SAN LORENZO DE EL ESCORIAL, Spain (Reuters) - The Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid seems peaceful enough on a sunny spring day but, with national elections just around the corner, its distinction as the burial place of Francisco Franco has turned it into a political battleground.
The outgoing Socialist government passed legislation to exhume Spain’s former dictator and turn the site into a memorial to the victims of the brutal 1936-39 Civil War that marked the start of his fascist regime.
But newcomer Vox, which the April 28 ballot will usher in as the first far-right party to sit in parliament since the 1970s, has challenged that decision.
Forty-four years after his death, Franco’s legacy remains a source of deep divisions in Spanish society.
It has also become an element of Vox’s election campaign as the party seeks to grab votes from the traditional center-right PP, adding a further complication to what promises to be one of Spain’s most unpredictable and bitterly fought elections in decades.
“Well, I thought to myself, over my dead body,” said Pilar Gutierrez - whose father was a minister under Franco - in reference to the exhumation.
She heads a group campaigning to keep his body where it is and she has no doubt who she’ll be voting for.
“Vox is the only party that can stop it (the exhumation),” she said, speaking next to the mausoleum, hewn into the rock of the pine-forested valley and dominated by a 152-metre (500-foot) cross.
“They have principles. Conventional parties don’t have principles.”
Franco’s regime killed or imprisoned tens of thousands to stamp out dissent, and up to 500,000 combatants and civilians died in the war between his forces and leftist Republicans.
On the other side of the political divide sits Francisco Mendieta, who exhumed his grandfather Timoteo from a mass Franco-era grave in 2017 to give him a proper burial.
“He (Franco) is a man who has no reason to be there (in the Valley of the Fallen),” Mendieta said. “(He) was a dictator who signed off on death sentences. In a democracy I see it as an aberration,”
Franco never showed any mercy, so if his exhumation upsets anybody “then they deserve it,” he added.
While mostly focusing on specific Spanish issues Vox has, like similar parties in neighboring countries, also benefited from a public reaction against immigration that has seeped into European politics.
In a major poll published on Tuesday, it was seen winning up to 37 seats on April 28.
The same poll also showed that the Socialists and their far-left allies Podemos could win a majority. But that was a best-case scenario and several other coalitions, either left- or right-led, are also possible.
The Socialists have also leveraged Franco to appeal to their voter base.
They set the date for his exhumation last month after the election was announced, with Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo saying that “only the mortal remains of people who died as a result of the Spanish Civil War” would lie in the Valley of the Fallen.
Franco’s descendents have also challenged the exhumation, approved by parliament in September, but the government has said his remains will be dug up on June 10 unless the Supreme Court blocks it.
Both the PP and the centrist Ciudadanos abstained from the parliamentary vote, arguing the exhumation was not an urgent issue.
In public at least, Vox leader Santiago Abascal is still confident it will not take place. “I am taking it for granted that it won’t happen, it is just government propaganda,” he has said.
Vox says it does not endorse Franco politically, though its election candidates include four former generals, two of whom signed a pro-Franco petition last year.
Antonio Barroso, managing director of political consultancy Teneo, said that, while Vox’s position on Spanish “cultural” issues like Franco and separatism - which it opposes - was clear, little was known about its stance on broader policy matters.
“It is impossible to know,” how much support Vox will get in the election, said Barroso. “One thing we do know is that right-wing voters are more undecided. And they (Vox) are a new disruptive element.”
Writing by Axel Bugge; Additional reporting by Belen Carreno; Editing by Ingrid Melander and John Stonestreet