I’VE long had a fascination with Spain – its culture, politics and people.

As a regular visitor, I’m always struck by the country’s vibrancy and can-do attitude that stands in marked contrast to the weary, broken Tory Britain we currently inhabit.

But over many decades of visits, I’ve also grown increasingly conscious of how Spain’s recent past, especially the years of Francoist rule from 1939-75, continue to leave a lingering legacy on the country and the Spanish people.

Talking with many Spanish friends about those times and their influence on attitudes today is to engage in a conversation that only goes so far. Almost always if the outsider tries to dig further they will encounter something akin to intruding on a taboo or private grief.

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It’s all a far cry from the reputation Spaniards have of volubility or as they say of those who speak their mind, no tiene pelos en la lengua – has no hairs on his tongue.

In their la Transicion from dictatorship to democracy, the Spanish have tended to smother the past.

But the “pact of forgetting” as Spaniards call their response to the civil war and Francoist years remains fragile and every so often the country is reminded of that fragility.

Which brings me to this Sunday’s snap election called by Pedro Sanchez (below), the Socialist premier.

Sanchez has a reputation for political risk-taking

But to say his decision to call a general election four months early is a huge gamble would be an understatement to say the least.

It stems largely from the electoral thrashing his coalition took in May’s local polls and it seems he is now looking to have a national vote rather than letting the government run to its full term in November.

Sanchez’s move appears to be an attempt to outmanoeuvre the rival conservative Partido Popular party (PP), forcing them to campaign while also negotiating uncomfortable post-local ballot coalition deals with the hard-right nationalist party Vox.

The National:

For those unfamiliar with Spanish politics or Vox, suffice to say the party’s policies have a familiar ring to them. Think of the benchmark issues that the far-right has established across Europe with the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Giorgia Meloni in Italy and you will get what they represent.

Vox is a party one commentator recently described as a “Francoist tribute act”. One that wants to repeal a law cementing LGBT+ rights. It also rejects worries about rising temperatures – which Spain, like most of southern Europe, is experiencing right now – as “climate fanaticism”.

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Vox, using terms Britain’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman would relish, talks of “Muslim invasion” in their anti-immigration campaigns and want to erect walls round Spain’s north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to deter migrants.

And then they have an election manifesto that calls for the repeal of laws on violence against women.

In an echo of the Francoist days, Vox also want to ban pro-independence parties from Catalonia to the Basque Country and Galicia and are prepared to go even further with Catalan language magazines in public libraries in danger of disappearing.

“Mission accomplished,” Jesus Albiol, the newly appointed councillor for culture for Vox in the town of Burriana, proudly announced on Twitter last week after cancelling the subscriptions for the magazines, two of them children’s comics, for the local library.

Worrying as all this is, if most polls are correct, then Spain will eject Sanchez and the ruling Socialists, and the conservative PP, led by Alberto Nunez Feijoo, will become the biggest force in parliament.

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For them to take office, however, and secure majority support, the PP are likely to need the votes of the third-largest party, Vox – and their leader Santiago Abascal’s price will be to share power.

Should all this come to pass then Spain would become the latest European country to shift to the right through a coalition deal bringing the hard right into central government for the first time since Spain’s return to democracy after the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco.

There’s a pattern developing here

A disquieting one, especially if one looks across wider Europe.

In Germany, for example, polls show that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party have overtaken the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) to become the second-most popular party in Germany.

In Austria, the pro-Vladimir Putin Freedom Party (FPO), once led by a former Nazi, are polling at 28% a year ahead of elections – higher than their centre-right and centre-left rivals. Then in Greece, Spartans, a party established just weeks before recent elections and supported by leading lights of the now-defunct neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, unexpectedly won 4.7% of the vote.

Should the PP in Spain win, a lot will depend on the balance of power between them and Vox. It’s also not unknown, of course, for such parties as Vox to soften up their dialogue once they get into government, but many Spaniards remain worried given that among the far-right in the party’s ranks are lifelong pro-Franco supporters.

The National:

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni (above with Viktor Orban Prime Minister of Hungary), a longtime Vox supporter, backed the Spanish party who are a natural right-wing ally of their Italian counterpart Brothers of Italy.

Meloni told Vox hard-liners that their success in Sunday’s elections would usher in “a change in the politics of Europe” and that “the hour of the patriots has arrived”.

All eyes then will be on Spain on Sunday and even if the PP – out of power since 2018 – do win enough seats to avoid a power share with Vox, the far-right party are unlikely to disappear from Spanish politics.

“Vote for what’s important,” insists Vox’s campaign slogan for Sunday’s election. Few things could be more important for Spain right now than the outcome of this ballot. For Sanchez, these general elections will certainly form a make-or-break moment in his career.

That lingering legacy of Francoist rule is raising its head again.

Spain’s la Transicion from dictatorship to democracy has been a remarkable and impressive forward journey – how sad it would be to see it take steps back in the direction of a dark past.

Make no mistake about it, Sunday’s election in Spain will offer a crucial insight into the health of democracy in Europe.