Can Europe Make It?

Longing for democracy in Spain

The death of Adolfo Suárez, the first democratic PM of post-Franco Spain, at the age of 81, has reminded a depressed and disenchanted Spanish society that there was once a moment when they prevailed over the odds of history.

Cristina Manzano
11 April 2014
A statue of Suárez in Plasencia, Spain. Flickr/Jose Antonio Cotallo López. Some rights reserved.

A statue of Suárez in Plasencia, Spain. Flickr/Jose Antonio Cotallo López. Some rights reserved.

It was the chronicle of a death foretold. On March 21, only two days before his death, Suárez’s eldest son had given a press conference to announce that his father would certainly pass away in the next 48 hours, following a deterioration in the Alzheimer disease from which he had suffered for the last ten years. Suddenly, every minute and line of the mass media was filled with the story, with the success and the demise of the man who had led the country from dictatorship to modern democracy.

Tens of thousands of citizens queued for two days at the Palace of Congress, where the funeral chapel had been placed, to give him their last farewell and recognition. For a figure that had been out of the political scene for more than two decades and out of any public attention for more than one, such popular support might appear surprising. It was also unusual to hear the acclamation in favour of democracy and honest politics during his funeral procession.

Suárez’s death reminded Spaniards that there was another way of doing politics. A way in which politicians were able to put the common interest before the individual or the partisan; in which there was a collective objective – to learn to live in peace under a democratic government – and there were leaders with the vision, the strength , the charisma and the political intelligence to achieve this.

Adolfo Suárez killed Franco’s regime from within. A young politician with ambition and a stunning career, he was, at 43, surprisingly chosen by King Juan Carlos to lead the government when the first prime minister after Franco’s death resigned in 1976. Immediately, Suárez started to prepare the reform of the political system, which was approved by the late Francoist Cortes (the Congress at the time), a true political suicide for them. The reform led to the first democratic elections in 1977 - which Suarez won, heading a loose coalition of parties - and then to the approval of a new Constitution in December 1978.

Hectic years                                         

Those were more than hectic years. Popular pressure for change clashed with the ingrained interests of a part of the Army and of the old oligarchy, with a tireless and cruel campaign by ETA, the Basque terrorist group, and a deep economic crisis that put the country on the verge of disaster as background.

In such a complex environment, the prime minister was the champion of dialogue and consensus, the preferred words of the time. Probably one of the most celebrated examples was the so called Pactos de la Moncloa, an agreement among the trade unions, the major political parties and the business organizations to fight against an unstoppable inflation and to address economic reform. (Since 2008, many voices have demanded a similar type of consensus, for all the different political actors to join forces against the crisis… without any success. Polarization and party interests prevail.)

Yet, Suárez, who was able to fulfil the titanic task of putting a peaceful end to a dictatorship – with the support and help of the King - could not keep his own party together. After winning a new general election in 1979 he faced huge internal opposition. Feeling that his people did not support him any longer, and that his presence could endanger some of the pending reforms, he resigned in January 1981.

One of the most dramatic events of the Spanish Transition took place then: on February 23, while the Congress was voting Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo in as PM, there was a coup attempt by 200 army officers who bursted into parliament. Adolfo Suárez, sitting all alone in an apparently empty Congress Chamber, his fellow MPs hidden under their seats as a bunch of civil guards were shooting at the ceiling, has become the image of political courage and dignity. “Had I not been the president of the Government, I would have probably hidden under my seat too; but I was the president of the Government”, he was to declare years later. It was also the beginning of what would become the Suárez myth: the honest and brave politician who did what he profoundly believed was his duty towards his country even if that meant giving up power.

Many Spanish citizens have longed for that kind of honesty these days. Almost all major political parties, at national, regional, and local level, have been involved in corruption cases of different nature and magnitude over the last twenty years. At the beginning of 2013 there were more than 300 indicted politicians in Spain. It usually takes a long time and a huge pressure before any of them resigns and leaves office - if they ever do.

Spain has dropped ten places in the 2013 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. The uncovering of a seemingly endless number of corruption cases, the slowness of the judiciary system – which contributes to spread a certain feeling of impunity – together with the cuts in social spending have fostered general indignation and lowered a traditionally tolerant attitude towards corruption. Surveys have steadily shown that after unemployment and the economic situation, corruption, politicians, political parties and politics are among the major concerns of Spanish public opinion.

The legacy

Suárez’s memory is a vindication of the Spanish Transition as well. The largest collective achievement of Spanish recent history has been severely questioned and attacked in recent times.

It is undeniable that more than three decades after the approval of the Constitution some issues need to be reviewed; both Spain and the world have changed. The design of the political system – conceived to guarantee much-needed stability – has led throughout the years to a bipartisan paralysis, with little room for newcomers and new ideas.

The territorial architecture, initially designed to accommodate Catalan and Basque nationalist demands, has evolved into the multiplication by seventeen of bureaucracy, inefficiency and public expense and debt; and even the fact that the so called 'autonomies' (the regions) enjoy the largest degree of self-government in Europe has not been enough to stop nationalist claims. This has reached its peak with the decision of the current Catalan government to call for a referendum for independence, a process that is putting a lot of strain on Spanish politics.

Admitting the need for constitutional reform, admitting that some issues were left unresolved, it however seems unfair to blame current plights on how the Transition was carried out. Presentism looms just around the corner, and it is hard to envisage how it could have been done differently considering the circumstances. The sheer fact is that thanks to that process, even if imperfect, Spain has lived in peace for the last 40 years and despite the shock of the current economic crisis, it had never enjoyed the level of prosperity that it has today.

But if history is any indication, the echo of Suarez’s spirit will fade soon. In spite of the pompous words heard these last weeks, there is no willingness whatsoever to start a real dialogue among the main political actors nor to introduce any real reform into the political structure, although both would be much needed to face a stable future. Any change to the rules of the game would undermine the interests of Spanish politicians. And nobody seems crazy enough to try.

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