OPN 191024  Spain_Franco-1571912782710
In this Nov. 20, 1938 file photo, former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, centre, attends the second anniversary of the death of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish right-wing movement La Falange, in Burgos, Spain Image Credit: AP

The Spanish government of caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has gone to great lengths to ensure that the exhumation of the remains of dictator Francisco Franco from his resting place for the past 44 years has done without a hitch.

A week beforehand, the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force, had secured the Valle de los Caidos — The Valley of the Fallen — a vast monumental complex and state mausoleum some 60km west of Madrid where the former general has lain in rest since his death in 1975.

Under a news blackout and strict conditions — even the name of the undertaker has been withheld as a security precaution — the 1.5 tonne granite slab was due to be moved on Thursday morning, with his remains in its original zinc-lined wood coffin transferred to a new one, then flown away by helicopter

The Valle de los Caidos holds the remains of some 34,000 victims of the Civil War, most from the Republican side and lain there without their families’ permissions

- Mick O'Reilly

For decades, Sanchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) have sought his exhumation, wanting to turn the Valle de los Caidos complex into a memorial for the half-million or so Spanish and other nationals killed in the three-year Civil War unleashed by Franco’s Nationalist forces between 1936 and 1939.

It’s an exhumation that has been fought tooth and nail by Franco’s relatives, and the case has gone all the way to Spain’s Supreme Court. They ultimately lost, paving the way for removing Franco’s remains to the Mingorrubio El Pardo cemetery to the north of the Spanish capital for interment next to his wife, Maria del Carmen Poloy Martinez-Valdes.

The Valle de los Caidos holds the remains of some 34,000 victims of the Civil War, most from the Republican side and lain there without their families’ permissions.

Franco may be dead since 1975, but the ghosts of his four-decade rule still linger across the Iberian Peninsula, and none more so than in the restive Spanish province of Catalonia. The generalissimo took a hardline on the very notion of a separate Catalonian culture. Catalan, the region’s distinctive language was reduced to use only within families.

Everywhere, Castilian Spanish was enforced, the language of administration, business, finance, education and the media. That same Guardia Civil force that guarded the Valle de los Cadios were long-views with suspicion in the restive province, derogatively referred to as Franco’s bully boys.

Two years ago, when Catalan separatists staged an illegal plebiscite on independence, Guardia Civil officers waded into to voting separatists with batons flailing — events that contributed to some 800 civilians and police being injured in the fallout of that vote.

Over the past 10 days, since nine organisers of that illegal plebiscite were jailed for long periods on fraud and other charges relating to the use of government funds and resources in staging the vote, Barcelona has been gripped by running street protests.

The local economy has been hit hard, the city’s tourist economy virtually on hold, while scores of cars have been burnt, dozens hurt, and hundreds arrested on public order offences. This time around, though, policing has been left in the hands of the Mossos d’Esquarda — the Catalan police force.

One of the victims of the violence has been El Classico, the clash of footballing giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. Interestingly, amid the violence, Barcelona football club have quietly decided to withdraw medals awarded to General Franco, ending a much-maligned chapter in the club’s boardroom history. The timing certainly isn’t coincidental.

The club’s annual general assembly voted by 671 to 2 to withdraw the medals, awarded in 1951, 1971 and a year before Franco’s death.

What makes the backdrop to this exhumation and resurgence in Catalan separatism all the more intriguing is that it comes at a time when Spaniards are engaged in their fourth general campaign in as many years, with polls due to be held on November 10.

Sanchez is seeking a wider mandate from voters after polls in April failed to give the PSOE enough seats to be able to form a national government in Madrid. His critics on the Right say he hasn’t done enough to deal with the separatists.

Vox, a far-right populist party that is appealing to those aligned with Franco’s authoritarian views, want to go further, abolishing all of Spain’s 19 regional assemblies, preferring to concentrate power instead in the federal parliament in Madrid.

Last Monday, Sanchez and his campaign officials adopted a softly softly approach when he visited Barcelona. It wasn’t listed on his official agenda, he did no press conference and spent three hours there mostly meeting hospital officials.

Sanchez has also given the cold shoulder to separatist leader Quim Torra, refusing to take his phone calls and declining to meet with him until such a time as Torra offers a full condemnation of the days of street violence in Spain’s second-largest city. That hasn’t happened yet.

Just what and how much effect the Catalan crisis will have on the election outcome is anyone’s guess — but the ghosts of General Franco’s regime are very much influencing events to this day.