The Law for the Political Reform under Adolfo Suárez

April 21, 2021 Off By barcelonas

July to December 1976

This fifth article in my series on Spain’s Transition to Democracy covers the Law for the Political Reform under Adolfo Suárez.

The Law for the Political Reform was the first Suárez government’s most important piece of legislation and the first major reform since the death of Franco.

It effectively meant that the Francoist Cortes voted itself out of existence and, after being ratified through referendum, paved the way for the first democratic elections a month later.

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Gutierrez Mellado and Adolfo Suárez during vote on The Law for the Political Reform


Adolfo Suárez forms a government

The Spanish political class had little confidence in the first government formed by Adolfo Suárez in July 1976. It was made up of young Francoist reformers and didn’t include any important figures, such as Fraga and Areilza, who had refused to participate. The Spanish press jokingly described it as “the PNN government” because they said it was made up of non-numenary university professors.

The new government was dominated by Christian democrats from the Tácito group such as Alfonso Osorio, Marcelino Oreja, Landelino Lavilla, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo along with ‘blue’ reformers like Suárez himself, Rodolfo Martin Villa and Fernando Abril Martorell. Only one of the members of the cabinet, Admiral Pita da Veiga, had been a minister under Franco.

Referring to the relative youth of the cabinet, Fraga commented that “they have put our generation into early retirement. The clandestine PCE newspaper Mundo Obrero thought the “summer government”, as they called it, wouldn’t last long.

In his first declaration on TVE, the new president presented his reformist project using new language and offering a very different kind of image, which caused a major stir amongst the population. He stressed that his new government didn’t represent any political party but was “a legitimate administrator able to establish a political game open to all”. Suárez’s aim was “that the governments of the future are the result of the free will of the majority of Spaniards”.

After expressing his conviction that sovereignty resided in the people, he announced that this would be freely expressed in general elections that would be called for June 30th of the following year. It meant “elevating to a normal category what at street level is simply normal”. Finally he announced that the “political reform” that was being undertaken would be submitted to referendum.

Following the failure of the “Arias-Fraga reform”, the new government concluded that any attempt to modify the Francoist “fundamental laws” should be reduced to a single conclusive “fundamental law” that would mean the abolition of the previous one.

The new government’s reform project

The project for the Law for the Political Reform was drafted by the president of the Cortes, Torcuato Fernández Miranda, the vice president of the government, Alfonso Osorio, and the minister of Justice, Landelino Lavilla. There were a number of drafts, although the first was drawn up by Fernández Miranda.

The project was called the Law for the Political Reform (“for” and not “of”) because this implied that, although the current Francoist Cortes would allow it to be passed, its real effect would become a reality under the jurisdiction of the first democratically elected Cortes that would result from it.

The project was very simple. A new Cortes or Parliament formed by two houses would be created. The Congress of the Deputies and the Senate would comprise 350 and 204 members respectively, and both would be elected by universal suffrage, apart from those senators designated by the King, who would be “not greater than the fifth part in number”.

The main purpose of the Law for the Political Reform was to enable the calling of elections and the creation of a minimum constitutional framework for holding them. At the same time, the law would pave the way for the abolition of the institutions established in the fundamental laws that weren’t democratically elected.

This meant all Francoist institutions, such as the National Council of the Movement, the Movement itself, the Cortes established by the 1942 law, the Council of the Realm and the Council of the Regency established by the 1967 laws would be abolished. The Law for the Political Reform effectively dismantled the Francoist infrastructure so that future democratic reforms could take place without being restricted by them.

In the preamble of the law, by basing legitimacy on universal suffrage, a kind of “self-rupture” with Francoist institutions was introduced. In the articles of this “eighth Fundamental Law of Francoism” a substantial change in the poltical regime was proposed. However, the law didn’t question the form of government because no mention of the monarchy was made.

What Suárez had to achieve was much more difficult. The Francoist Cortes had to commit suicide and vote in favour of a law that supposed its and the regime’s disappearance in order to leave the way open for democracy.

Furthermore other obstacles had to be overcome. Convincing the military leadership of the need for the reform, removing ultraconservative Francoists from positions of power, convincing the democratic opposition of sincerity of the reform and including both the international and domestic groups.

Pressure from the democratic opposition

The new government, and in particular its president’s new approach changed the political climate and quickly overcame the atmosphere of tension that had dominated the last few months of the Arias Navarro government. The first contacts with the democratic opposition came about immediately.

In July and August, Suárez spoke with Christian democrats José María Gil Robles and Joaquín Ruiz Giménez, socialists Felipe González and Joan Reventós and with catalanist Jordi Pujol, amongst others. More discreetly through intermediaries with Santiago Carrillo, the general secretary of the PCE. The result of this and the promise made in his declaration was the concession of an amnesty for political prisoners.

The amnesty wasn’t complete because it didn’t include the “crimes of blood” committed by terrorists, so many Basque prisoners remained in jail. The amnesty did include, however, the lecturers who had been sacked from their University jobs for supporting the student protests of the mid-sixties. There were also contacts with the illegal unions Comisiones Obreras, Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) and UGT.

However, the recognition of the right to meetings and demonstration still gave a great deal of power to the authorities in deciding whether a demonstration would be allowed or not. This was particularly relevant in the Basque Country and Navarre where demonstrations were normally forbidden because they were associated with calls for amnesty for “Basque prisoners” and for self-government that the authorities immediately associated with ETA.

The terrorist group stepped up attacks against civil authorities and on October 4th, Juan María Araluce, president of the Diputación de Guipúzcoa, was assassinated. The lack of tolerance led to an increase in the climate of tension and political radicalisation in the Basque Country and Navarre while it decreased in the rest of Spain.

This decrease in tension also occurred in other regions with claims to nationhood, such as Catalonia. On September 11th 1976, the Diada, the national day of Catalonia, was openly celebrated for the first time in Sant Boi de Llobregat. Despite clear demands for “Freedom, Amnesty and the Statute of Autonomy” the day transcurred peacefuly.

On October 23rd, the Plataforma de Organismos Democráticos, which grouped Coordinación Democrática, the Assemblea de Catalunya and other regional opposition groups was formed. The new platform repeated its willingness to negotiate with the government as long as there was a referendum on the calling of Constituent Cortes. They also wanted political parties to be legalised and a total amnesty for political prisoners. In political terms, they demanded that the republican Statutes of Autonomy were reestablished, the Francoist institutions were dismantled and a government with “broad democratic consensus” was formed.

To achieve these aims, the opposition maintained its strategy of pressure “from below” which resulted in the calling of the first general strike of the transition for November 12th 1976. This had the support of around a million workers but was insufficient to force the government to change the “from law to law” strategy that Torcuato Fernández Miranda had laid out at the beginning of the transition..

Getting the Law for the Political Reform through the Cortes

The government’s main obstacle for moving forward with the political reform wasn’t the democratic opposition but rather the Army, which considered itself the last guarantee of Franco’s legacy. So on September 8th, Adolfo Suárez met with the military leadership to try to convince the high command of the need for reform.

At the meeting, the limits that would never be crossed were discussed. It was agreed that the monarchy or the “unity of Spain” wouldn’t be questioned and responsibilities for what happened during Franco’s dictatorship wouldn’t be demanded and a provisional government that would open a constituent process wouldn’t be formed. Most importantly, the revolutionary parties, including the Communist Party, the army’s main opponent since the civil war, would not be legalised.

In conclusion, the process that would lead to elections would always be under government control. Once the limits were defined, the Army’s misgivings were dispelled and Suárez had the high commend’s blessing for the process he was about to begin.

However, the first crisis with the military wasn’t long in coming. When General Fernando de Santiago, government vice president, spoke out against the dismantling of the Francoist trades union organisation and, in particular, the secret contacts the government was having with the clandestine Comisiones Obreras, he was removed from his office, retired from active service and replaced by the liberalising officer, Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado. General Carlos Iniesta Cano, former general director of the Guardia Civil, was also sent to the reserves for having supported General de Santiago.

The debate on the Law for the Political Reform began on November 14th 1976, two days after the general strike called by the democratic opposition. During the debate, the law was opposed by various right-wing procurators, such as Pilar Primo de Rivero, who used the argument of the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War.

“[…] And then one thinks of the dead. Why? Who will bring the dead back to life? Who will give an amnesty to the dead? The sensation of disloyalty to them is so tremendous that it disturbs my conscience. If we had lost, we’d have to put up with it but having taken our Revolution to a happy end, why should we lose it?

When the law was submitted to vote on November 18th, the Suárez government success was resounding. The Law for the Political Reform was passed by 435 procurators, while 59 voted against, 13 abstained and 24 didn’t attend.

The government had worked hard to achieve this result and the collaboration of the president of the Cortes, Fernández Miranda, had been essential. The law got through the Cortes according to the emergency procedure, which limited the debates and ensured that the final vote wasn’t secret.

The procurators with important positions were informed that they ran the risk of losing them if they didn’t support the project. Others were promised the chance of renewing their seats in the new Cortes that would be elected based on candidacies that would be supported by the government. This explained why the Cortes was prepared to commit suicide, and dissolve itself out of choice, as some newspapers said after the vote.

With their eyes already set on the forthcoming elections, more than half the procurators, 184, joined Alianza Popular, the federation of parties that had just been created by Manuel Fraga.

The Referendum

Once the Cortes had passed it, the government called the referendum which would ratify the Law for the Political Reform for December 15th. This created a dilemma for the democratic opposition because the question the citizenry would be asked wouldn’t centre on the type of State, Monarchy or Republic. This is what the anti-Francoist forces had wanted since the 1940s and this made them err towards campaigning for a NO in the referendum.

However, the “ultras” of the Bunker supported a NO. In fact, they used the slogan “Franco would have voted NO” in their campaign propaganda.

Finally, Coordinación Democrática decided to campaign for an abstention because “if you vote YES, they stay, and if you vote NO, they don’t go”, according to the PCE slogan. The moderate opposition gave their sympathisers freedom of vote.

The government didn’t give any opportunities for the opposition to explain its position in the media, which was still controlled by the State as it had been under Franco. There was a formidable radio and television campaign in favour of a YES vote, so the result of the referendum was as expected.

Participation was high with 77.8% of Spaniards voting, so the democratic opposition had only persuaded 22.2% to abstain. The only exception to this was in the Basque Country where the number of abstentions was doubled. The YES campaign won by a massive 94.2% of the votes whilst the NO only won support of 2.6% of voters and 3% of votes were in blank.

In order to gain the result, the government had also counted on all the administrative and political machinery of the State, including the fifty civil governors. Another factor that may have had an influence was the uncertainty provoked by the kidnapping of Antonio María de Oriol, president of the Council of State, by GRAPO, four days before the referendum was held.

The political reform, and implicitly the monarchy and its government, was given legitimacy by a popular vote. From this moment on, the democratic opposition that it would focus on forming a government of “broad democratic consensus”. Accepting that the political initiative had passed to Suárez’s government, Felipe González, PSOE leader, declared that the democratic opposition had to overcome the “dialectic of all or nothing” and decided to participate in the process.