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Spain’s controversial attempt to confront its painful past

MADRID — In Spain, memory is a divisive issue.

The coalition government’s democratic memory law, which seeks to tackle the legacy of the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco, could be approved by a narrow majority in parliament on Thursday.

But recollections of the more recent violence of ETA have hindered the project, with critics saying the bill can only get through parliament because Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has made a deal with the heirs of the Basque terrorist group. This has hardened longstanding claims among the Socialist leader’s adversaries that he panders to hard-line nationalism and has triggered a revolt within his own party.

The new law declares that its overall aim is to pay off “a debt Spanish democracy has with its past” by ensuring that the state “takes responsibility for the acts of the past in their entirety, rehabilitating the memory of victims, repairing the damage caused and avoiding a repetition of confrontations and any justification for totalitarian regimes.”

To that end, the bill declares illegal the 1936 coup d’état that unleashed the civil war and eventually installed Franco in power, as well as his four-decade dictatorship. It also seeks to eliminate aristocratic titles linked to the regime and include accounts of Francoist repression in school textbooks.

In addition, there will be a drive to support victims of the regime and their relatives, with the state taking on the task of identifying and exhuming those buried in mass graves and gathering testimonies in a specially created office.

Perhaps the most eye-catching element of the law is its approach to the 1977 amnesty, passed two years after Franco’s death, which has prevented officials from his regime from facing prosecution for human rights violations. The bill opens the door to an interpretation of the amnesty which could change that.

Former Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose own 2007 memory law would be updated by this legislation, said the bill “perfects” Spanish democracy, “because it acknowledges those who have been forgotten.”

“We shouldn’t be at all afraid to look at our most recent past or the distant past.”

But it is the recent past that is causing the most controversy.

The new law also allows for the investigation of human rights crimes committed between 1978, the year the democratic constitution was introduced, and 1983. That amendment was proposed by EH Bildu, a far-left, Basque pro-independence party seen as the successor to the political wing of ETA, which disbanded in 2018. The party is among those to have long argued that Spain’s much-vaunted transition to democracy was deeply faulted, because, for example, it allowed state terrorism to be used against ETA suspects and police brutality against Basque activists.

Mertxe Aizpurua, spokeswoman for EH Bildu, said the new democratic memory law “has opened the way to challenge the narrative of an exemplary [democratic] transition.”

The coalition government requires the backing of an array of parties to get the democratic memory law approved and, with EH Bildu’s support apparently secured, it appears to be safe. But the backlash against both the 1978-1983 amendment and the government’s reliance on EH Bildu, which many still see as synonymous with Eta, has been fierce.

The leader of the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP), Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has pledged to roll back the law when he takes office, describing its passage through parliament as “an episode unworthy of Spanish democracy.”

“We accept that the figureheads of that terrorism are sitting in institutions, but it is repugnant to us that they should dictate to the democratic government the terms of our democratic memory,” he said.

The law’s arrival in congress has come at a particularly sensitive time. This week marks the 25th anniversary of ETA’s kidnapping and murder of Miguel Ángel Blanco, a young PP councilor, in what is considered the most notorious of the group’s more than 850 killings. On Sunday, Sánchez, Feijóo and King Felipe were among those who attended a tribute to Blanco in his Basque hometown of Ermua.

The right’s opposition to the new legislation was to be expected, given that it has tended to reject historical memory initiatives on the grounds that they needlessly dig up the past. However, there has also been dissent within the ranks of Sánchez’s own Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

Javier Lambán, the PSOE’s president of the Aragón region, is one such voice, expressing outrage that the new law would allow for investigations into events that took place after the introduction of democracy.

“If this were proposed by any other political group it would be worrisome because it’s a way of undermining the democratic transition,” he said. “But when it’s put forward by [EH] Bildu it’s a cruel sarcasm that I would never consider acceptable.”

A group of veteran PSOE politicians have signed a manifesto against the law, claiming it “distorts” the constitutional pact of 1978.

José Pablo Ferrándiz, head of public opinion in Spain for the Ipsos polling firm, said this episode has touched a raw nerve.

“The idea that the transition to democracy was exemplary and should be the cause of pride remains embedded in the collective subconscious of Spaniards,” he said.

The baggage surrounding the democratic memory legislation carries with it an electoral risk for Sánchez, he added.

“Conservative Socialist voters have never felt comfortable with the pacts the government has made with Catalan pro-independence parties or with Basque pro-independence parties like EH Bildu,” Ferrándiz said.

With a general election not scheduled until late 2023, Sánchez will hope that this episode will not demobilize Socialist voters.

Polls suggest that the PSOE had already slipped behind the PP, which has been boosted by the new leadership of Feijóo, before the controversy surrounding the memory law.

With the cost-of-living crisis refusing to fade and a litany of public disputes within his coalition, the accusations that Sánchez has cut a deal that unstitches Spain’s cherished democratic transition have hit a prime minister who is already struggling for political survival.

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