Spanish transition to democracy

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The Spanish transition to democracy or new Bourbon restoration was the era when Spain moved from the dictatorship of Francisco Franco to a liberal democratic state. The transition is usually said to have begun with Franco’s death on November 20, 1975, while its completion is marked by the electoral victory of the socialist PSOE on October 28, 1982.


The Political Role of King Juan Carlos I

The death of Franco elevated Don Juan Carlos de Borbón to the monarchy. Until Franco’s death, Juan Carlos had discreetly stood in the background and seemed to follow the dictator’s plans. However, once in power as King of Spain, Juan Carlos facilitated the development of a democratic political system, as his father, Don Juan de Borbón, had advocated since 1946.

The transition was an ambitious plan that counted on ample support both within and outside of Spain. The Western nations, headed by the United States (which had generally supported Franco's dictatorship), favoured Spanish democracy, as did an important part of Spanish and international capitalism. Most of those within Spain who had Franco's regime and many of those who had supported embraced Juan Carlos's plan as a chance for beneficial political change.

Nonetheless, the transition was not easy. The spectre of the Civil War (1936-1939) still haunted Spain. Francoists on the extreme right had considerable support within the Spanish Army, and extreme radicals of the left distrusted a king who owed his position to Franco.

The realization of the democratic project required that the left opposition restrain its own most radical elements from provocations and that the army refrain from intervening in the political process on behalf of Francoist elements within the existing government.

Juan Carlos began his reign without leaving the confines of Franco's legal system. As such, he swore fidelity to the Principles of the Movimiento Nacional, the sole legal party of the Franco era; took possession of the crown before the Francoist Cortes Generales; and respected the Ley Orgánica del Estado (The Organic Law of the State) for the appointment of his first head of government. Only in his speech before the Cortes did he show the beginning of the transformation of the Spanish political system.

The First Government of the Monarchy (January-July 1976)

The first government of Juan Carlos was presided over by Carlos Arias Navarro. The King made this appointment in accordance with the guidelines of the 1966 Ley Orgánica del Estado ("Organic Law of the State"): the Consejo del Reino ("Council of the Kingdom") proposed a list of three candidates, and from among these the King chose Arias Navarro.

The appointment of Arias Navarro did not foretell large political transformations. Nevertheless, the new government included three personalities who, although they had collaborated with the pro-Franco state in the past, were, in 1976, dedicated supporters of the transition toward a democratic state.

José María de Areilza, a member of Don Juan's Privy Council, was given the portfolio of Foreign Affairs, whilst the diplomat Antonio Garrigues y Díaz Cañabate was named Minister of Justice, and Manuel Fraga Iribarne was appointed Minster for Government (Ministro de Gobernación). However, to maintain political balance, the Vice-Chairman for Defense was an unconditionally pro-Franco military man: General Fernando de Santiago.

Two other officials, with time, became very important for political change. Torcuato Fernández Miranda, a university professor from the ranks of the Movimiento was the president of both the Cortes and the Council of the Kingdom. Adolfo Suárez, who also started his career within the Movimiento, held the position of Secretary-General of the Movimiento, with the rank of minister.

The situation confronting the new government was overwhelmingly difficult. Unrest was on the increase, protests for amnesty were frequent, and in the Basque Country tension mounted steadily. ETA continued its attacks and had popular support for many of its actions. A general strike in Vitoria at the beginning of March 1976 lasted for several days. Street protests exploded, and the police responded harshly, resulting in the deaths of three people and a loss of prestige for Minister Fraga, already reputed as heavy-handed before the uprising.

Meanwhile, the opposition impatiently demanded the dismantling of the Francoist regime within a short time period. The political forces of the opposition united in March 1976 and gave birth to a new organization, the Coordinación Democrática, which declared that it would not accept any political system connected with the old Francoist order. Arias Navarro intended only small changes to the Francoist system, but some of his ministers had already anticipated and embraced the prospect of greater change.

José María de Areilza accompanied the King on a trip to the United States in June 1976, and declared complete support for the implementation of a democratic system in Spain. Adolfo Suárez maintained frequent contacts with moderate members of the opposition to plan the first stages of the transition. Also, the King himself, during the trip to the United States, plainly declared that he favored re-establishing democracy in Spain. Finally, in July, as Prime Minister Arias Navarro continued to delay reform and object to democratization, Juan Carlos demanded his resignation.

The First Government of Adolfo Suárez (July 1976 - June 1977)

Fernández Miranda, as president of the Council of the Kingdom, obtained Adolfo Suárez’s placement on the new list of three candidates for head of the government. The king chose Suárez because he met all the criteria to achieve the difficult political operation that lay ahead: convincing the Cortes, composed of installed, Francoist politicians to dismantle Franco’s system. In this manner he would formally act within the Francoist legal system and skirt, if possible, the danger of military intervention in the process of transition.

Adolfo Suárez quickly presented a clear political program based on two points:

  • The development of a Law for Political Reform that, once approved by the Cortes and the Spanish public in a referendum, would open the constituent process for creating a liberal democracy in Spain.
  • A call for democratic elections in June, 1977 in order to elect a Cortes that would be charged with drawing up a new democratic constitution.

This program was clear and unequivocal, but its realization was very difficult and tested the political capacity of Suárez. He had to convince the opposition to participate in his plan and the army to allow the process to run uninterrupted, and to control the situation in the Basque Country, which had been out of control for days.

Despite all these difficulties, Suárez's project went under way without delay between July 1976 and June 1977. In this short period of time Adolfo Suárez had to act on many fronts to achieve his reform project.

The Law for Political Reform

The project of the Law for Political Reform (Ley para la Reforma Política) was developed by the Suárez government in September 1976. In order to open the door to parliamentary democracy in Spain, this legislation could not simply create a new political system by eliminating the obstacles put in place by the Franco regimen against democracy: it had to liquidate the Francoist system through the Francoist Cortes themselves. Throughout the month of November the Cortes, under the able presidency of Fernández Miranda, debated this law, which it ultimately approved with 425 votes in favor, 59 against, and 13 abstentions.

The Suárez government wanted to gain further legitimacy for the changes through a popular referendum. With a 77.72% participation rate, 94% of the voters voted in favor of the changes.

From this moment, it was possible to begin the electoral process, the second part of the Suárez program, which would serve to elect the deputies of the Constituent Cortes, responsible for creating a democratic constitution.

With this the second part of his plan accomplished, Suárez had to resolve a crucial problem: should he include the opposition groups who had not participated in the beginnings of the transition? To resolve this problem, Suárez had to tackle another delicate issue, the agreements with the anti-Francoist opposition.

Relations of the Suárez Government with the Opposition

Suárez adopted a series of measured policies to add credibility to his project. In July 1976 he issued a partial political amnesty, freeing 400 prisoners. He extended this in March 1977, and finally granted a blanket amnesty in May of the same year. In December, 1976 the Tribunal de Orden Público (TOP), a sort of Francoist secret police, was dissolved. In March 1977, the right to strike was legalized. In April of the same year the right to unionize was granted. Also, in March 1977 a new electoral Law (Ley Electoral) fulfilled the necessary conditions needed for Spain's electoral system to be brought into accord with those of other countries that had liberal, parliamentary democracies.

Through these and other measures of government, Suárez complied with the conditions that the opposition groups had demanded since 1974. These opposition forces had met in November 1976 in order to create a platform of democratic organizations.

Suárez had initiated political contact with the opposition by meeting with Felipe González, secretary general of the PSOE, in August 1976. The positive attitude of the socialist leader gave wings to Suárez to carry forward his political project, but everyone clearly perceived that the big problem for the political normalization of the county would be the legalization of the Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de España or PCE), which had, at the time, more activists and was more organized than any other group in the political opposition. However, in a meeting Suárez had with the most important military leaders (September, 1976), the officers clearly declared their full opposition against the legalization of the PCE.

The PCE, for its part, acted ever more publicly to express its opinions. According to the Communists, the Law for Political Reform was anti-democratic, and, moreover, the elections for the Constituent Cortes should be called by a provisional government that formed part of the political forces of the opposition. The opposition did not show any enthusiasm for the Law for Political Reform. Suárez had to risk even more in order to involve the opposition forces in his plan.

In December 1976, the PSOE celebrated its XXVII Congress in Madrid, and began to disassociate itself from the demands of the PCE, affirming that it would participate in the next call for elections for the Constituent Cortes. In the beginning of 1977, the year of the elections, Suárez decided to confront the problem of legalizing the PCE. In February of the same year, convinced that the process of political normalization would not be viable if the PCE was marginalized, he talked with PCE secretary Santiago Carrillo. Carrillo's willingness to collaborate without prior demands and his offer of a "social pact" for the period after the elections pushed Suárez to take the riskiest step of the transition: the legalization of the PCE in April 1977.

Relations of the Suárez government with the army

Adolfo Suárez knew full well that the "Búnker"—a group of hard-line Francoists led by José Antonio Girón and Blas Piñar, who had a mouthpiece in the newspaper El Alcázar—had close contacts with officials in the army and exercised influence over important sectors of the military. These forces could constitute an insurmountable obstacle if they obtained military intervention against political reform.

To resolve this difficulty, Suárez intended to support himself with a liberal group within the military, centered on General Díez Alegría. Suárez decided to give the members of this group the positions of authority with the most responsibility. The most notable personality of this tendency within the army was General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado. But in July 1976, the Vice President for Defense Affairs was General Fernando de Santiago who belonged to the hardline group within the army. De Santiago had shown his restlessness before, during the first amnesty in July 1976. He had opposed the law granting the right to unionize. Suárez dismissed Fernando de Santiago and nominated instead Gutiérrez Mellado. This confrontation with General de Santiago caused a large part of the army to oppose Suárez, an opposition that further intensified when the PCE was legalized.

Meanwhile, Gutiérrez Mellado promoted officials who supported political reform removed those commanders of security forces (Policía Armada and the Guardia Civil) who seemed to support preserving the Francoist regime.

Suárez wanted to demonstrate to the army that the political normalization of the country meant neither anarchy nor revolution. In this, he counted on the collaboration of Santiago Carrillo, but he could in no way count on the collaboration of terrorist groups.

Terrorism revives itself

The Basque Country remained, for the better part of this period, in a state of political turbulence. Suárez granted a multi-stage amnesty, but the confrontations continued between police and protesters. ETA, which in the summer of 1976 seemed open to a limited truce, resumed terror tactics again in October; 1978–1980 would be ETA's three deadliest years ever. [1] But it was between December 1976 and January 1977 when a series of terror attacks brought about a situation of strong tension in Spain.

First, the left-wing GRAPO (Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre) began by placing bombs and continued with the kidnapping of two important figures of the regime: the President of the Council of the State José María de Oriol, and general Villaescusa, President of the Superior Council of the Military Justice. From the right, during these kidnappings, a group of fascists murdered six members of the PCE, five of them labor lawyers, in an office on Atocha Street in Madrid.

In the midst of these dramatic provocations, Suárez convened his first meeting with any significant number of opposition leaders, who published a condemnation of terrorism and gave their support to Suárez's actions. The forces of the Búnker benefited during this restless time, and announced that the country was on the brink of chaos.

In spite of all these difficulties, elections for the Constituent Cortes too place in June 1977.

The First Elections and the Draft of the Constitution

Political posters in an exhibition celebrating 20 years of the Spanish Constitution of 1978.
Political posters in an exhibition celebrating 20 years of the Spanish Constitution of 1978.

Elections held June 15, 1977 confirmed the existence of four important political forces at the national level. The votes broke down in the following manner:

With the success of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV-Partido Nacionalista Vasco) and the Democratic Pact for Catalonia (PDC-Pacte Democrátic per Catalunya) in their respective regions, nationalist parties also began to show their political strength in these elections.

More political posters in the same exhibition.
More political posters in the same exhibition.

The Cortes began to draft a constitution in the summer of 1977 and, in 1978, the Moncloa Pact was formed, under which all major parties agreed on major provisions of a new constitution to ensure its passage through the Constituent Cortes. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 went on to be approved in a referendum on the December 6, 1978.

The Governments of the UCD

Antonio Tejero, breaking into the Congress of Deputies February 23, 1981, attempting a coup. Below to the right is the defense minister Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado.
Antonio Tejero, breaking into the Congress of Deputies February 23, 1981, attempting a coup. Below to the right is the defense minister Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado.

The UCD received a plurality, but not an absolute majority, in both the June 1977 and March 1979 elections. In order to exercise power, the UCD had to form parliamentary coalitions with other political parties.

The government spent much of its time from 1979 working to hold together the many tendencies within the party itself, as well as their coalitions. In 1980, the Suárez government had for the most part accomplished its goals of transition to democracy and lacked a further clear agenda. Many UCD members were fairly conservative and did not want further change. For example, a bill to legalize divorce caused much dissension inside the UCD, in spite of clearly being supported by the majority of the populace. The UCD coalition fell apart.

The clashes among the several tendencies inside the party were eroded Suárez's authority and his role as leader. The tension exploded in 1981: Suárez resigned as the head of government, and Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was appointed, first to lead the new cabinet and later to the presidency of the UCD; social democrats led by Fernández Ordóñez defected from the coalition.

While the democratic normalization had allowed successfully convinced ETA (pm), the "political-military" fraction of ETA, to abandon arms and enter parliamentary politics, it did not stop the continuation of terrorist attacks by ETA (m) ("ETA Military"; later simply "ETA"), and, to a lesser extent, by GRAPO. Meanwhile, restlessness in various sections of the armed forces created fear of an impending military coup. The attempted coup known as 23-F, in which Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero led an occupation by a group of Guardia Civil of the Congress of Deputies on the afternoon of February 23, 1981 failed, but demonstrated the existence of insurrectionary elements within the army.

The PSOE as the Party in Government

Calvo Sotelo dissolved parliament and called elections for October 1982. In the 1979 election the UCD achieved a plurality; in 1982, they suffered a spectacular failure. The elections gave an absolute majority to the PSOE, which had already spent many years preparing its image of an alternative government.

In the XXVIII Congress of the PSOE (May 1979), its secretary general Felipe González resigned rather than ally with the strong revolutionary elements that seemed to dominate the party. A special congress was called that September, and realigned the party along more moderate lines, renouncing Marxism and allowing González to take charge once more.

Throughout 1982, the PSOE confirmed its moderate orientation and brought in the social democrats who had just broken from the UCD.

Winning an absolute majority in parliament in three consecutive elections (1982, 1986, and 1989) allowed the PSOE to legislate and govern without establishing pacts with the other parliamentary political forces. In this way, the PSOE could make laws to achieve the goals of its political program, "el cambio" ("the change"). At the same time, the PSOE led many local and regional administrations. This comfortable political majority allowed the PSOE to give the country a long period of tranquility and stability, after the intense years of the transition.

External Links

LOC Country Studies-Spain Post-Franco Era

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