The Arias-Fraga Reform

November 1975 to July 1976

This third article in my series on Spain's Transition to Democracy covers the Arias-Fraga Reform, which was the first lukewarm attempt at reforming the Francoist regime and ultimately failed.

It appears that the continuation of Carlos Arias Navarro as president of the government was a deliberate decision by the King Juan Carlos and Torcuato Fernández Miranda, both of whom realised that the reform was likely to fail.

However, the influence of the extreme right was still strong and, in retrospect, it's clear that it made sense not to proceed to quickly.


The Project for Reform of the Arias Navarro Government

Carlos Arias Navarro, who had been president of the government under Franco, remained in office and this was obviously a compromise on the part of King Juan Carlos and Torcuato Fernández Miranda as he lacked a plan for reforming the Francoist regime. In the National Council of the Movement, Arias Navarro even declared that in reality the government's proposal was the continuation of Francoism through "Spanish-style democracy" and also thought the changes should be limited. Speaking to the procurators of the Cortes on January 28th 1976, he said "You have the task of bringing our laws and institutions up to date as Franco would have wished".

The Arias Navarro government adopted the plan that was presented by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, rejecting Antonio Garrigues proposal of calling elections for a Constituent Cortes, which consisted of reaching a "liberal" democracy that was comparable to the rest of Western European through a gradual process controlled by the government of small changes to Franco's Fundamental Laws. This was also known as "reform in continuity" and its support base would be what was known as "sociological Francoism".

For the project to be successful it had to overcome resistance from the ultra-conservative Bunker, which had a strong presence in the National Council of the Movement and the Cortes, the two institutions that would have to pass reforms to the fundamental laws, as well in the Army and the Francoist Spanish Union Organisation.

The democratic opposition, with whom Arias Navarro didn't consider negotiating or pacting any of the essential elements of the process, was also crucial. For this reason, the government decided it would allow the moderate opposition to participate electorally, but would exclude the "totalitarians" of the Partido Comunista Español (PCE).

Manuel Fraga, the architect of the lukewarm reform, based his model on the Canovas Restoration after the First Republic in the 1870s. As historian Javier Tusell has noted, Fraga "wanted to be Canovas del Castillo without bearing in mind that the circumstances were very different from a century ago".

The project was defined in the reform of three fundamental laws, whose chages would be examined by a mixed commission of the Government and the National Council of the Movement, proposed by Fernández Miranda and Suárez, by which "the elaboration of a legislative programme to a large extent was out of Fraga and his reformist allies in the Cabinet's control", and of the Laws of Meeting and Association, which also included modifications to the Penal Code.

The new Law of Meetings was passed by the Francoist Cortes on May 5th 1976 and it was established that demonstrations in the streets should have government authorisation. The Law of Political Associations was proposed in the Cortes by the young minister Adolfo Suárez, who believed that if Spain was plural, the Cortes "couldn't allow itself the luxury of ignoring it".

Suárez speech not only impressed José Maria de Areilza. one of the senior ministers, who remarked "he says those things that Arias should have said months ago" but also the King. With this speech in defence of democratic principles, Suárez showed himself to be clearly to the left of Fraga and was one of the reasons why the King made him the new president, in substitution of Arias Navarro, a month later.

The Arias-Fraga reform ran aground on June 11th when the Cortes rejected the modification of the part of the Penal Code that considered belonging to a political party a crime. Ths was an essential requirement for the new laws to carry some weight.

In their attempt to stop the legalisation of the Communist Party, the procurators of the Cortes introduced an amendment that prohibited political organisations that were "subject to international discipline" and in favour of implanting a "totalitarian" regime. As Javier Turell says, "this created the paradox that those who in the past had been tempted by totalitarianism now felt they had the authority to veto everybody else's totalitarianism".

Another failure was the project for reforming the fundamental laws of the Cortes and the Succession, which had been designed by Fraga, who wanted to create a new Cortes comprising two houses, one elected by universal suffrage and other of an "organic" nature.

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