Bring on the crooners

Sebastian Balfour

  • Juan Carlos of Spain: Self-Made Monarch by Charles Powell
    Macmillan, 253 pp, £13.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 333 64929 X
  • The Government and Politics of Spain by Paul Heywood
    Macmillan, 331 pp, £42.50, November 1995, ISBN 0 333 52058 0

The history of Spain in the 20th century is marked by a succession of collective amnesias. At the end of the last century, forgetting that Spain was no longer a world power, Spaniards went to war with the United States and lost the remnants of their overseas empire. After the Civil War of 1936-9, the millions of Spaniards who had supported the Second Republic were compelled to bury the memory of their former allegiance in order to survive Franco’s vengeful regime. When the dictator died 36 years later, the price of a peaceful transition to democracy was to forget the barbarities of his regime. And now, in the aftermath of a less solemn occasion, the Spanish people are being invited to forget the political divisions of the last three years as the new centre-right Popular Party begins its period of office after striking a deal with the regionalist parties of Catalonia and the Basque Country, its erstwhile political opponents.

The man who has called for this ‘therapy of oblivion’ knows a lot about the advantages of a short historical memory. Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the elder statesman of the Popular Party and President of the Galician regional government, was for many years a prominent minister in the Franco regime, which suppressed regional identities as anti-Spanish. For those who have followed the history of Spain since Franco’s death in 1975, this sort of paradox will come as no surprise. As the prospect of parliamentary democracy grew, the old shibboleths of ‘right’ and ‘left’ were quite simply cast out. The moderation of the new government indicates how far the conservative Right has travelled since the dictatorship. Its disparate tendencies have been brought under one roof, marshalled as much by the prospect of power as by the pragmatism of a new generation of leaders. During the campaign leading up to the 3 March elections, the ruling Socialists had played on the fear that victory for the Popular Party would allow an unreconstructed Right to get back into power. The Popular Party meanwhile, mindful of the need to appeal to the political centre, had stressed its democratic vocation and kept its old Francoists discreetly in the background. As its spokespeople repeatedly asserted, their leader and now Spain’s premier, José María Aznar, an ex-tax inspector, was an ordinary man (‘an extraordinarily ordinary’ man, as one of them claimed) who wanted nothing better man to roll his sleeves up and get down to the job of cleaning up the mess the Socialist Government was alleged to have made. This downbeat populism was based on the not unreasonable calculation that Spanish voters were fed up with political rhetoric and flamboyant personalities

Observers of the political scene in Spain have been rewarded for putting up with a vacuous electoral campaign by a result rich in ironies and historical resonance. Thanks to the opinion polls the Popular Party had taken for granted that they would achieve a majority of at least 176 seats, allowing them to control Congress. Their campaign had begun almost straight after the elections of 1993, which the Socialists won by a margin similar to that of the Popular Party last month, forcing them – like the new government – to seek the support of the Catalan Convergència i Unió Party. At the time Popular Party spokespeople and their supporters in the press launched a sustained onslaught on the government and its partner.

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