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Spain's Transition to Democracy

From: SAIS Review
Volume 19, Number 2, Summer-Fall 1999
pp. 149-155 | 10.1353/sais.1999.0029

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SAIS Review 19.2 (1999) 149-155

Reckoning the Past

If democracy had been thwarted in Spain -- as it had been a decade earlier in Spanish America -- the door to the democratic revolution might not have opened for another generation, because the world would not have had the all-important model of a successful and peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. The Spanish experience shattered the conventional wisdom, according to which dictatorships could be overthrown only by acts of violence." --Michael A. Ledeen

The transition to democracy in Spain in the 1970s was made possible by profound sociopolitical changes that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, approximately fifteen years preceding General Francisco Franco's death. This transition began with the 1959 Stabilization Plan. The plan generated a significant amount of economic development and created the basis for Spain's transition to a modern market economy. Spain's political system thus became inconsistent with its new economic and social reality for a number of reasons.

  • There was a new, large, and highly educated middle class that encouraged the emergence of democracy. Businessmen wanted Spain to enter the European Common Market. Membership implied access to global markets, and a precondition for membership was the establishment of a democratic system.
  • Relations between Spain and Europe were already very close at this time, with economic and trade ties, mutual investments, and a tourist industry that brought thousands of European visitors to Spain every year. There were also many Spanish citizens working throughout Europe. As a result of these links, European values, including political ones, had a deep influence on Spain.
  • Franco had designated Prince Juan Carlos as his successor. King Juan Carlos, who truly possessed a democratic will, would become the fundamental political mechanism of the transition.

When Franco died on November 20, 1975, the old regime's political structure remained intact. The underlying economic, social, and political reality, however, had changed greatly during the four decades of Franco's rule. This explains why the political transition was not difficult. As Adolfo Suárez, the main author of the change said: "The transition's philosophy consisted of elevating to a normal political reality what was already normal in the streets."

The Role of the King

In his coronation speech, King Juan Carlos said that he was the king of all the people and that he was an instrument of national reconciliation, thus unifying the two sides of Spain. This declaration signified the resolution of the civil war. The crown acted as the true engine of transition. The king made use of the all-embracing powers Franco gave to the crown to make the necessary political changes. (Ironically, those same policy changes would eventually undo the monarchy's powers.) In this way, the monarchy was successful in returning sovereignty to the Spanish people. Thus, it was fitting that one of the king's biographers titled his work: "Juan Carlos, a King for the Republicans."

It has been correctly stated that the king acted as the manager of the transition to democracy. Fernández Miranda, who at that time was president of the "Cortes" (the Franco-controlled parliament) and a former preceptor of the king, depicted the king as the author of the libretto and Adolfo Suárez as the story's main character.

I have heard Adolfo Suárez say that during Franco's final years, then Prince Juan Carlos asked several Spanish politicians to express in writing what they would do if they were appointed prime minister when General Franco died. As a result of Carlos' invitation, Suárez stated that he was able to develop his ideas on transitions to democracy, a key reason why the king later put him in charge of the government. However, Suárez's appointment initially puzzled many Spaniards. Such attitudes were epitomized in an article titled "What A Big Mistake" by historian Ricardo de la Cierva (later minister of culture under Prime Minister Suárez). Obviously, those who saw Suárez's appointment as a mistake did not know the king's true intentions, nor did they know Suárez.

Political Reform

While the forces of Franco's regime wanted to continue the traditional political system, the...