History of Spain


Transition to Democracy

The democratization that Franco's chosen heir, Juan Carlos, and his collaborators peacefully and legally brought to Spain over a three-year period was unprecedented. Never before had a dictatorial regime been transformed into a pluralistic, parliamentary democracy without civil war, revolutionary overthrow, or defeat by a foreign power. The transition is all the more remarkable because the institutional mechanisms designed to maintain Franco's authoritarian system made it possible to legislate a democratic constitutional monarchy into existence.

When Prince Juan Carlos took the oath as king of Spain on November 22, 1975, there was little reason to foresee that he would be the architect of such a dramatic transformation. Franco had hand-picked Juan Carlos and had overseen his education. He was considered an enigma, having publicly sworn loyalty to the principles of Franco's National Movement while privately giving vague indications of sympathy for democratic institutions. More was known of his athletic skills than of his political opinions, and observers predicted that he would be known as "Juan the Brief."

Juan Carlos confirmed Arias Navarro's continuation in office as prime minister, disappointing those who were hoping for liberal reforms. Arias Navarro had served as minister of the interior under Carrero Blanco, and he was a loyal Francoist. His policy speech of January 28, 1976, was vague--devoid of concrete plans for political reform. The hopes and expectations aroused by the long-awaited demise of Franco were frustrated in the initial months of the monarchy, and a wave of demonstrations, industrial strikes, and terrorist activity challenged the country's stability. The government responded with repressive measures to restore law and order. These measures inflamed and united the liberal opposition. At the same time, the cautious reforms that the Arias Navarro government proposed met with hostile reaction from orthodox Francoists, who pledged resistance to any form of change.

It was in this volatile atmosphere that Juan Carlos, increasingly dissatisfied with the prime minister's ability (or willingness) to handle the immobilists as well as with his skill in dealing with the opposition, asked for Arias Navarro's resignation. Arias Navarro submitted his resignation on July 1, 1976. Proponents of reform were both surprised and disappointed when the king chose, as Arias Navarro's successor, Adolfo Suarez Gonzalez, who had served under Franco and who had been designated secretary general of the National Movement in the first government of the monarchy. The new prime minister's Francoist links made it appear unlikely that he would promote major evolutionary change in Spain, but it was these links with the political establishment that made it possible for him to maneuver within the existing institutions to bring about the reforms that Juan Carlos desired.

Throughout the rapid democratization that followed the appointment of Suarez, the collaboration between the king and his prime minister was crucial in assuaging opposition from both the immobilists of the old regime and those who agitated for a more radical break with the past. Whereas Suarez's political expertise and pragmatic approach enabled him to manipulate the bureaucratic machinery, Juan Carlos's ability to maintain the allegiance of the armed forces made a peaceful transition to democracy possible during these precarious months.

In July 1976, the government declared a partial amnesty that freed approximately 400 political prisoners. On September 10, Suarez announced a program of political reform, calling for a bicameral legislature based on universal suffrage. With skillful maneuvering, he was able to persuade members of the Cortes to approve the law, thereby voting their own corporatist institution out of existence, in November. The reforms were then submitted to a national referendum in December 1976, in accordance with Franco's 1945 Law on Referenda. The Spanish people voted overwhelmingly in favor of reform: about 94 percent of the voters (78 percent of the electorate took part in the referendum) gave their approval. The results of the referendum strengthened the position of the Suarez government and of the king and represented a vindication for those who favored reform from above rather than revolution.

In the first six months of 1977, significant reforms were enacted in rapid succession. There were further pardons for political prisoners in March; independent trade unions replaced vertical and labor syndicates; and the right to strike was restored. In April the National Movement was disbanded.

Suarez and the king began to prepare the Spanish people for the first free elections--to be held on June 15, 1977--since the Civil War. The legalization of political parties began in February, and an electoral law outlining the rules for electoral competition was negotiated with opposition political forces and went into effect in March. The government adopted the d'Hondt system of proportional representation, which favored the formation of large parties or coalitions.

A major crisis appeared to be in the offing over the issue of legalizing the Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de Espana--PCE). Parties of the left and the center-left demanded legal recognition, refusing to participate in the elections otherwise. Suarez feared a strong reaction from military leaders, however, if such a step were taken. Members of the armed forces had been dedicated to the suppression of Marxism since the time of the Civil War; moreover, Suarez had assured them the previous September that the PCE would never be legalized.

In a bold but necessary move, Suarez legalized the PCE on April 9, 1977. Military leaders were upset by the decision and publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with the measure, but they grudgingly accepted it out of patriotism. Juan Carlos's close relations with senior military officers were a factor in defusing a potentially explosive state of affairs. His earlier efforts to replace ultraconservative commanders of the armed forces with more liberal ones also benefited him when he took this controversial step. The moderation that the communists exercised in accepting the monarchy in spite of their avowed republicanism also helped to normalize the political situation.

As the country prepared for elections, a large number of diverse political parties began to form. Only a few of these parties gained parliamentary representation following the June 15, 1977, elections, however, and none achieved an absolute majority. The Union of the Democratic Center (Union de Centro Democratico--UCD), a centrist coalition of several groups, including Francoist reformists and moderate opposition democrats, led by Suarez, emerged from the election as the largest party, winning 34.6 percent of the vote.

The leading opposition party was the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol--PSOE), which received 29.3 percent of the vote. Having been in existence since 1879, the PSOE was Spain's oldest political party. A group of dynamic young activists, led by a Seville lawyer, Felipe Gonzalez Marquez, had taken control of the party from the exiles in 1972, and their revolutionary idealism, combined with pragmatic policies, enabled the PSOE to appeal to a broader spectrum of the electorate. Both the neo-Francoist right, embodied in the Popular Alliance (Alianza Popular--AP), and the PCE were disappointed with the election results, which gave them each less than 10 percent of the popular vote. Catalan and Basque regional parties accounted for most of the remaining votes.

The election results were a victory for both moderation and the desire for change. They boded well for the development of democracy in Spain. The domination of Spain's party system by two relatively moderate political groups marked an end to the polarization that had plagued the country since the days of the Second Republic. The political skill of Suarez, the courage and determination of Juan Carlos, and the willingness of opposition leaders to sacrifice their hopes for more radical social change to the more immediate goal of securing political democracy helped to end the polarization. The deferral of these hopes led to eventual disenchantment with the Suarez government, but in 1977 it was a key factor in the peaceful transition to democracy.

A formidable array of problems, including a growing economic crisis, Basque terrorism, and the threat of military subversion, confronted the new Suarez government. Long-range solutions could not be devised until after the new constitution had been approved, but in the interim, the socioeconomic difficulties had to be faced. It was apparent that austerity measures would have to be taken, and Suarez knew he needed to gain support for a national economic recovery program. This was achieved in October 1977 in the Moncloa Pacts, named for the prime minister's official residence where leaders of Spain's major political parties met and agreed to share the costs of, and the responsibility for, economic reforms. The parties of the left were promised an increase in unemployment benefits, the creation of new jobs, and other reforms; in return they agreed to further tax increases, credit restrictions, reductions in public expenditures, and a 20 percent ceiling on wage increases.

The new government set forth a provisional solution to demands for regional autonomy. Preautonomy decrees were issued for Catalonia in September and for three of the Basque provinces in December, 1977. The significance of these decrees was primarily symbolic, but the decrees helped to avoid potentially disruptive conflict for the time being by recognizing the distinctive political character of the regions and by promising autonomy when the constitution was ratified. The regional issue nevertheless continued to be the government's most intractable problem, and it became even more complicated as autonomist demands proliferated throughout the country. During the early months of the Suarez government, there were disturbing indications that the army's toleration of political pluralism was limited. Military unrest also boded ill for the regime's future stability.

The major task facing the government during this transitional period was the drafting of a new constitution. Since previous constitutions had failed in Spain because they had usually been imposed by one particular group and were not the expression of the popular will, it was imperative that the new constitution be based on consensus. To this end, the Constitutional Committee of the Cortes in August 1977 elected a parliamentary commission representing all the major national parties and the more important regional ones. This group began its deliberations in an atmosphere of compromise and cooperation. Although members of the group disagreed over issues of education, abortion, lock-outs, and regionalism, they made steady progress. The Cortes passed the document they produced--with amendments--in October 1978.

The new 1978 Constitution is long and detailed, because of its framers' desire to gain acceptance for the document by including something for everyone. It proclaims Spain to be a parliamentary monarchy and guarantees its citizens equality before the law and a full range of individual liberties, including religious freedom. While recognizing the autonomy of the regions, it stresses the indivisibility of the Spanish state. The Constitution was submitted to popular referendum on December 6, 1978, and it was approved by 87.8 of the 67.7 percent of the eligible voters who went to the polls.

After the king had signed the new Constitution, Suarez dissolved the Cortes and called another general election for March. It was widely predicted that the results would show an erosion of support for Suarez and the UCD (which had begun to show signs of fragmentation) and a gain for the PSOE. The PSOE was experiencing its own internal crisis, however. The party's official definition of itself as Marxist hampered Gonzalez's efforts to project an image of moderation and statesmanship. At the same time, the party's more radical members were increasingly resentful of Gonzalez's ideological moderation. Contrary to expectations, the PSOE did not improve its position when Spaniards went to the polls on March 1, 1979. The election results were not significantly different from those of 1977, and they were seen as a reaffirmation and a consolidation of the basic power structure.

Disenchantment with UCD Leadership

Political change was under way. The UCD was a coalition that encompassed a wide range of frequently incompatible political aspirations. Internal conflict had been muted in the interest of maintaining party unity in order to protect the transition to democracy. When the 1979 elections appeared to affirm this transition, the centrifugal tendencies broke loose. In the succeeding months, the center-right UCD moved farther to the right, and its more conservative members were increasingly critical of Suarez's compromises with the PSOE opposition on political and economic issues. At the same time, large segments of the population were frustrated that Suarez did not produce a more thorough reform program to eliminate the vestiges of authoritarian institutions and practices.

Suarez's failure to deal decisively with the regional problem further eroded his popularity. Repressive police measures met increasingly virulent outbreaks of Basque terrorism, and the ongoing spiral of repression and terror contributed to a growing impression that the government was incompetent. The mounting violence further exacerbated Suarez's relations with the military, which were already strained because of his legalization of the PCE. Army leaders, who had only grudgingly accepted political reforms out of loyalty to Juan Carlos, grew increasingly hostile to the democratic regime as ETA terrorism intensified. A coup plot had been uncovered in the fall of 1978, and the possibility of military subversion continued to be a threat.

As discontent with his leadership grew, Suarez realized that he had lost his effectiveness, and on January 29, 1981, he announced his resignation as prime minister. The king appointed conservative centrist Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo to replace him. Before the new prime minister could be confirmed, a group of Civil Guards, led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina, marched onto the floor of the Cortes and held the representatives hostage in an attempted coup. The plan of the rebellious military leaders was to set up an authoritarian monarchy under the protection of the armed forces. That the coup failed was primarily due to the decisive action of Juan Carlos, who ordered the conspirators to desist and persuaded other military officers to back him in defending the Constitution. Juan Carlos then appeared on television and reassured the Spanish people of his commitment to democracy. The foiled coup was over by the next day, but it demonstrated the fragility of Spain's democracy and the importance of Juan Carlos to its continued survival. On February 27, more than 3 million people demonstrated in favor of democracy in the capital and elsewhere throughout Spain, showing the extent of popular support for democratic government.

Growth of the PSOE and the 1982 Elections

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the various sectors within the UCD closed ranks briefly around their new prime minister, Calvo Sotelo, but internal cleavages prevented the formation of a coherent centrist party. Clashes between the moderate and the rightist elements within the UCD, particularly over the divorce bill, resulted in resignations of dissenting groups and the formation of new splinter parties and coalitions. These developments in turn led to a series of election defeats in 1981 and 1982, and by the time a general election was called in August for October 1982, the UCD's representation in the Cortes was down by one-third.

As the UCD continued to disintegrate, the PSOE gained strength; it was considered more likely than the increasingly conservative UCD to bring about the sweeping social and economic reforms that the Spanish people desired. Moreover, party leader Gonzalez had been successful in his efforts to direct the PSOE toward a more centrist-left position, as seen in his successful persuasion of PSOE delegates in 1979 to drop the term "Marxist" from the party's definition of itself. The PSOE was thereby able to project an image of greater moderation and reliability, and it became a viable governmental alternative. The PSOE also benefited from the decline of the PCE. The heavy-handed management style of PCE leader Santiago Carrillo had aggravated the dissension in the party over whether to follow a more revolutionary line or to adopt more moderate policies. As was the case with the UCD, internecine disputes within the PCE resulted in defections from the party. With the PCE apparently on the point of collapse, the PSOE became the only feasible option for left-wing voters.

When Spaniards went to the polls in record numbers in October 1982, they gave a sweeping victory to the PSOE, which received the largest plurality (48.4 percent) in the post-1977 period. The party enlarged its share of the 350 seats in the Chamber of Deputies to 202, while the UCD, with only 6.8 percent of the vote, won only 11 seats. The conservative AP took on the role of opposition party. The most significant implication of the October elections for the future of democracy in Spain was the transfer of power from one party to another without military intervention or bloodshed. The transition to democracy appeared to be complete.

Spanish Foreign Policy in the Post-Franco Period

Spain's political system underwent dramatic transformations after the death of Franco, but there was nevertheless some degree of continuity in Spanish foreign policy. The return of Gibraltar to Spanish sovereignty continued to be a foreign policy goal, as did greater integration of Spain into Western Europe. In spite of frequent ongoing negotiations, neither of these goals had been accomplished by the time Gonzalez came to power in 1982. Foreign policy makers also endeavored to maintain an influential role for Spain in its relations with Latin American nations.

Spanish opinion was more ambivalent with regard to membership in NATO and relations with the United States, although defense agreements, allowing the United States to continue using its naval and air bases in Spain, were signed periodically. When Spain joined NATO in May 1982, under Calvo Sotelo's government, the PSOE leadership strongly opposed such a commitment and called for withdrawal from the Alliance. One of Gonzalez's campaign promises was a national referendum on Spain's NATO membership. In 1982 the role the new Socialist government envisioned for Spain in the West's economic, political, and security arrangements remained to be seen.

Spain History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress