Keeping up the pretence

Francisco Franco’s deteriorating physical state in the last 18 months or so of his life also seems to have diminished his famous political astuteness. Despite being essentially a military man, admired for his bravery in combat and feared by his men for his harsh no-nonsense attitude towards discipline, Franco proved his ability to exploit events to his own advantage shortly after the civil war erupted. What many people don’t realise is that Franco was very reluctant to join the last of a series of military conspiracies that finally led to the war because he was too aware of the consequences of defeat. However, once the war was on, he soon took over from the original conspirators after fate – or Franco? – dealt out the Ace of Spades to Generals Sanjurjo and Mola. The former died when the plane bringing him back from exile in Portugal crashed, on July 20th 1936 – two days after the civil war broke out. Gen Mola, who had secured the north west of the country for the rebels, died in another plane crash, on June 3rd 1937. Their deaths allowed Franco to become the undisputable leader of the uprising. Throughout his long dictatorship, Franco did everything possible to make sure that the political parties would never return – it was an essential part of his objective to batten down the hatches of his regime. One of the ways he believed he could achieve this was to allow “political associations” which would be controlled by the National Council of the Falange Movement, which had the power to suspend or dissolve any that showed signs of developing into political parties. As Franco said to one of his confidantes: “Everybody knows my views on the pernicious nature of political parties and I’m sure the government’s scheme (the political associations) will prevent them degenerating to the point of becoming sectarian and adversarial groups.” While Franco himself seems not have suspected his heir, Prince Juan Carlos, of democratic leanings, others were not so sure. Shortly after the Statute allowing the political associations was approved, the same confidante expressed his conviction that the Prince was not committed to “projects aimed at securing the continuity of the regime”. Franco was outraged and retorted: “That is not true and what you are saying is very serious.” After one of his famous icy silences, he said: “I know that when I die everything will be different, but there are oaths that have to be kept and principles that have to remain in place.” The confidante insisted that the Prince intended to return Spain to a liberal, parliamentary monarchy. Franco replied: “The institutions will fulfil their task, Spain cannot return to fragmentation and discord.” As it was, Franco’s institutions were unable to fulfil their task because, as the confidante suspected, Juan Carlos was bent on reform, a word he never mentioned to anyone but his wife and closest friends before Franco died. However, one man, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, dared to reveal his own reformist tendencies to the old dictator. Fraga, as Tourism Minister in the 1960s, did everything possible to open up the country to foreigners. He was also from Galicia, like Franco, who tended to trust his fellow Gallegos. Fraga and several others connected with the regime believed that when Franco died, the then Prime Minister, Carlos Arias Navarro, would hand over power to them so they formed a political association in anticipation of this. When Franco was shown their draft programme, he asked sarcastically what country they were writing about. When Fraga sought an audience with Franco to explain his ideas, Prince Juan Carlos told a friend: “He shouldn’t come, he’ll be eaten alive by the beast.” He urged Fraga not to push too hard in case Franco replaced him by someone more sympathetic to the so-called bunker, known Franco hardliners who surrounded the dictator’s wife, Carmen Polo. But Fraga did survive and went on to play an important role in the Transition period. He eventually became the regional president of Galicia and was one of the founders of the Partido Popular. He was made a life-long honorary president of the party when the Socialists and the Galician nationalists beat the PP in Galicia in the last regional elections. Now aged 86, he is the only surviving minister from the Franco regime. The other main survivor is Adolfo Suarez. In the months leading up to Franco’s death, Juan Carlos told a friend he saw Suarez as a future Prime Minister. They had first met in 1968 and they got on well. Only six years older then the Prince, Juan Carlos liked Suarez because he did not have the paternal or patronizing attitudes of the older men who surrounded Franco. As King, Juan Carlos finally turned to him as the man who would push through the reforms the country needed. But a lot of water would flow under the bridge before then.


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