Forty Years Of Spanish Constitution, Forty Years Of Institutional Stability

Forty years of Spanish Constitution, forty years of institutional stabilityFormer King Juan Carlos I signing Spanish Constitution of 1978

By the time General Franco died in 1975 Spain had undergone profound economic and social change, which laid the foundations for an even greater transformation over the next 40 years, but it was a long haul. The Civil War had brought the economy to its knees (GDP declined by 36% in real terms between 1935 and 1938) and Spain was excluded for political reasons from the 1948 Marshall Plan, the US aid programme that helped to rebuild 16 non-communist economies in post-war Europe. It was not until 1953 that economic output regained its 1935 (pre-Civil War) level. The most pressing need was food (the 1940s were known as the ‘years of hunger’). Rationing was introduced in 1939 and did not end until 1952.

The ‘economic miracle’ between 1960 and 1973, following the move away from autarky, which had proved disastrous, and towards liberalisation under the Stabilisation Plan, created a much larger middle class (33% of the population in 1970 compared with 14% in 1950) and with it a consumer society, ridding Spain of the huge gulf between rich and poor that existed before the 1936-39 Civil War. Per capita income rose from US$248 in 1960 to US$3,186 in 1975. Agriculture’s share of GDP, for example, dropped from 27% to 9% during the period (see Appendix a), as the country became more urbanised. There was a massive exodus from villages during the 1960s to towns and cities: more than three million people, out of a population of 30 million, changed residence during the decade.2 Furthermore, 2.75 million people emigrated between the 1950s and 1973. Their remittances helped finance Spain’s development.

Many workers could afford to take their first holidays by the sea in the 1960s when Spain’s tourism industry was burgeoning. The greater prosperity enabled the state to invest significantly in roads, railways and reservoirs. In a country prone to drought, water-storage capacity increased sixfold.

Spending on education also rose. The primary school enrolment rate more than doubled to 88% between 1960 and 1970, the year when it was compulsory to attend school (between the ages of six and 14), much later than most other developed countries, and the rate of illiteracy dropped from 13.7% to 8.8%. Average life expectancy increased from 50 years at the end of the Civil War to 74 years in 1975.

The position of women also improved: they accounted for 30% of the workforce in 1974, more than double the proportion in 1950. Society was also increasingly secular and less influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, a pillar of the Franco regime until its last years, when it began to distance itself. The press became slightly freer too as a result of a law in 1966 that did away with prior censorship by the state and replaced it with self-censorship.

Spain’s international position was very different too. During the Cold War the country was firmly anchored in the Western bloc, as a result of the 1953 Madrid Agreements with the Eisenhower Administration allowing the US to establish air and naval bases in the country. This was followed by joining the IMF, the World Bank and GATT and signing a preferential trade agreement in 1970 with the European Economic Community (EEC). Madrid’s EEC membership application in 1962 had been rejected because the country was not a democracy.

Opinion polls in the 1970s showed Spaniards increasingly overcoming the divisions caused by the Civil War, paving the way for reconciliation. According to a survey in 1975, 74% of respondents wanted press freedom, 71% religious freedom and 58% trade-union freedom. The ossified political system under the Movimiento Nacional (‘National Movement’), the only legal political organisation, was out of step with the socioeconomic changes and people’s aspirations.

The changes, however, did not automatically guarantee a smooth transition to democracy after Franco died. The first steps towards democracy came incrementally rather than by engineering a swift and sudden break with the regime, and by using Francoist ‘legality’. With the exception of those at either end of the political extremes, there was no desire to open up the divisions caused by the Civil War. The transition, in the words of the distinguished sociologist Victor Pérez-Díaz, ‘required Francoists to pretend they had never been Francoists, and left-wing compromisers to pretend they were still committed to leftist principles’3 . Consensus, after so polarised a past, was very much the watchword between the reformist right and the non-violent left. This was epitomised by a pacto de olvido (literally, a ‘pact of forgetting’), an unwritten agreement among political elites to let bygones be bygones and look to the future in order to create a blank slate upon which to build democracy. This should not be equated, however, with political amnesia.

The pact was institutionalised by the 1977 Amnesty Law. Unlike the regime of Greece’s Colonels, the dictatorship in Portugal and Argentina’s military junta, the Franco regime was not subjected to any form of judicial accountability. There were no political trials for those associated with the Franco regime or a Chilean-style truth commission. To have done this in the early years of democracy would led the military to rattle their sabres, since 500 of the generals of the armed forces at the time of Franco’s death had fought on his side. The new democratic Spain did not even ban individuals from the old regime from participating in the new regime. It is easy to criticise this rather sui generis approach –as some on the radical left who did not directly experience the transition do from the comfortable perspective of today– for disregarding the ‘transitional justice movement’, which promotes coming to terms with the past as part of the process of democratisation. Yet there is no one-size-fitsall for democratic transitions and nor is there a consensus on what coming to terms with the past entails. Spain took a pragmatic approach, and it worked. The proof is that the democratic regime crafted in 1977 is the first to enjoy any significant degree of stability in the country’s turbulent history.

Sufficient time has now gone by during which Spain has become a mature democracy to resolve the contentious issue of what to do with the ‘Valley of the Fallen’, the basilica hewn into rock in the mountains near Madrid where Franco is buried. Ostensibly, the grandiose state-funded mausoleum, crowned by the world’s tallest stone cross, is a monument to reconciliation, as it contains the bones of 33,847 victims of the 1936-39 Civil War from both sides. Yet this is hard to square with the fact that it was originally designed to honour those fallen for ‘God and Spain’, mainly built with the forced labour of Republican political prisoners over an 18-year period (they were promised reduced sentences and paid) and is the last resting place of Republican dead brought there without the consent of their families, in some cases even against the express wishes of their loved ones. Not only is Franco buried there but so is José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the far-right Falange movement, side by side to the dictator. Franco’s is the only body there of a person who died in bed in peacetime: Primo de Rivera was shot by a Republican firing squad.

In August 2018 the Socialist government issued a decree-law 4 (an emergency procedure) to exhume Franco and bury him elsewhere, which was approved by parliament. ‘Democracy is not compatible with a tomb in honour of the memory of Franco’, said Carmen Calvo, the Deputy Prime Minister. The previous Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had drawn up a plan in 2011 to do the same and turn the monument into ‘a place of reconciled memory’. But the plan was shelved when the Popular Party (PP) was returned to power at the end of that year on the basis of a lack of consensus on the issue. The only party against the idea was and still is the PP, which sees no reason to rake over the past.

Unlike other countries, such as Germany, there is still no commonly accepted narrative about the country’s authoritarian past and how to deal with it. This is because a civil war is the worst kind of conflict a country can have and the most divisive, and it leaves the deepest and longest scars (some 600,000 people were killed during the three years it lasted). The best condemnation of Franco, however, is the consolidation of Spain’s democracy, which has disproved the dictator’s belief that Spaniards are incapable of peaceful co-existence.

The democratic elections in 1977, the first free ones since 1936, were contested by a veritable alphabet soup of 70 political parties and 4,537 candidates that ran for the 350-member Cortes (parliament). Twelve parties won seats on a voter turnout of 79% and opened up a constitutional process. The Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD), an unruly federation of 12 groups including the more progressive segments of the Francoist bureaucracy –liberals, Christian-democrats, social-democrats, conservatives and regional parties, tenuously held together by Adolfo Suárez, the Prime Minister that began the transition to democracy– captured 165 of the 350 seats, the Socialists 118, the Communists 20 and the neo-Francoist Popular Alliance 16. The other seats went to Catalan and Basque nationalists, and six other parties. Franco’s most ardent supporters, despite not believing in political parties, fielded several of them in the elections and between them gained less than 1% of the total vote.

The results were a victory for the reformist centre-right over the neo-Francoists and for the moderate left over the radical left and clearly expressed Spaniards’ desire to turn the page on the dictatorship.

The new constitution, drawn up by all the main political parties and approved in a referendum on 6 December 1978 by 88% of voters on a turnout of 67%, sealed the transition to democracy. It was drawn up by a seven-man inter-party committee of conservatives, centrists, communists, socialists and nationalists; as a result, each new government since then has not felt the need to mould it to its particular interests. The constitution resolved a historical problem. In the words of Landelino Lavilla, the Justice Minister at the time: ‘While we have had constitutions of every type we have never had a well-structured constitution which expresses the common beliefs of Spaniards and not the ideological contention of a specific option of power’. The constitution has hardly been changed since it was approved. Between 1812 and 1975 there were six different constitutions and two dictatorships.

The constitution consolidated the parliamentary monarchy under King Juan Carlos I, the grandson of Alfonso XIII, who went into exile in 1931 shortly before the Second Republic was proclaimed, and the system that the Political Reform Law of 1976 put into effect. This reform turned Franco’s Cortes into a two-chamber parliament and paved the way for a quasi-federal system with 17 autonomous communities, ending the ultra-centralised state that Franco had created and that the military was charged with defending. As regards the Roman Catholic Church –anticlericalism was one of the factors that sparked Franco’s uprising in 1936 against the democratically-elected government–, the constitution stated that ‘there shall be no state religion’. Article 16:3, however, declared: ‘the public authorities shall take the religious beliefs of Spanish society into account and shall in consequence maintain appropriate cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other confessions’. No other religious group is mentioned by name.

The constitution has given Spain institutional stability. Spain has had seven Prime Ministers since 1978 (Italy has had 25, one of whom served three times); during the Second Republic, between the spring of 1931 and the summer of 1936, it had seven Prime Ministers and two Presidents of the Republic, some serving more than once at different times. The comparison is even more striking if one takes the 21 years between the start of the reign of Alfonso XIII (1902) and the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923), when there were 33 changes of Prime Minister.

About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.