MADRID - Spain's government took a step closer on Friday to removing the remains of dictator Francisco Franco from a grand mausoleum that it intends to turn into a memorial to victims of the country's brutal civil war.
Transforming the "Valley of the Fallen" site, marked by a 152-metre (500-foot) cross on a mountainside near Madrid and criticised as Europe's only remaining monument to a fascist leader, is a longstanding ambition of the Socialist Party which returned to office in June.
The government issued a decree that reduces the risk of legal claims, including from Franco's descendants, preventing the exhumation.
The Franco era remains a sensitive topic in Spain, more than 40 years after he died.
During his 1939-1975 rule, tens of thousands of his enemies were killed and imprisoned in a campaign to wipe out dissent, and as many as 500,000 combatants and civilians died in the preceding civil war, which split the nation in two.
"Only the mortal remains of people who died as a result of the Spanish Civil War will lie in the Valley of the Fallen," deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo told a news conference.
Past political crimes were pardoned as part of Spain's transition to democracy in the late 1970s, fostering resentment among victims' families, very few of whom have managed to start the process of unearthing the remains of soldiers from both sides from the Valley of the Fallen.
Franco's exhumation should be completed by the end of this year, with a view to turning the monument into "a place of commemoration, remembrance and homage to the victims of the war," Calvo said.
Following their unexpected ouster of Mariano Rajoy's conservative People's Party (PP) administration, the Socialists hold just a quarter of the seats in parliament.
That puts major economic and political changes out of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's reach, and he sustained a painful defeat over his budget last month.
Instead, he has bet on high-profile measures likely to appeal to left-wing voters: naming a majority-female cabinet and receiving more migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, as well as pushing through the Valley of the Fallen plan.
TURNING A PAGE
The site has long been a pilgrimage for far-right groups. A man at the site on Friday morning wore a t-shirt bearing the eagle-adorned flag in use during Franco's rule, and fresh flowers lay on the dictator's tomb.
"Now is the time to turn a page," said Eduardo, a 25 year-old from the Canary Islands, walking in central Madrid. "It's good to go ahead with the exhumation and to convert that place into somewhere for everyone and not just for one faction."
The decree needs to be approved by parliament, but even in the face of opposition or likely abstention from the PP and centre-right Ciudadanos, it is unlikely to be voted down.
Recent polls suggest the Socialists would easily win a national election now, some indicating a lead of almost 10 percentage points over the PP.
"We don't want to dig up ghosts we have happily forgotten," PP leader Pablo Casado said on Thursday, adding his party would appeal against the decree but had not decided how to vote on it.
Parliament passed a non-binding motion last year to remove the remains from the mausoleum despite the PP's abstention.
Sanchez resorted to passing a decree on the exhumation after failed negotiations with Franco's seven grandchildren, who reportedly engaged a notary to formalise their opposition.
Carmen Martinez Bordiu, the eldest of his heirs, declined a Reuters request for comment. The abbot who runs the site and had appealed against other exhumations also declined to comment.
The family will have 15 days from the end of August to decide where they want Franco's remains to be taken. If they do not make a joint decision in that time, the government will decide where the new grave will be.