MADRID, SPAIN - One of the first steps taken by Spain's prime minister after assuming office in June was to order the exhumation of the remains of right-wing military dictator Francisco Franco from a mausoleum in the capital's outskirts, where they have rested since he died in power a half century ago.
"Democracy cannot dignify a dictator," Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), said in justifying the order.
The decision was hailed by leftists, but critics warned that polarizing struggles between traditional conservatives and a new breed of left-wing populists could end five decades of bipartisan continuity since Franco's death.
Sanchez maintains a razor-thin edge in parliament's lower chamber through an alliance with hard-left groups and Catalan nationalists. His priorities, he said in an address to last month's U.N. General Assembly, include raising social spending, fighting climate change and promoting women's rights.
Elsewhere in Europe, populism has come to be identified with far-right movements whose rhetoric is often associated with the xenophobia and racism that characterized the fascist movements that brought Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to power.
But today's Spanish populism, says influential opinion columnist Mario Saavedra, is "leftist" and appears rooted in memories of a 1930's republic that was overthrown by Franco in a bloody civil war.
The republic established after King Alfonso XIII stepped aside in 1931 captured the imagination of European and American intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway, who based his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls on his experiences there. It brought together the world's most fashionable utopian ideologies at the time, including communism and anarchist syndicalism. Democratic socialists occupied its presidency.
Historian Javier Arjona draws parallels between the coalition of leftist parties which maneuvered Sanchez into the prime minister's seat and the radical "Popular Front" that came to power through a disputed election victory in 1936. Government supporters scoff at the comparison and Sanchez accuses conservatives of appealing to the "extreme right" in a bid to regain power.
Regardless, a leftist brand of republicanism seems to be back in vogue. Its purple colors appear at social protests and adorn the jerseys of some soccer clubs. Catalan nationalists and the far-left United We Can party who prop up Sanchez's government call for restoring a republic and holding a referendum on the future of the monarchy. Burning pictures of King Felipe has become a ritual at separatist rallies in Catalonia.
United We Can, or Unidos Podemos (UP) in Spanish, is led by Pablo Iglesias, a political science professor who merged a new generation of leftists with remnants of the old communist party. His movement harnessed a wave of social discontent that exploded into mass protests during the recent global recession, in which Spain's unemployment rate topped 25 percent nationally and reached 50 percent among young people.
Disenchanted working-class supporters of Sanchez's mainstream PSOE turned to UP, which promised to confront corruption on all sides.
While Spain has largely recovered from the darkest days of the crash, UP continues to win followers by denouncing abusive business practices such as the eviction of low-income tenants from housing estates when they are bought up by foreign "vulture funds." It also champions an increase in old-age pensions for Spain's growing senior population.
In unveiling its budget October 11, the Sanchez government announced an agreement between the PSOE and UP on a package that includes a massive increase in public spending, the expansion of public services, new regulations, and a substantial rise in the minimum wage.
Sanchez has also called for changing Spain's constitution. His justice minister, Dolores Delgado, an outspoken proponent of women's rights, has said that it needs to be rewritten to make it more gender neutral.
His vice president, Carmen Calvo, has called for curbing press freedoms to counter what she calls a "high volume of half-truths and lies" by conservative media. She has threatened to take legal action against the conservative, pro-monarchy, pro-Catholic newspaper ABC over its published allegations that Sanchez plagiarized his doctoral thesis.
Some business leaders say they are worried. John de Zulueta, chairman of the Circulo de Empresarios, the Spanish business association, said tax hikes proposed by Sanchez to cover a rise in social spending could depress the markets at a time when the economy is not fully out of recession. The IMF has also criticized Sanchez's plans to finance deficit spending.
Government spokespersons defend their actions, saying their plan is adjusted to EU budget requirements.
Conservatives are also trying to block Sanchez from satisfying Catalan separatists by granting pardons to Catalan Vice president Oriol Junqueras and other officials who are in prison awaiting trial for plotting an independence bid.
"We have to find a political rather than a judicial solution to the Catalan crisis," Sanchez said after recent violent protests in Barcelona.
Political analyst Ramon Peralta, a professor at Complutense University of Madrid, said Sanchez "tries to shield his government by wrapping it in popular causes."
In his U.N. speech, Sanchez highlighted his feminist agenda, boasting that 60 percent of his cabinet are women and pledging "zero tolerance" of sexual harassment.
Feminist leaders, who see Spain's traditional culture of machismo as toxic to women's rights, are strongly backing Sanchez despite a scandal in which the justice minister was caught on tape speaking insultingly about the interior minister's homosexuality.
Sanchez' moves have been well received by liberals elsewhere in Europe. In a recent editorial, the British newspaper The Guardian said, "exhuming Franco is a necessary step in the final stages of Spain's historic journey away from authoritarian violence towards enduring democracy."
But others, including some of the prime minister's allies, suggest that steps like the exhumation of Franco will simply fan the flames of the extreme right. Since Sanchez announced plans to open Franco's crypt, visits to the mountaintop mausoleum have risen by 77 percent.
The visitors have included blue-shirted members of the Falange party, who raise their arms in the fascist salute while singing their battle hymn, "Cara al Sol," or "Face to the Sun." A new extreme-right party called VOX has threatened to stage mass protests to block the exhumation.
Spanish public opinion is about evenly split. According to a survey in July by polling institute Sigma Dos, about 41 percent support the decision while 39 percent are opposed.