The Popular Party: Fascist Roots Clinging to Power

Franco to Fraga

At Franco’s death, his regime, under the leadership of King Juan Carlos, mutated into a liberal democracy without the Francoist establishment relinquishing its hold on power. In so doing it ensured the crimes committed over 40 years of authoritarian rule would go unpunished. Spain’s current ruling party emerged from one of the harder sectors of the Francoist establishment. The fact that it is in government today bears testament to the original plan’s success.

Hitler and Franco in 1940

Franco came to power after a coup against the Spanish Republic which was followed by a bloody civil war (1936-1939), in which a combination of support from the the Axis powers and inaction from the liberal Western powers, allowed him to prevail. Half a million Spaniards died during the war, 150,000 of whom were executed by the fascists. Another million left the country thereafter. After the political genocide, in which anyone suspected of links to leftwing movements was executed or served long sentences in concentration camps, what ensued was four decades of a totalitarian regime in which fascism ruled unchallenged. In Catalonia, in addition to the suppression of political rights, Franco’s rule also brought about the attempted suppression of Catalan cultural identity, with the Catalan language banned from use in public.

Franco and his Information Minister Manuel Fraga

By the 1970s, with the “Caudillo” ageing, the regime planned its post-Franco future. It was to perform a transition to democracy, yet a very controlled one. Led by King Juan Carlos who had been anointed by Franco himself as his successor in 1969, and by Adolfo Suárez, an apparatchik designated by the king to become prime minister after Franco’s death (1975), the Francoist regime made a number of audacious moves. While allowing limited political freedom, they created a reformist party, UCD, which went on to win Spain’s first democratic elections in 1977. UCD was in power between 1977 and 1982 and was responsible for steering the process that led to the adoption of the 1978 constitution. At the time, however, another party rooted in the harder line of the Francoist establishment emerged to its right. Over time it would grow.

Fraga and his successor Jose María Aznar

This was Alianza Popular, which brought together seven political groupings, six of which were headed by former ministers of Franco. At its helm was Manuel Fraga, who had been information and tourism minister in the 1960s and minister for the interior immediately after Franco’s death in the 1970s. Fraga was one of the seven men who drafted the 1978 constitution.


In 1989 the the Alianza Popular changed its name to Partido Popular (PP) under the leadership of Jose María Aznar, who was chosen by Fraga to be his successor. Throughout the 1980s UCD, which had lost to the Socialist Party (PSOE) in 1982, languished, while Alianza Popular had been growing and gaining power in a small number of regions.

By 1996, after 14 years of PSOE rule, a number of cases of corruption having eroded the socialists’ credibility, the Popular Party’s time had come. They went on to rule Spain for the following eight years.

Fraga and Rajoy

During his first term Aznar relied on parliamentary support from the centre-right Catalan nationalist party, CiU, -which ruled Catalonia from 1980 to 2003- and with whom the Popular Party shared an economic agenda. The PP would also go on to rule in many of Spain’s regions (Madrid from 1995 to the present, Valencia from 1995 to 2015, Galicia from 1988 to the present). It was during the 1990’s that the party set up the cobweb of corrupt practices that allowed them to distribute kickbacks of all sorts and to illegally finance their electoral campaigns. In power, the PP’s policies were largely neoliberal in nature. An accelerated process of privatisations was carried out, with companies such as Telefónica and the country’s main utilities ending up in friendly hands.


At the end of his second term Aznar stepped aside and chose Rajoy as his successor. Rajoy had been a key minister in Aznar’s cabinet and had also directed his illegally financed electoral campaign in 2000 -(this has actually been proved in court)-, following which the Popular Party had ruled with an absolute majority in parliament. With the economy on steroids resulting from a massive real estate bubble and pharaonic infrastructure projects, the Popular Party was set to win the 2004 elections. The Al-Qaeda bombings which killed 200 people in Madrid three days before the elections changed that. Largely perceived as a consequence of Spain’s reckless participation in the invasion of Iraq the previous year, the bombings unexpectedly brought the socialists back to power. So Rajoy was to spend the following eight years as leader of the opposition. He focused his attention first on stopping progressive legislation on same-sex marriage. In this he failed. But there was another key battle he would get his way with, not through parliament but through the courts: the Catalan Autonomy Statute. By 2006 this document, which it had taken three years to negotiate, came into force, after its approval by the Catalan Parliament, the Spanish Parliament, and in a referendum in Catalonia. Although the Statute had followed the procedure set out in the constitution, Rajoy proceeded to use the party infrastructure to collect millions of signatures across Spain and contest it in the Constitutional Court. The ruling came in 2010. Success. A substantial part of the Statute which had become law three years earlier was ruled unconstitutional. Things would only get better. Despite losing general elections in 2004 and 2008, by late 2011, as a fierce recession devastated the Spanish economy, Rajoy’s time had come. He moved into office, rapidly putting public broadcasters under his control, enacting a number of measures to slash social spending, gag social movements and to provide fiscal amnesty to wealthy tax evaders. The banking system was bailed out, and the bankers of the failing regional savings banks, who were mainly former politicians who had been engaging in a variety of corrupt practices, were left off the hook. The government also tried to pass a very regressive new law on abortion, but failed. As charges of corruption escalated, evidence became abundant in the public sphere that Rajoy himself, 11 out of 14 ministers of the Aznar governments, PP presidents of autonomous regions, provincial governments, mayors of large and medium sized cities, and members of the royal family had been engaging in a variety of corrupt schemes for many years. In early 2013 the Popular Party’s main slush-fund’s accounts were leaked to the media. Not surprisingly Rajoy’s name appears in them as a recipient of multiple payments. How did he respond to allegations? By hiding from the media, ensuring the justice system could not work effectively, and blocking parliamentary debate and enquiries. There are a huge number number of open investigations into the corruption of the Popular Party, but the government uses its influence over the judiciary to protect itself. Proceedings drag out for many years, generally way past the expiry of the statute of limitations.

In 2015 there were elections again. But on this occasion the emergence of Podemos and Ciudadanos changed voting arithmetic. The Popular Party got only 28% of the vote. No government was formed and elections had to be repeated in 2016. Finally, breaking their campaign promises, Ciudadanos and the Socialist Party allowed the Popular Party to continue in government in spite of only receiving 33% of the vote. Currently the Popular Party rules in a very precarious manner, as it requires support from other parties for budgets and legislation. Ciudadanos, a more “youthful” right-wing Spanish nationalist party, which originally made it on the national stage on an anti-corruption platform, provides the bulk of the support required. The Socialist Party, while maintaining a pretence to being an opposition party, in practical terms facilitates the PP’s key policies. This is most notably the case in relation to the Catalan crisis.

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