Fraga's career as one of the key political figures in Spain straddles both General Francisco Franco's dictatorial regime and the subsequent transition to representative democracy. He served as the President of the Xunta of Galicia from 1990 to 2005 and as a Senator until November 2011. Fraga is also one of the Fathers of the Constitution.
Fraga was born in Vilalba, Lugo Province, Galicia. Trained in law, economics and political science, he began his political career in 1945, during Francisco Franco's dictatorship.
Fraga authorized the execution of political prisoners under the Francoist regime. A notable case is the execution of communist leader Julián Grimau, whom he called "that little gentleman" (Spanish: ese caballerete) in a press conference when asked about his detention and death sentence. His death sentence caused a large controversy outside of Spain. Grimau was executed by firing squad in 1963. Fraga never publicly apologized or expressed regret for Grimau's execution.
Another notable case was the assassination by Spanish police of Enrique Ruano, a student activist who opposed the Francoist regime. Fraga telephoned Ruano's father and threatened to arrest his other daughter, Margot, who was also an anti-Francoist, unless she immediately stopped her activism. The then-director of Spanish newspaper ABC, Torcuato Luca de Tena, later confessed that Fraga ordered him to publish a manipulated copy of Ruano's personal diary in order to present Ruano as a mentally unstable person who killed himself.
Between 1962 and 1969 he served as Minister for Information and Tourism, and played a major role in the revitalization of Spanish tourist industry, leading a campaign under the slogan Spain is different!. On 8 March 1966, he attempted to dispel fears of a nuclear accident after the Palomares hydrogen bombs incident by swimming in the contaminated water with the American ambassador, Angier Biddle Duke.
Fraga also established himself as one of the more prominent members of a reformist faction in the government who favoured opening up the regime from above. He introduced an a posteriori censorship law, which was based on lifting pre-publication censorship and a reduction in its strictness. Additionally, a certain sexual liberality in films was popularly summarized in the expression Con Fraga hasta la braga ("With Fraga [you can see] even the panties").
After a brief period as Spain's ambassador in the United Kingdom, which ended with Franco's death in 1975, Fraga was appointed vice president of the government (deputy prime minister) and Interior Minister (Ministro de Gobernación) on 12 December 1975, under Carlos Arias Navarro, a post he held until 5 July 1976. This was the first government with Juan Carlos I as chief of state.
Although Fraga was known to favor liberalising the regime from above, he himself favoured an extremely gradual transition to full democracy. The drastic measures he took as interior minister and head of state security during the first days of the Spanish transition to democracy gave him a reputation for heavy-handedness, and deeply damaged his popularity. The phrase "¡La calle es mía!" ("The streets are mine!") was attributed to him as his answer to complaints of police repression of street protests. He claimed that the streets did not belong to "people" but to the state. He was known to be an admirer of Cánovas del Castillo. During a clash at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi between police and striking workers, on Fraga's orders the police stormed into a packed church into which 4,000 demonstrators had retreated and went on a shooting spree, resulting in five dead and over 100 wounded.
Fraga was one of the writers of the new Spanish constitution approved in 1978. Along with other former reformist members of Franco's regime, he founded the People's Alliance (Alianza Popular – AP), and became its president. Although he tried to brand the party as a mainstream conservative party, the people did not trust him due to large number of former Francoists in the party, combined with his performance as interior minister. The party fared poorly in its first years, but after the 1982 crisis and the collapse of the UCD, the centrist party that had won the first two democratic elections, AP became the second party in Spain.
Fraga was reckoned as the Leader of the Opposition to the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government. The PSOE enjoyed great popularity and an absolute majority winning streak in the 1982 and 1986 elections, in part because Fraga and the AP were generally viewed as too reactionary to be an alternative. Following this critical development, Fraga resigned the presidency of the party in 1986. He suffered a scandal in 1983, when it was reported that Rodolfo Almirón, a former Argentine national police officer implicated in Triple A, a right-wing death squad in Argentina, was part of his security team. Because of the outcry, Fraga dismissed Almirón.
With the AP in headlong decline, Fraga resumed the leadership of the party in 1989. With the addition of several lesser Christian democratic parties and the remnants of the Democratic Center Union, he refounded the People's Alliance as the People's Party (Partido Popular – PP). Later in the same year, Fraga encouraged the election of José María Aznar as the party's new president. Fraga was then appointed as honorary president of the PP.
Manuel Fraga returned to his Galician homeland in 1989, winning that year's presidential election as head of the People's Party in Galicia (PPdeG), which had won a one-seat majority in the election. He remained in charge for almost 15 years until 2005, when the PPdeG lost its overall majority.
Fraga saw his credibility damaged in late 2002, when the oil tanker ship Prestige sank off the Galician coast. It caused a massive oil spill that affected the shoreline in the northwest of the region. Fraga was said to have been slow to react and unable, or unwilling, to handle the situation. In 2004, a power struggle between factions of PPdeG further hurt the party's image.
Subsequently, in the autonomous elections of 2005, Fraga and the PPdeG lost their absolute majority in the Parliament of Galicia. Despite their obtaining a 45% plurality in the elections, a left-government coalition developed between the Socialists' Party of Galicia (PSdeG) and the Galician Nationalist Bloc, making socialist Emilio Pérez Touriño the new president. Fraga remained on the political scene from Galicia, as a member of the Senate representing the Parliament of Galicia. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a member of the Galician Popular Party, has been the PPdG head since late 2005.
Fraga was designated as a Senator by the Galicia Parliament in 2008.
Fraga was one of the writers of the democratic constitution and spent part of his political career lessening the censorship law during the latter years of the Franco dictatorship. However he had openly admitted admiration for General Franco and the regime in public on several different occasions. He was renowned for his temper tantrums in public at not being referred to or addressed as Don Manuel. He most famously shouted during a television interview, completely unaware the camera was filming and the show was being broadcast live on air. Manuel Fraga Iribarne was probably one of the most important and yet controversial politicians in modern Spain.
To his supporters, Fraga was a Galician hero who throughout his rule, modernised Galicia and built up a fair level of tourism to the region. He built great roads and motorways and in 2000, he approved the Galician Plan to build Spain's first high speed bullet train. However to his opponents he was an authoritarian relic of the Franco era who failed to lift Galicia and its people out of poverty and unemployment.
Despite their political differences, he maintained a friendship with Fidel Castro, himself of Galician descent, who visited him in Galicia in 1992.
Fraga died on 15 January 2012 of a respiratory disease. His funeral was attended by Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia.