The basilica of the Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), a monument to the Francoist combatants who died during the Spanish Civil War and Franco's final resting place just outside Madrid.
CNN  — 

Spain’s government has given the family of Francisco Franco 15 days to decide where the former dictator should be reburied, as they race to exhume and relocate his remains before the country’s snap election takes place in April.

Franco has been buried in the Catholic basilica at the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial site created by the dictator to commemorate those killed in the Spanish Civil War, since his death in 1975.

The site was partially built by political prisoners of Franco’s regime – and his tomb has long been the subject of heated debate in Spain, a country bitterly divided over how the nationalist ruler should be remembered.

The incumbent Socialist Party, which sees the burial as a shrine to a brutal Fascist dictator whose regime oversaw tens of thousands of executions, has repeatedly pledged to move Franco’s remains to a more austere location.

The grave of Spain's General Francisco Franco.

“The family has been granted a 15-day period to decide where it wants to bury the remains of the dictator,” Spain’s justice minister Dolores Delgado told reporters on Friday, adding that the government will choose a location if Franco’s family cannot agree to one.

Its cabinet approved the exhumation last August, but Franco’s family have bitterly resisted the attempts and groups sympathetic to the leader have threatened to take legal action to prevent the process.

Responding to the move, the Francisco Franco National Foundation said it would “continue using all the means provided by the legal system to prevent any kind of outrage and injustice that threatens Spain, its history and the common good of the Spanish.”

A divisive legacy

The government’s ultimatum, announced just hours after Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called a snap election for April 28, demonstrates its eagerness to complete a longstanding pledge before the country goes to the polls.

“Having the tomb of Franco there means a lack of respect and peace for the victims who are buried within,” Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said in August, after the cabinet approved the exhumation. “Democracy is not compatible with a state tomb that honors the memory of Franco.”

General Francisco Franco, named generalissimo or supreme commander a little more than a week earlier, is made leader of Spain's new  regime on October 1, 1936.

However, Spain’s foremost right-of-center parties have previously opposed measures to remove Franco’s remains – meaning any such effort will likely be removed from the political agenda if the Socialists are unable to retain their grip on power.

The political stalemate reflects Franco’s complicated legacy in the country, with many on the right viewing the authoritarian leader in a positive light and insisting his impact on Spain should be celebrated.

Franco ruled Spain from the late 1930s until his death in 1975. Thousands of executions were carried out by his nationalist regime during the Spanish Civil War and in the following years.

After World War II, he was seen by many as the last surviving fascist dictator and was ostracized by the United Nations. His regime was partly rehabilitated during the Cold War because of Franco’s staunch anti-communist ideology.

In 2007, the Spanish government passed the Law of Historical Memory, which formally condemns the Franco regime and bans political events at the Valley of the Fallen. It also recognizes the victims of the civil war and the Francoist state and pledges aid to those victims and their descendants.

Judith Vonberg and Laura Perez Maestro contributed reporting.