rounds in Spain was that he had been dead for weeks, but nobody had the nerve to tell him. Today, although an ex-Franco minister like Manuel Fraga can live out his political life as prime minister of his and Franco's home region of Galicia, Francoism is exiled to the extreme margins of Spanish politics: "There is an astonishing lack of political legacy - partly because he was really a ceremonial leader for the past 15 to 20 years," says Preston. "The Spain of 1975 was no longer really Franco's Spain." If he lives today, it is as a political spectre. Pilar Ortu$o, a doctoral student from Malaga studying at St Antony's College, Oxford, says: "The Socialists play on the fear that the right winning means a return to Franco." Some analysts believe the Franco factor helped the Socialists win over older voters in the closely-fought election of 1992.

Now, there is a strong sense of rejoining the mainstream of Europe, symbolised in particular by membership of the EU - seen, rather as Germans see it, as both proof of normality and insurance against reversion to extremes. But, as Heywood and Helen Graham, lecturer in history at Royal Holloway, University of London point out, the idea that Spain was in some way exceptional was more Francoist tactic than reality. "Where it differs from most countries now is that it has gone very rapidly through stages of evolution that have taken others much longer," says Graham. "The contrast between Madrid or Barcelona and some rural areas is extraordinary."

During the past 20 years, features taken for granted in Franco's time have disappeared. Regional diversity, fiercely repressed under his highly-centralised state, has flourished under a pragmatic system of federalism, dividing the country into 17 autonomous regions with varying local powers. It has its down sides - creating some administrative duplication and the "false federalism" of autonomy for districts with little sense of identity - but as Heywood says, "it works, and could provide a model for Britain". Also, the church and the army, two of the props of Franco's state, are no longer directly political forces. Graham points out that the church aligned itself with the forces of change in the 1970s, though has found more recent years a little uncomfortable: "It still matters as a social and cultural force, but it has never been pluralist and has found its exclusion from direct political influence a shock". The Tejero coup of 1981 - as terrifying to Spaniards as Colonel Tejero's tricorn hat, shown across the world as he brandished his pistol in parliament, was amusing to most outsiders - threatened a return of military power. But instead it marked its death-knell: "1981 seems incredibly remote now", says Graham. Jose Amodia, head of Spanish at Bradford University, confirms this, noting that "now the soldiers are under the control of politicians, not the other way round as it was for much of recent Spanish history."

That some credit for the succesful transition must go to King Juan Carlos, even republicans like Amodia readily concede, although both he and Heywood suggest that there has been something of an idealisation of the royal contribution. Some too must go to Adolfo Su rez, Francoist functionary turned reforming premier in the early days of the transition. But the key figure has been Gonz lez, premier since 1982. Few observers doubt that history will, on balance, judge him well. Preston says: "He is one of the most important Spaniards of the past 200 years. When he took office Spain was threatened by military coups, by violence in the Basque country and the possibility of economic disaster."

Equally, few doubt that Gonz lez has now outstayed his welcome. Fusi, pointing to the exposure of police chief Luis Roldan and Bank of Spain governor Mariano Rubio, suggests that "either should have been sufficient to force the government to resign". Heywood argues that corruption is the consequence of one party staying too long in power, while Fusi and Graham point to a tradition of clientelism and the practice of entering politics for the purpose of gain rather than service. Preston says: "You need only read the novels of Perez-Gald"s to see how long this has been happening in Spain". Amodia argues that "20 years is not very long to acquire democratic habits after 40 years of dictatorship". Franco's Spain was spectacularly corrupt, but as Amodia says: "There was no free speech or free press to speak against this". By contrast, the Gonz lez government has to reckon with a free press, among which El Mu$do's pursuit of scandal has, according to Heywood, gone beyond watchdogging for democracy to partisan pursuit.

For all the talk of sleaze, no one argues that Spain is going the way of Italy. The polls point firmly to victory for the right, although doubts cling to the electability of Aznar - dubbed by an unimpressed Preston as "John Major without the charisma". Fusi predicts a dirty election as the centre-left PSOE strives desperately to keep power. Amodia, not a rightist, argues that the change would be "good for Spanish democracy". A peaceful handover of power is one of the few challenges that the newish democracy still has to face.

Much will depend on how the right, if it is elected, uses power. Graham suggests that the PP is more right-wing than its public face. By contrast, Amodia places it "within the Christian Democrat tradition, but on the right of it".

One possibility is that, just as Gonz lez allied with the Catalan nationalist party to maintain a parliamentary majority, the PP will need regionalist support. Both Graham and Amodia point to the possibility of a resurgence of regional nationalism in the near future. But there is little here, though, to differentiate it from the broad trends and problems of Western European states. And whatever Spanish-descended politicians may be doing in Britain, there is no likelihood of Spain turning away from the rest of Western Europe. As Fusi says: "For most of this century Spain has been uncertain of its identity, seeing itself perhaps as a bridge between North Africa, Latin America and Europe. Now we have a clear European identity."

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