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Spain 1975-2000

Reconciling the irreconcilable: How did Franco’s Spain become a democracy?

In the 50 hours that Franco’s body lay in state, during up to 500,000 people filed past for their last look at the dictator. A joke common at the time suggested that many had come just to make sure he was dead. Indeed there was some quiet celebration. In Barcelona the writer Vázquez Montalbán wrote ‘champagne corks soared into the autumn twilight. But nobody head a sound.’ There was also a lot of genuine, private grief.  But the overwhelming emotion was the foreboding that accompanies uncertainty.

With hindsight the Spanish transition to democracy can appear to have been an orderly, almost inevitable process. But in the immediate aftermath of Franco’s death, little if anything appeared to be inevitable. The view in 1975 was captured by the academic José Amodia: “It is naïve to expect Franco’s death to work a miracle. In the political future of Spain I see a great deal of darkness and hardly any light; my forecast must be pessimistic.” (José Amodia, Franco’s Political Legacies, Penguin, 1976, p. 204.)

Reform had been in the air for several years and the now the central obstacle to it had been removed. Between a divided government and divided opposition there was only consensus that Spain had reached an historic moment. From the perspective of the reformist right, the challenge was to initiate change that did not threaten the foundational principals of the Francoist system. From the centre left perspective, the challenge was to bring about an end to Francoism without provoking the intervention of the army. For many at the time it seemed as though Spain was attempting to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’. (Paul Preston, The Triumph of Democracy in Spain, p.91 Taylor & Francis, 1986 And always in the background was the possibility of yet another Spanish pronunciamento in a country still haunted by the memory of civil war..

Pronunciamento is a declaration by which a military coup d'état, i.e. a military dictatorship, is made official.

 For most of the first year of post-Franco Spain, there were little grounds for optimism for those who hoped for change. The first decision of key decision of King Juan Carlos was to re-appoint Franco’s prime minister Arias Navarro, known during the civil war as the ‘Butcher of Malaga’.

Juan Carlos I of Spain

Born 5th January 1938 in Rome, grandson of previous King of Spain, Alfonso XIII who was deposed in 1931. In 1948 Juan Carlos moved to Spain, as part of a deal struck between Franco and his father Don Juan. This gave Franco control over Juan Carlos’ education, allowing Juan Carlos to be groomed as Franco’s successor. In 1969, Juan Carlos was officially designated heir to Franco and was given the new title of Prince of Spain. As a condition of being named heir-apparent, he pledged an oath of loyalty to Franco's Movimiento Nacional. Privately though from the 1960s Juan Carlos had been meeting members of the opposition. On the 22nd November 1975 Juan Carlos became head of state and King of Spain. He is widely credited with overseeing the successful transition to democracy and in particular for the failure of the attempted coup of 1981 ‘23-F’

‘Many people thought that he was a bland, insubstantial representative of an autocratic regime firmly anchored in the past. His discretion was seen as ignorance, his discipline as docility, and his silence as a lack of imagination or absence of ideas. Yet when the moment came he showed that although he might not know how, he certainly did know what he intended to do. At that moment he showed balance and caution, self-control and cool judgment…’ (Javier Tusell, Spain: from dictatorship to democracy : 1939 to the present, p.274 Wiley-Blackwell, 2007)

In this first cabinet, loyal Francoists still manned the key institutions, including the Council of the Realm which nominated the terna, the list of three candidates for prime minister presented to the king. In January 1976, Arias introduced proposals for limited democratic reform, a programme that was well short of opposition demands. Clashes between police and demonstrators were dealt with in traditional Francoist fashion and five workers were killed. By the summer, Arias was struggling to get the Francoist establishment in the Cortes to pass the centrepiece of his legislative reform, the legalisation of political parties. On July 1st with the Cortes at an impasse, he tendered his resignation to the King. What happened next was as unexpected as it was crucial to Spain’s democratisation.

Six key points in La Transición

i) 4th July 1976 - Suárez appointed Prime Minister.

The liberal newspaper El País, famously responded to the appointment of Adolfo Suárez with the headline ‘What a mistake! What an immense mistake!’ Reformers had been hoping for the appointment of one of the regime’s heavy weight aperturistas, but in Suárez they had the young General Secretary of Franco’s Moviemento Nacional. The reactionaries in the búnker were delighted However, for King Juan Carlos, Suárez’s impeccably conservative credentials were all part of the plan hatched with the support of the King’s former tutor Fernández-Miranda whom the King had manoeuvred into the chairmanship of the Council of the Realm. Suárez’s name had been allowed to slip on the terna shortlist of three as a safe conservative that no one expected to be chosen. But, in the words of one commentator, the appointment of Suárez ‘was the culmination of months of assiduous conspiracy’. (Hooper p.39) Suárez had been one of a number of politicians invited by Juan Carlos in the last months of Franco’s life to outline a programme for the future of Spain. Suárez’s plans had impressed the king with their detail and realism.

Adolfo Suárez

Adolfo Suárez y González, was born 25th September 1932. A lawyer, he served in a number of Franco governments and became the Secretary General of the Movimiento Nacional. He was an unexpected choice as Prime Minister in 1976.  According to historian Raymond Carr, ‘The achievement of Suárez was to accomplish the programme of “democratization from above”, using the legal institutions of Francoism.’ (Carr 174)  On 8 June 2007, during the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first democratic elections, King Juan Carlos I appointed Suárez Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece for his important role during the Spanish transition to democracy.

Suárez himself had the youth, persona and detailed understanding of how politics in Spain worked. He could, in the words of Paul Preston, ‘use the system against itself’. (The Triumph of Democracy in Spain, p.92 Taylor & Francis, 1986) It meant that within a few months of his appointment, Suárez was able to present to the Cortes a thorough reform bill that would completely transform the political landscape and take the Francoist búnker off guard.


ii) 18th November 1976 Law for Political Reform passed.

In addition to the leadership of the Moviemento, Suárez had also been director general of Spanish state television, TVE. He used his media experience to the full in ensuring that the whole reform process was covered on television from his announcement of the details of the reform bill through to the televised debate on the 18th of November. In the Cortes itself, debate was managed by the Speaker Fernández-Miranda, who prevented key elements of the bill from being diluted by hostile amendments. In the end Francoism capitulated 424 votes to 59 on live television, as one by one Franco’s deputies were called by name to vote ‘si’ or ‘no’ for reform. On the 15th of December the ‘yes’ campaign won 94.2% of the referendum vote in the country as a whole.

iii) 9th April 1977 Spanish Communist Party (PCE) legalised.

In the same month as the referendum, the socialist party (PSOE) under Felipe Gonzalez held its first congress in forty years. Informal contacts between Gonzalez and Suárez resulted in an acceptance by the nominally republican socialists of a democratic monarchy. In February the PSOE was legalized. The Communists (PCE) presented the government with a much more difficult problem. To legalise the PCE was to risk right wing revolt and army intervention. Changing public opinion in the light of the Atocha massacre in January and the willingness of communist leader Santiago Carrillo to negotiate with the government, persuaded Suárez to risk legalisation of the PCE in April. It had been, in the words of Carr, ‘the most intense political crisis so far’. (p. 176) Also in the late spring trade unions were legalised, the right to strike recognised and Franco’s Movimiento was abolished.

Atocha Massacre

The murder of five trade unionists on January 24th 1977 by an extreme right-wing terrorist organisation. More than 100,000 people attended the funeral which became the first mass left wing demonstration after the death of Franco.

iv) 15th June 1977 Election

Suárez popularity was such that any party led by him was likely to win the first democratic elections. The problem for Suárez was that he did not belong to any party. During the previous winter, various conservative groupings had been emerging and in March Suárez negotiated a position as leader of the most prominent of them: Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD). As expected, the UCD won the election, less anticipated was failure of the extremist parties, the Communists (PCE) on the left and the Alianza Popular (AP) on the right, to make much impression.

1977 Spanish General Election Result





6 337 288



5 358 781



1 718 026



1 525 028


The results showed that the electorate rejected both the extreme right and the extreme left. The results were a triumph alike for moderation and a desire for change.’ (Carr p.176)

In the absence of an absolute majority, Suárez chose not to form a coalition government but instead worked on a producing an inclusive set of agreements, (known as the Moncloa Pacts signed 25th October) involving all the major political parties and trades unions. As a consequence the Spanish Constitution which was ultimately approved by referendum on December 6th 1977 was a consensual document that represented the spectrum of political groups in Spain. Amongst the most liberal constitutions in Europe, it defines Spain as a parliamentary monarchy rather than as just a constitutional monarchy. It abolished the death penalty and the links between the Catholic Church and the state. Most radically, the 1978 Constitution transformed Franco’s highly centralised state into a state where significant power was devolved to the regions and the ‘historical nationalities’ (Nacionalidades históricas).

v) 23rd February 1981 – The Tejero coup ‘23-F’

For those who participated in the attempted military take over in Februray 1981 ’23-F’, Spain was on the verge of political and economic collapse. Demands for home rule from the regions was getting out of hand and the continued ETE terrorist campaign in the Basque country showed no signs of slowing up.

In addition, throughout 1980 divisions had been opening up with the ruling UCD party over the extent to which Spain required social reform. Contraception had been legalised, homosexuality decriminalised and discriminatory laws on adultery also abolished. Proposals to reform the divorce laws split the UCD and it appeared unable to govern effectively.

In January 1981 Suárez resigned and in the month before his successor Calvo Soltero could take over a faction within the army attempted to seize power by force. Colonel Antonio Tejero led an occupation of the Congress of Deputies holding most of Spain’s political class hostage for 24 hours.

He claimed to act in the name of the King, but Juan Carlos quickly acted to reassure the public that this was not the case whilst ordering the army to follow his orders. It is still not known exactly who was behind the attempted coup and the generals who were arrested were clearly expecting others to follow suit. But what is certain is that the failed coup indirectly helped the socialists into power the following year.

(vi) October 28th 1982 election of PSOE

Throughout much of its time in opposition under Felipe González, the PSOE had been painfully distancing itself from its Marxist origins. The failed Tejoro coup and the splits in the UCD did much to help the cause of the PSOE. The moderate programme of reform proposed by the PSOE and the effective media friendly leadership of González did the rest. In the election, the socialists were swept into power with 201 seats and a comfortable majority in the Cortes.

1982 Spanish General Election Result





10 127 392



5 409 229



1 425 248



846 440


The election of González marks for many historians the end of La Transición because it demonstrated that power in Spain could be passed from one party to another without unrest or the intervention of the armed forces. And this is, as John Hooper suggested, ‘ultimately the test of a democracy’ (The Spaniards p.46)

The Spanish are very proud of La Transición. Indeed, it continues to serve as the model and inspiration for many recent transitions whether in Africa, Latin America or in Eastern Europe. ‘Spain is a miracle’, Adam Przeworski, the expert on democratization studies. ‘...the optimistic scenario is to retrace the path of Spain.’ (Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 8) But we should be careful not to get too carried away. Often ignored by commentators is the violence that accompanied Spain’s Transición. In the five years following Franco’s death more than 100 demonstrators were killed by the police or extreme Francoist groups. (Tremlett p.75)  Also ignored has been the lack of justice for the victims of Francoism, as the former Prime Minister Filipe González himself explained ‘There was not sufficient strength to demand either justice or, even, any explanation for the past’. In other countries that have been through a transition like post apartheid South Africa there have been ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions designed to heal the wounds of dictatorship. In contrast, in Spain La Transición was accompanied by what the Spanish call the pacto del olvido, the unwritten agreement by all sides to forget what happened under Franco. Only very recently has this been called into question.

Essay writing - How can we explain La Transición?: or the Good King Juan theory of history

E.H Carr, the English historian once wrote famously wrote an attack on what he called the ‘Bad King John theory of history’; the naïve view, as he saw it, that ‘what matters in history is the character and behaviour of individuals’. (What is History?) In addition to the ‘childlike’ simplicity of such an approach, what Carr was also attacking was the tendency for history to concentrate on the ‘great men’ of history (rather than the social history of the people) and the belief that in some way individuals were separate from wider social and cultural influences. Writing an essay about La Transición offers the student an ideal opportunity to consider the relative significance of factors which include the role of prominent individuals.

Historians agree that key individuals were unusually important to the success of La Transición ‘and that amongst them King Juan Carlos is preeminent. Historian Charles T. Powell, for example, characterised the King as El Piloto Del Cambio, the pilot of change. Other individuals, most notably Adolfo Suárez also played an important role. Juan J. Linz, has argued that Suárez exhibited ‘a great capacity for personal dialogue and engaging those with whom he had to negotiate, listening to them, and creating a certain sense of trust without necessarily making promises he was uncertain about being able to satisfy.’ (quoted in Omar G. Encarnación ‘Spain After Franco Lessons in Democratization’ World Policy Journal Winter 2001-2)

Individuals can also be important through their absence. Had Carrerro-Blanco not been killed in 1973 the right wing búnker would not have been denied the leadership it lacked in 1976. This not only raises counterfactual or ‘what if?’ questions about La Transición but also ethical questions about whether terrorism can ever be justified.

However, if we are to follow E. H. Carr’s advice fully, we must recognise that important individuals are at once ‘a product and an agent of the historical process’ (Carr What is History?) Beyond the role of individuals, a successful essay must also evaluate the relative importance of the individuals acting as groups (as political parties or social classes for example) and the essay should also consider how individuals are influenced and affected by social and cultural forces beyond their control. For example, the media in the immediate years after Franco’s death was considerably more liberal than under the dictatorship and enjoyed ‘a freedom unimaginable in the heyday of Francoism.’ (R. Carr p. 174) This helped create a climate of opinion in which by 1977, 77% of the Spanish population deemed democracy the best political system, compared to the 15% who preferred authoritarianism. (Linz and Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, JHU Press p. 108.) Even more significant is the fact that press freedom not only helped shape a more liberal public opinion, it also reflected the extent to which liberal ideas had become entrenched in Spain as a consequence of the economic growth of the 1960s Desarrollo. This is the basis of the controversial view of Franco apologists that the La Transición was a direct consequence of the dictatorship’s policies.


Discussion points

Who was the most important individual during La Transición ?

‘To the extent that it is possible to simplify this account by establishing an order of precedence among the individuals who took leading roles in the transition, one might say that Don Juan Carlos headed the list…Adolfo Suárez would be in second place, and Santiago Carrillo would come third.’ (Javier Tusell, Spain: from dictatorship to democracy 1939 to the present p.274)

What criteria might Tusell have used to rank his top three individuals? On what grounds might the King be seen as more significant than Suárez?

If you were to add one more name to the list who would it be and why?

Was Juan Carlos II a Lenin or a mere Napoleon?

‘The great man is always representative either of existing forces or of forces which he helps to create by way of challenge to existing authority. But the higher degree of creativity may perhaps be assigned to those great men who, like Cromwell or Lenin, helped to mould the forces which carried them to greatness, rather than to those who, like Napoleon or Bismarck, rode to greatness on the back of already existing forces.’

(E.H. Carr What is History? :55)


Spain since 1982

Timeline of key events 1982-2000

1982    30th May - Spain Joins NATO

           28th October –PSOE wins General Election with 202 seats

1986    1st January – Spain becomes a member of the EEC

           22nd June – PSOE wins General Election with 184 seats

1988    18th October – Trial of two police officers accused of assassinating ETA personnel. Scandal of the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL) begins

1989    19th June - Spain joins the European Exchange Rate Mechanism

           29th October - PSOE wins General Election with 175 seats

1992    29th March – 24 ETA members arrested in France

           20th April - World ‘Expo 92’ opens in Seville

           25th July – Olympic Games opens in Barcelona

1993    6th June - PSOE wins General Election with 159 seats

1995    19th April - ETA fails in assassination attempt on PP leader José María Aznar

           1st July Spain assumes presidency of the EU

1996    3rd March – PP wins General Election with 156 seats. Coalition negotiations delay Aznar’s appointment as Prime Minister until May 4th.

1997    22nd June - Felipe González is replaced as leader of the PSOE by Joaquín Almunia

           12th June – PP councillor Miguel Angel Blanco is murdered by ETA.

1998    29th July – the former Governor of Vizcaya and two senior police officers are sentenced to ten years in prison for their part in the GAL dirty war against ETA. They are pardoned just 105 days later.

           16th September – ETA announces 'unilateral, total and indefinite' ceasefire.

1999    28th November – ETA ends its ceasefire

2000 – 12th March PP wins General Election with 156 seats, its first absolute majority

           22nd July PSOE elects José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to the party leadership

How was Spain’s Transición consolidated?

The transition from an authoritarian to a democratic system of government requires more than the introduction of competing political parties and periodic elections. Democracy also requires a complex system of laws and supporting institutions to guarantee the fundamental human rights that are at the heart of the democratic system. The rule of law must be paramount and the political, business and military elites must be bound by it. The army and police must be under civilian control. If freedom is to mean anything then quality of opportunity provided through universal access to quality education, healthcare and welfare support are essential. Social freedoms and entitlements help to encourage the spiritual and intellectual freedoms that ultimately produce a culture of creativity; (artistic or entrepreneurial) that legitimates the regime. And underpinning it all, as Franco himself realised in the late 1950s, must be successful, expanding economy. In the late 20th century, a successful Spanish economy meant an increasingly free and internationally integrated economy within the context of the European Union. After nearly 40 years of authoritarian rule, therefore, the laws and institutions of Spain still bore the imprint of Franco’s personal rule; his priorities and his prejudices.  When the PSOE came to power in 1982, therefore, there was still much to be done.

Rule of Law

Means that the law is above everyone and it applies to everyone whether they are rulers or the ruled

Army in transition

In Franco’s Spain the army enjoyed a privileged position of one of the families behind the Movimiento. The 1981 Tejero coup was just one of the coups that actually left the barrack room. The key initial work in bringing the Army under civilian control was undertaken by Lieutenant General Gutiérrez Mellado in the Suarez government who removed the automatic right of military chiefs to sit in cabinet. From December 1982 until March 1991 the defence minister Narcís Serra, former Mayor of Barcelona designed what has been described as an ‘imaginative and sweeping restructuring of the military’ (Juan José Linz, Alfred C. Stepan p.10) The most significant of these reforms was to reduce the size of bloated officer class and to make promotion much more dependent on ability rather than age. A second change has been to make the army professional. 1984 legislation allowed the 200,000 conscripts called up every year to avoid military service by applying to be conscientious objectors. Such large numbers succeeded in doing this that the the Aznar government did away with national service altogether. By 2001 there were no conscripts left in the Spanish army.  A final feature of the reform was to give the army a new international role. By 1992 Spain provided more UN peace keeping officers than any other country in the world. And by the time Spanish socialist Javier Solana became Secretary General of NATO, early Spanish antipathy to NATO seemed a distant memory. Increased Spanish involvement in NATO under the government of Aznar also led to closer ties to the USA with significant implications.

Javier Solana b.1942

In many ways Javier Solana is the embodiment of Spain’s Transición. As a member of the illegal socialist opposition in the 1960s he was secretly smuggled in to meetings with King Juan Carlos on the back of a motorbike. He was a senior PSOE cabinet member for 13 years before becoming NATO Secretary General in 1995. From 1999 to 2009 he was Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union.

Economy and society in transition

The Unlike the democratic transition undertaken in countries of the former Eastern Bloc, Spain was not subjected to free-market shock treatment associated with the Washington Consensus. As political scientist Omar G. Encarnación points out ‘Rather than relying on shock and exclusion, it was anchored in direct negotiation and pacts with societal actors, including the national unions.’ (p.40)  When after 1984 there were a series of significant privatisations of state industries it helped that it was undertaken by a socialist government that cushioned the blow with increased spending on welfare, unemployment benefits and education which increased in real terms by 57% between 1982 and 1989.  The biggest problem throughout the Transición has been unemployment, which was consistently above the EU average. Unemployment by the mid 1990s reached a European record of 24% of the active population. But between 1986 and 1991, the Spanish economy grew quicker than any other country in the European Community. By 1992 Spain had become 40% richer than it had been in real GDP terms than it had been in 1980.  One of the significant consequences of increased wealth was an ability of the Spanish to maintain their status as Europe’s number one owner-occupiers. By 1999, 86% of Spaniards lived in houses that they owned compared to only 69% in Britain. Owning property gives people a significant stake in society and less likely to support calls for radical or revolutionary change. As John Hooper observes, ‘if the growing prevalence of home-ownership was one reason why Franco was able to die peacefully in his bed, then it was also a key to the relatively peaceful transition that ensued’. (Hooper pp.322-3)

If the prevalence of homeownership marked a significant continuity with the past, the changing status of women in post-Franco Spain stands out at the most significant social transformation. As we have seen the legal status of women in Franco’s Spain was such that they faced serious discrimination on a daily basis. The post Franco governments were able to reverse most of the legal impediments to sexual equality: Discriminatory laws on adultery were revoked in 1978 and those on domestic finance in 1981. Contraception was legalised in 1978 and a limited law that legalized abortion was passed in 1985. In 1982 the PSOE government set up the institute for women (Instituto de la Mujer) to promote women’s rights. In 1988 the last bastions of male exclusiveness fell when the first women began training to be Guardia Civil and the High Court in Madrid ruled that exclusion of women from the armed forces violated the constitution. The rate that women entered the workplace in the 1980s was unprecedented, in 1981 less than one quarter of the workforce were women by 1991 it was a third. At the start of the 21st century Spain had a higher percentage of female parliamentary representatives than Germany, Britain or France. And yet, although laws have changed, but domestic attitudes have largely remained rooted in the past. Women have entered the workforce but have also continued to bear the burden of child care and domestic chores. A survey conducted in 2004 found that Spanish men do less than 10% of daily domestic tasks which results in Spanish women being the hardest working in Europe. (Tremlett p.233) The consequence of this has resulted in the most profound change in Spanish society since the death of Franco: women now have fewer children in Spain than anywhere else in the world.

The arts and media in transition

The arts and media under Franco had suffered because of the simple fact that most artists and intellectuals had been in the side of the Republic during the Civil war. Some like Lorca were killed, many other fled into exile. Intellectuals were distrusted during Franco’s time and arts that were encouraged reflected Franco’s conservative tastes. With democracy comes artistic and intellectual freedom. In the 1980s the new freedom were best exemplified by La Movida Madrileña, an, ‘anything goes’ cultural movement which rejected traditional Francoist mores in favour of an experimental party culture fuelled by alcohol and recreational drug taking. The fact that Spaniards are today Europe’s biggest consumers of Cocaine is partly to be explained in terms of the reaction to Francoist conservatism.

A move productive legacy of the spirit of La Movida Madrileña though is to be found in the brilliantly idiosyncratic work of Spain’s film maker Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar has been described by Steven Marsh, lecturer in film studies as ‘the cultural symbol par excellence of the restoration of democracy in Spain’. (

Indeed, cinema has probably been the most successful international cultural symbol of the ‘new Spain’, with Spanish films winning more Oscars than any other non-English speaking country in the 20 years after 1982.

Probably only architecture can compete with film as a cultural symbol. Spain has been described by Richard Rogers as ‘Europe’s architectural hothouse’ (Tremlett 401). Most of the world’s top architects have important buildings in Spain, the most iconic of them being the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, described by Philip Johnson as ‘the greatest building of our time’. (quoted in New York Times September 23, 2007)



Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Opened in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a museum of modern and contemporary art designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.

The most significant aspect of the cultural transition has been the liberalisation of the media from the constraints imposed by an authoritarian regime. Newspapers had already enjoyed a degree of freedom at the end of the Franco regime and although newspaper sales were relatively low in Spain (in 2000 only 36% of the population read a daily newspaper compared to 62% in Europe as a whole) the influence of newspapers was disproportionate. Newspapers have been particularly significant in helping to uncover corruption and government abuses. The most notable example of this was Pedro J. Ramírez’s El Mundo which led the investigation into the ‘dirty war’ conducted by the PSOE government of the 1980s against ETA. As journalist John Hooper concludes, the uncovering and reporting of of the GAL scandal ‘undoubtedly contributed to the PSOE’s removal from power’ (The new Spaniards p.356). In contrast, television in Spain has not enjoyed the same reputation. This is important because the Spanish watch more television than any other nation in Europe. The state broadcaster TVE was consistently accused of favouring the government of the day. One survey found that during the 1989 election campaign, 103 minutes was spend on coverage of the governing PSOE compared to just four minutes for the opposition Partido Popular. The advent of independent television since 1989 has improved the situation, but the Zapatero government’s manifesto commitment in 2004 to de-governmentalise TVE suggested there is still much to be done.

GAL Scandal

Grupos Anti-terroristas de Liberación (GAL) organisation responsible for the 24 murders in the south-west of France in the mid 1980s. Most of those murdered had links to ETA. Two police officers were convicted for their role in GAL murders and their investigation led to accusations that senior government figures had authorized the killings.

Further Political Transition

The consolidation of the Spain as a liberal democracy has required the state to willingly relinquish a significant degree of sovereignty: internally to the regions and externally to Europe. Franco’s state had been one of the most centralised in Europe. By 1982, the system of self-government for the regions, Estado de las Autonomías, was giving rise to fears that the Spanish state break up under these centrifugal forces. In 2001 report by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Spain’s regional governments were responsible for a higher percentage of public expenditure than the German Länder and even Switzerland’s cantons. The process of decentralisation continues in Spain and may yet lead to the break-up of Spain, but as if often pointed out were it not for the Estado de las Autonomías a violent declaration of independence would probably have resulted. As Hooper argues, ‘the moment at which Spain was really in danger of going the way of the former Yugoslavia was before, and not after, it embarked on its experiment with decentralization.’ (Hooper New Spaniards 279) It is hard to believe that the declining support for ETA in the 1990s would have been achieved were it not for the granting of significant regional powers to the Basque country. During the three key years of Spain’s Transición there were 240 deaths attributable to ETA compared to 19 in the last three years of the 20th century. (Ludger Mees Nationalism, violence and democracy: the Basque clash of identities Palgrave Macmillan.2003 p.35) In contrast to devolution, the integration of Spain into Europe has been a relatively unproblematic. The prize of European integration, which could not even be considered whist Franco was alive, became after 1975 a Holy Grail which helped keep Spain’s Transición on track.  ‘The fact that the EEC was solidly democratic and set up a stable pattern of rewards and disincentives for would-be members was helpful to Spain’s transition and consolidation’. (Juan José Linz, Alfred C. Stepan p.113) After lengthy negotiations, Spain was finally accepted into the EEC in 1986.  The economic boom which followed was significantly supported by the various ‘cohesion funds’ which redistributed wealth from the richer to the poorer nations. In 1996 the determination of the Aznar government to meet the Maastricht criteria for entry in to the Euro enabled the government to push through reforms that brought the Spanish labour market in line with the rest of Europe.

Spain into the 21st Century

The success of Spain’s Transición can be measured by the extent to which Spain resembled any other major Western European country at the end of the 20th century. The challenges facing Spain in the year 2000 were largely the same: globalisation, an aging population, childhood obesity, environmental damage. The challenges that were particularly Spanish were to be understood in terms of its unique post-war history. The continuing threat of the break-up of the Spanish state and ETA violence is one of them. Race relations are another. The isolation of Spain during the Franco years kept Spain a relatively homogenous white-Catholic state. Yet Spanish birth rates which are the lowest in Europe (another post-Franco legacy) mean that the Spanish economy is now heavily dependent on high rates of non-European immigration. Between 1999 and 2002 the number of non EU citizens living legally in Spain tripled. Nearly a quarter of all Europe’s immigration is to Spain. How will the Spanish state cope with such rapid change? A final example of challenge is not simply to be explained in terms of the past, it is in fact history itself. As we have seen, Spain’s Transición depended on el pacto de olvido, an agreement to forget about the Franco years and the Civil War in particular. The fact that the Spanish school history curriculum only covered events up to 1936 was an example of that. But since the late 1990s things have begin to change. Books and documentaries about the Franco years had become very popular, archives were opened up and most significantly ‘historical memory’ groups were been formed demanding the right to exhume the bodies of those executed and disposed of without proper burial. In October 2007 the controversial historical memory law (Ley de Memoria Histórica) was passed by the Spanish Parliament which amongst other things provides state funds for identifying and digging up the mass graves of the Franco era. It has been argued that until the process of exhumation is complete; neither will the process of Transición. (See Spain and the lingering legacy of Franco, Guardian March 2011)

Summary Activity – Six key dates of La Transición




4th July 1976

Adolfo Suárez appointed prime minister


18th November 1976



9th April 1977



15th June 1977



23rd February 1981



October 28th 1982



Copy and complete the table above and then rank the six events into order of significance. Which was the most significant event in La Transición? Which is the least? Explain the reasons behind your ranking.

The dates 1st January 1986 (Spain’s entry into the EEC) or 3rd March 1996 (victory of the conservative Partido Popular) have also been identified as important dates in the process of Spanish democratisation, why?

Which were the most important non-economic factors that contributed to the La Transición? Explain your choice.

Some historians and political commentators have suggested that Spain’s transition from the Franco years is still not yet complete. What arguments can you identify for and against this assertion?




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