Fraga, giant of Spanish right, dies aged 89


MANUEL FRAGA, agreed by friends and enemies alike to have been the giant of the Spanish right since the death of the former dictator Gen Francisco Franco, died late on Sunday night in Madrid, aged 89, of heart failure.

He had been a senator for the Partido Popular (PP) until last November’s general election, when he had the satisfaction of seeing the party he had founded win a landslide victory, after eight years in opposition.

His death has inspired a flood of eulogies for his statesmanship, not only from King Juan Carlos and fellow conservatives in the PP, but from leading figures in the Socialist Party (PSOE), and even from the veteran former communist leader Santiago Carrillo.

However, it has also provoked lively and sometimes angry arguments on Twitter and elsewhere. Fraga was a deeply divisive figure, a reminder of the enduring confrontation between the “two Spains” of right and left.

He was a native of Galicia, the north-western region of Spain famed for political “cuteness”, which was also home to Franco, and to the current PP prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.

Fraga survived 60 turbulent years in politics through a rare mixture of intellectual brilliance, streetwise cunning and unabashed pragmatism. His deliciously intemperate tongue, which betrayed him with many memorable but acerbic remarks, probably denied him a period as prime minister, a job he aspired to with equal single-mindedness under the dictatorship and democracy.

As a young man, he was one of the “technocrats” who formed the second generation of Franco’s authoritarian regime. They jostled for power with the factions of old soldiers, fascist ideologues and disgruntled monarchists who had risen successfully with Franco against the democratic second Republic in the 1930s civil war.

Fraga knew the dictatorship had to reform to survive the changing climate in Spain and Europe in the 1960s, but he had no problem with the system itself.

He described Franco as “the greatest and most representative Spaniard of the century” on his death in 1975, and never substantially revised that opinion.

Talent-spotted for his academic achievements in law and political science, he became a powerful minister in the Franco cabinets of the 1960s. He successfully liberalised censorship, both in the political and sexual spheres.

Whatever his intentions, this reform undoubtedly stimulated the lively magazine debates that brought leftist and libertarian ideas back into public view after decades of total suppression, and laid the ground for Spain’s contemporary democratic culture.

As tourism minister, he opened up the country to foreigners. He was behind the poster campaign that proclaimed to the world that “Spain is different”. However, the mass tourism he sponsored ruthlessly erased much that is distinctively Spanish from the Costa del Sol and surrounding areas.

A shameless self-publicist in a dull era, he famously called in the press to photograph himself bathing with the American ambassador to suggest that there was no radiation danger where the US air force had dumped a hydrogen bomb in the sea near Palomares in 1966.

In the tricky years of transition after Franco’s death, Fraga played a hard-right role as interior minister. His police brutally repressed democratic demonstrations. He stood over their shooting dead of five striking workers during a church sit-in in 1976.

But he was flexible enough to participate with six other eminent figures from across the political spectrum in the drafting of the democratic constitution approved in 1978.

He drew many veterans of the dictatorship into his first political party, Alianza Popular. But he could not compete with a centrist party, the UCD, created by a younger and smoother recycled Francoist, Adolfo Suarez, in the late 1970s.

Then the 1980s and early 1990s belonged to the centre-left PSOE of Felipe González. Meanwhile, Fraga formed the PP, absorbing much of the imploding UCD. He groomed his successor as PP leader, José María Aznar, to lead the conservatives to power in 1996.

Denied the supreme prize of the Spanish premiership, he had to content himself with 15 years as first minister of Galicia. Ironically, he held this office under new autonomous regional structures that the dictator he had served so faithfully would have abhorred.