Spain's General and Municipal Elections of 1979

March 1st and April 3rd 1979

The Spanish General Elections of March 1st 1979 were followed by municipal elections a month later. They consolidated the fledgling democracy but with neither UCD or PSOE winning outright, the political panorama remained the same.

In the municipal elections held a month later, the left came out clear winners in the major cities and local politics became more dynamic after 40 years of Francoism.


General Elections

Once the Constitution had been passed, Adolfo Suárez decided to dissolve the Cortes and call new elections for March 1st 1979. The two main political parties had both strengthened their organisational infrastructure in the previous year. UCD had become a political party in its first congress held in October and PSOE had unified Spanish socialism by absorbing Tierno Galván's Partido Socialista Popular and other regional socialist parties and hoped to win.

Both parties had their sights set on winning so the atmosphere of consensus that had prevailed during the campaign for the June 1977 elections was over for this one and the attacks between the parties were frequent. In one television appearance Suárez ended up saying that was was at stake was "nothing more and nothing less than the very definition of the model of society that we aspire to live in".

A new element in the campaign was the dominant role that television played in transmitting the message of the parties. This meant there were fewer to the detriment of rallies, although some historians attribute this to a general feeling of disenchantment with politics that was setting less than four years after the death of the dictator.

The result of the elections didn't satisfy either of the two big parties as everything stayed as it had been in 1977. UCD won again with 34.3% of the vote but only 168 seats meant it hadn't won the absolute majority it had hoped for. PSOE didn't improve its results enough and remained in the opposition, and only won 30% of the vote, which was an improvement of just three seats, from 118 to 121, despite having absorbed Tierno Galván's PSP.

Alianza Popular, who stood under the name Coalición Democrática and removed all ex-Franco ministers, apart from Fraga, from its lists. Its share of the vote fell to 5.6% and it lost 7 deputies, passing from 16 to 9, which almost made Fraga give up politics. The PCE didn't improve its position either and only won 10.6 of the vote and 23 seats.

Abstention increased with respect to 1977, going up from 21% to 32%, which began to be referred to as the desencanto or disenchantment of the Spaniards with the fledgling democracy. The Spanish political class seemed unable to resolve the country's two main problems of the economic crisis and terrorism.

What had become known as bipartidismo imperfecto, literally imperfect two-party system, was confirmed with UCD and PSOE winning two thirds of the votes and more than 80% of the seats but the results offered some changes with regard to 1977.

Parliamentary representation was won by the radical Basque nationalists, Herri Batasuna, who were considered the political wing of ETA. The Partido Socialista de Andalucía won five seats and other regional parties, such as Unión del Pueblo Canario, Unión del Pueblo Navarro and Partido Aragonés Regionalista, won one each. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, which had been able to stand legally for the first time, won representation and the far right candidacy, Unión Nacional led by Blas Piñar, won a seat in Madrid.

Municipal Elections

A month after the general elections, the first municipal elections since the Second Republic were held, and there was a left-wing victory. PSOE and PCE ended up controlling most of the major Spanish cities due to post-election agreements. While socialists Enrique Tierno Galván and Narcís Serra became mayors of Madrid and Barcelona, the communist Julio Anguita became the first communist mayor of a major Spanish city in history, when he was elected in Cordoba.

From this point on, municipal life took on enormous vigour, despite the limited economic and personal resources available to the ayuntamientos or town councils. The grey Franco years were a thing of the past as cities were cleaned up, urban spaces improved and traffic flow rationalised. All this permitted the recovery of popular traditions and festivals.

The PSOE crisis and the strengthening of Felipe González's leadership

Not winning the general elections was a profound disappointment for PSOE and opened an internal debate on how to go about doing so. The most left-wing sector of the party wanted to stop the move to the right, whilst the leadership believed that a radical position would distance the party from the chance of winning power and wanted to remove the word "marxist" from the party description. The confrontation between the two sectors came at the 28th Congress of PSOE, which was held in May 1979, just a month after the municipal elections and threw the party into crisis.

At the Congress, the majority of the delegates opposed the proposal of the leadership to eliminate the word marxism from the party definition, which was "a class-based marxist democratic party for the masses" and had been agreed at the Congress of Suresnes. The elimination was in line with majority of European socialist parties, which over the previous two decades had all decided that the removal of marxism was essential in order to win elections.

As soon as the result of the vote was known, the general secretary, Felipe González and the rest of the executive committee presented their resignations. However, the group that had argued in favour of maintaining marxism in the definition, led by Luis Gómez Llorente, Francisco Bustelo and Pablo Castellano, didn't put forward an alternative candidacy to lead the party so a management committee had to nominated until an Extraordinary Congress could be held after the summer. The tactical poverty of the leftist, who hadn't predicted González' resignation actually strengthened the former secretary general's position, because without a clear leadership the members feel orphaned.

At the Extraordinary Congress held in September 1979, Felipe González' position was backed by the delegates and marxism was eliminated from the party definition. From then on, PSOE would be a "a democratic federal working class party of the masses" that "adopts marxism as a theoretical, critical and non-dogmatic instrument for the analysis of social reality, collecting different marxist and non-marxxist contributions, which have contributed to make socialism the great emancipating alternative of our times and fully respecting personal beliefs".

The change that occurred between one Congress and another was due to a modification introduced in the party statutes, which gave more power to provincial delegations over local ones. This meant the voting was better controlled by the PSOE number two, Alfonso Guerra, and the number of delegates went from around a thousand to four hundred.

The result was a strengthening of Felipe González's leadership and the culmination of the refoundation of PSOE that had begun five years earlier in Suresnes and was backed by the big European socialist parties. Having solved its own crisis, PSOE stepped up its campaign against the UCD government and in particulr, its president, Adolfo Suárez. Felipe González even praised Manuel Fraga, who he described as being able to "fit the State in his head" in order to do Suárez down.

The ideological change in PSOE was also due the fact that, unlike in the 1930s, the majority of the affiliates were no longer industrial working class and the party now drew on a lot of its support from the middle classes.

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