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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 1

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 [End Page 149] 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 [End Page 150] 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 opposition hoped for a clean break with the old system. A third way was found between the two positions, reform. Facing the dilemma between the right and the left, Adolfo Suárez believed that the correct path to follow was the center: equilibrium and moderation. Suárez achieved a new democratic legality by making Franco’s system accept its own ultimate dissolution by way of popular sovereignty. Change was accomplished by taking advantage of the amendment procedures of Franco’s constitution (Principios del Movimientor Nacional). That is, the political structure of the country was radically transformed from within, without breaking down its legality.

The transition involved legalizing political parties, conducting free elections, drafting and passing a new constitution, and putting together an economic reform package through the Moncloa Pacts.

The transition strategy had to balance the interests of two groups: those that were not hostile to the former regime, and those that were. It was necessary for the non-hostile forces to accept two important conditions of the proposed reform program: The first condition was the legalization of existing clandestine parties and unions. This requirement was at odds with the old regime’s very essence. The second condition involved taking steps that would make political change possible. The old leaders needed to accept democratic elections, which would inevitably mean the eventual dissolution of the regime. The acceptance of these two conditions was possible because there were dynamic groups that had fought for the modernization of the political system in the past within the old regime’s parliament (the Cortes, or lower chamber, and the Consejo Nacional del Movimiento, a sort of upper chamber). These groups were able to place their patriotism and civic conscience before the preservation of any immediate privileges. If they had decided to maintain the old political system, there would have been a profound crisis with incalculable damage. History will acknowledge the sacrifice made by these men.

The old system accepted the necessity of change for several reasons:

  • • Realism: the conviction that the old system was no longer useful for the future and that it had already expired. Adolfo [End Page 151] Suárez, who had come from the former system, was the first to understand this. When a significant number of person- alities from the old system understood that such change was inevitable and became bona fide democrats, a turning point was reached.

  • • Patriotism: this new realism translated into patriotism. For the good of the country, the old system had to be forsaken.

  • • Societal change: society had changed. As we have seen, this change affected a large portion of Franco’s political elite.

Adolfo Suárez’s work was made possible in part because he was a politician of the old system, and therefore understood both its mechanisms and its political class. His strategy was to convince the members of the old regime to accept change. This strategy rested on two points. First and foremost, nobody would be held accountable for political activities under the old regime. Second, members of the old system would be allowed to participate in the new democratic system, organizing themselves into new political parties and enjoying whatever share of power they could obtain from the ballot box.

On November 18, 1976, the Cortes, in an historic session, passed the Political Reform Law with the support of 425 out of 495 votes. Elections to the congress as well as to the senate (the two chambers of the new parliament) would be through universal suffrage. The congress’ main objective would be to write the new constitution.

In his design of Spain’s transition, Suárez incorporated the social and political forces that had been hostile to the old regime. Suárez’s greatest achievement was the legalization of political parties, especially the Communist Party, which had been the former regime’s mortal enemy. Without this legalization, the transition to democracy would have lacked credibility. If the new government had condemned the Communist Party to remain a clandestine force and had left to it no other means of expression than subversive action, the transition would have been impossible. Adolfo Suárez understood this and was willing to legalize the communists. This required taking large but necessary risks since almost all of the other parties and political actors, as well as the armed forces, opposed the move. The Communist Party, in exchange for recognition, accepted the monarchy and its flag, and pledged not to resort to subversion against the new democratic regime. This acceptance became an important pillar of Spain’s peaceful transition.

The leftist opposition, not including the communists, did not accept Suárez’s reform proposals, and campaigned against them in a referendum on the approval of the political reform process in [End Page 152] December 1976. The opposition argued that there was no precedent for an authoritarian system to become a truly democratic one on its own accord, and therefore the experiment had no credibility.

In the referendum, the Spanish people gave overwhelming support to Suárez’s political reform, with positive votes from more than 90 percent of the ballots. The philosophy of the transition reconciled Spanish history, integrating the two sides of Spain (“las dos Espanas”). There would be no “good ones” and “bad ones,” since we were all Spaniards. The transition put an end to the civil war. There was no attempt to reverse the roles, casting the winners in the civil war as losers and vice versa. The transition overcame the distinction between winners and losers, and began to heal, once and for all, the wounds left by the civil war.

The Moncloa Pacts and Economic Reform

The Moncloa Pacts, signed on October 27, 1977, played an important role in the transition process. The Pacts consisted, on one hand, of a stabilization policy to re-establish Spain’s economic balance through the control of salaries, limiting capital expenditures, and reducing the money supply: in essence, controlling inflation. But the Pacts went further, creating a system to distribute equally the cost of political adjustment and the modernization of the economic system. This was achieved through, among other things, a progressive income tax.

After the first democratic elections were held on June 15, 1977, it became necessary to write a new constitution to lay the foundations of democracy. The country was undergoing a grave economic crisis, and inflation was running at 35 percent, twice the rate of other European Common Market countries. Spain was importing 66 percent of its energy needs while the other European countries were importing on average only 34 percent. Exports covered only 45 percent of imports, and the rate of unemployment was high. Foreign exchange reserves were very low. Spain’s basic economic structure was deeply troubled. Adolfo Suárez recognized that, although his party held the majority, if the other parties wanted to damage the already weak economy in order to overthrow the government, democracy could not be consolidated. If the unions followed their own interests and demanded salary increases without considering other matters, and if they tried to take their struggle to the political arena in order to weaken the government, democracy would suffer the consequences. Under Franco, there were no political parties and unions were restrained. The danger at this time was that the parties and unions would use their newly acquired freedom in a negative way against the economy, and therefore, against democracy. [End Page 153]

The main economic risks were hyperinflation, exorbitant salary demands, and a large fiscal deficit. If those risks had materialized, people might have concluded that living standards were better under Franco. Such a situation would have led to social and political destabilization. The army, already restless, could have put an end to democracy. Without a healthy economy, the consolidation of democracy would not have been possible.

In response to these challenges, Adolfo Suárez proposed a consensus. The parties would have to renounce their political advantages for a short time and put the interests of the state above their own to ensure the passing of the constitution and the consolidation of democracy. Once the economic problems were solved, the democratic regime would become legitimate. A pact between the government and the opposition was reached. A sense of responsibility prevailed among all involved parties. The various sides understood that they could not use the economic situation or the difficulties of the political transition as a weapon in the struggle for power. Such moves would have been suicidal.

Spain’s economic solution—the Moncloa Pacts—succeeded. In 1978, inflation was lower than the previous year. The balance of payments deficit was reduced by half of what had been predicted in 1977, and the following year there was a balance of payments surplus. The 1978 Constitution and the consolidation of democracy would not have been possible without the Moncloa Pacts.

Another decisive moment for the transition came on February 23, 1981 with a failed coup d’état. This failure demonstrated that the majority of the armed forces supported the king and the constitution. The armed forces did not oppose the Suárez-led transition since it had been achieved legally. Their reaction could have been very different if the authors of the transition had questioned or humiliated the victors, the armed forces, instead of trying to heal the wounds of the civil war. It was of paramount importance that there was not any intention of revenge. It is fair to say that the transition ended on October 28, 1982 with the arrival of the Socialist Party to power.


There is no such thing as historic determinism. When the political transition started, many believed that Spain would remain faithful to its past and that it would be impossible to end the dictatorship peacefully—history simply would not allow it. It has since been demonstrated that this point of view was wrong. As the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado illustrated: “Journeyer, there is no path but the one trodden [End Page 154] by your steps.” (“Caminante, no hay camino se hace camino al andar.”) The fact that Franco’s parliament accepted its own dissolution was the overriding key to the success of the transition to democracy.

The prudence and moderation of the Spaniards were decisive. My personal interpretation is that the horror of the Spanish Civil War explains the high level of moderation among those who had endured it and among the generations that followed. We all knew without saying, even without thinking about it, that above all we had to avoid repeating the tragedy of the civil war. This idea was embedded in everybody’s consciousness and it provided Spaniards with the moderation needed for a successful transition. I believe Spain learned many lessons from its history. There is a verse by Antonio Machado which is distressing for Spaniards, a kind of biblical curse: “Child of Spain, you who come to this world, may God protect you; one of the two sides of Spain will chill your heart.” (“Espanolito que vienes al mundo te guarde Dios, una de las dos Espanas ha de helarte el corazon.”) It can be said that this verse has now lost its validity.

Another key reason for the transition’s success was that no one wished to unbury the axe of the civil war. This was possible because forty years had passed since the end of the war. If the transition had taken place in the 1950s, it would have been very difficult not to have ill feelings because the wounds would still have been raw.

Lastly, Spain had good luck with the leaders it produced during those years. They included the king, Adolfo Suárez, Fernández Miranda, Felipe González, General Gutiérrez Mellado, Tarradellas, Carrillo, Fraga Iribarne, Cardinal Tarancón, and so many others. Because of these men, a very complex process, characterized by many difficult moments, came to a successful close. It was especially decisive that the king was in favor of democracy and that he acted as its engine. He knew Adolfo Suárez was the right man to help move Spain forward, and he appointed Suárez despite the fact that, at the time, many considered his appointment a crucial mistake.

Eugenio Bregolat

Eugenio Bregolat is currently Spain’s ambassador to China. He was foreign policy advisor to Adolfo Suárez between 1978 and 1981, and has subsequently served as Spain’s ambassador to Indonesia, China, Canada, and Russia.


1. Michael A. Ledeen, Freedom Betrayed: How America Led a Global Democratic Revolution, Won the Cold War, and Walked Away (Washington: AEI Press, 1996).

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