Democratic Opposition and the end of the Arias-Navarro Government

January to July 1975

The fourth article in the series on Spain's Transition to Democracy deals with the Democratic Opposition and the violent events of Vitoria and Montejurra, which led to the fall of the Arias-Navarro Government.

By the start of 1976, although the moderate opposition led by PSOE was tacitly accepted by the Arias Navarro Government, the radical opposition led by PCE continued organising strikes and was violently repressed.

This led to a number of deaths, most notably in Vitoria, and the two tendencies decided to unite as Platajunta, both adopting a more moderate strategy.

In May a Carlist demonstration in Montejurra led to more deaths and it was revealed that extreme right groups and Spanish secret services had been involved as agent provacateurs.

The relationship between Juan Carlos and Arias Navarro worsened after statements made by the King in the United States and Arias Navarro was replaced by the little known Adolfo Suárez as president of the government in July.


The Democratic Opposition

In the last years of the dictatorship, the anti-Francoist opposition formed two unitary bodies, the Junta Democrática, founded in July 1974 by lawyer and politician, Antonio García-Trevijano together with the Communist Party of Spain and other groups, and the Plataforma de Convergencia Democrática, founded in June 1975 and integrated by moderate anti-Francoists and PSOE.

The Junta Democrática favoured "democratic rupture" or clean break with Francoism using citizen mobilisation that would culminate in "national action" or a general strike, which implied rejecting the succession of Prince Juan Carlos and the "Francoist" monarchy. The group wanted the formation of a provisional government, the calling of a referendum on the form of government (republic or monarchy) and the punishment of former Francoist leaders for repression and human rights abuse. They also an amnesty and the release from prison of prisoners for political crimes and the return of exiles.

The Plataforma de Convergencia Democrática also wanted a "democratic rupture" with Francoism, but without it putting social and political stability at risk, so it preferred to negotiate with Francoist government to social mobilisation. Furthermore, its members were willing to give up the calling of a referendum on the form of government (monarchy or republic), therefore, accepting the new monarchy as long as it led the country to a fully democratic system. On the other hand, it also wouldn't demand responsibilities for repression so the amnesty proposed would include ex-Francoists. Another self-imposed limit was not to question the current socio-economic system. PSOE supported this strategy because it believed there was no other way to achieve democracy, given the weakness of the anti-Francoist opposition.

The PCE and the Junta Democrática were behind the great mobilisation against the Francoist monarchy. There was agitation in the universities, demonstrations under the banner of "Amnesty and Feedom", violently put down by the police, and a wave of strikes began, which were much bigger than the ones in 1974 and 1975.

The reasons for strikes, called by the illegal Comisiones Obreras trades union, were basically economic and due to the seriousness of the oil crisis, which had begun in 1973. There were also political motivations and demands for increases in salaries and working conditions were accompanied by calls for union freedom, recognition of the right to strike, freedom of meetings and association as well as amnesty for political prisoners and exiles. 

Vitoria and Montejurra

The government's response was repression. The Governance Minister Manuel Fraga compared the general strike declared in Sabadell at the beginning of the year as the "occupation of Petrograd in 1917". On February 24th a worker died from police gunfire in Elda and on March 3rd the most serious incidents in Vitoria left five dead and 100 injured also from police shootings.

A general strike was immediately declared in the Basque Country, Navarre and other areas out of solidarity with the victims which, according to historian David Ruiz showed "the central government's incapacity to control the situation". President Arias Navarro proposed declaring a state of emergency but Adolfo Suárez, who was acting as temporary Minister of Governance because Manuel Fraga was on business abroad, opposed the measure and managed to stop it being applied.

To a large part of the opposition, the "events of Vitoria" showed the real face of the "Arias-Fraga reform" and made the demonstrations and strikes worse, with a consequent reaction by the forces of law and order. Another worker died in Basauri, near Bilbao.

In spite of everything, the mobilisations weren't big enough to bring the government down, and much less the "Francoist monarchy". So it was becoming more obvious that the alternative of "democratic rupture" accompanied by "decisive national action" wasn't viable. The main supporter of this approach, the Spanish Communist Party, decided to change strategy in March 1976 and opt for the "agreed democratic rupture"" that was favoured by the moderates and PSOE. The PCE didn't abandon the mobilisations, though, because they still wanted to put pressure on the government and forced it to negotiate.

The PCE's change of strategy allowed the Junta Democrática and the Plataforma de Convergencia Democrática to fuse on March 26th and form a united opposition under the name Coordinación Democrática, commonly known as Platajunta. In its first manifesto, the Platajunta rejected the "Arias-Fraga reform" and demanded an immediate political amnesty, union freedom and "a rupture or democratic alternative through the opening of a constituent period". The initial strategy of rupture through popular uprising moved on to calling for the calling of general elections that could turn into a constituent process.

A little after Platajunta formed, the government allowed the union UGT to hold its 30th in the country camouflaged under the term "Study Conferences". According to the historian David Ruiz, this was because the government wanted to strengthen the "reborn and weakened socialist union faced with the danger of the illegal Comisiones Obreras closely linked to PCE". This was shown by the fact that "while the congress was being held including attendance of representatives from European unions, the CCOO leader, Marcelino Camacho, was imprisoned again after coming out of a Platajunta meeting in a city centre hotel in Madrid.

The events of Montejurra occurred at the beginning of May, when there was a confrontation between two Carlist groups, which left two dead and 30 injured. These were caused by shots from the integrist faction in favour of Sixto Enrique de Borbón Parma against the "self-management socialist"" sector led by his brother Carlos Hugo de Borbón Parma, presidente of the Partido Carlista, without the police intervening.

The police investigation, which "developed with enormous slowness and not a few obstacles", showed that Italian and Argentinian neofascists were involved as well as state players and the secret services. In later years, more would be discovered about the connections between this episode, known as Operation Reconquest, and other plots for destabilising Spain.

The end of the Arias Navarro government

At the beginning of June 1976, the King visted the United States and in his speech before Congress, the content of which hadn't been revealed to Arias Navarro, he ratified his commitment to give Spain a full democracy. Juan Carlos said "The Monarchy will make sure that Spain maintains social peace and political stability under the principles of democracy at the same as assuring power to the different government alternatives, according to the freel expressed desires of the Spanish people." A month and a half earlier had affirmed, and never denied, that Juan Carlos had said to one its journalists that "Arias was a disaster without palliatives."

Around the same time, Arias Navarro had made TV statements in which he had strongly attacked the democratic opposition, whilst his relationship with the King had deteriorated to such an extent that he said to one of his closest collaborators "I feel the same about him as I do about children; I can't stand him for more than ten minutes."

After the King told Areilza that "this can't go on, there's the risk of losing everything", on July 1st Juan Carlos asked Arias Navarro to hand in his resignation, which he did immediately. A few days later, Torcuato Fernández Miranda managed to get the Council of the Realm to include "the King's candidate", Adolfo Suárez amongst the three candidates for president of the government. Suárez was "a blue reformer", who was little known until then.

The naming of Suárez caused confusion and disappointment amongst the democratic opposition and in diplomatic circles, as well as amongst journalists. A political commentator, who would end up becoming minister under Suárez, wrote that his designation had been an "immense error".

According to historian David Ruiz, the choice of Suárez was due the fact that his political biography "had the double advantage of not provoking suspicions amongst the most influential Francoists because the few responsibilities he'd held (civil governor of Segovia, general director of TVE, minister with an insignificant responsibility under Arias Navarro), whilst knowing the structures of the Francoist regime's administration, including television, from which, diring the later years of Francoism, he had transmitted a favourable image of the King, with whom he shared a number of interests and also belonged to the same generation.

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