The Spanish Transition to Democracy

April 21, 2021 Off By barcelonas

Key Moments 1975-1982

The Spanish Transition is the period in Spain’s history during which the country left General Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime behind it and came to be regulated by the 1978 Constitution, which introduced a social and democratic state under the rule of law. This period constitutes the first stage of the reign of King Juan Carlos I.

There is a general consensus in situating the start of the transition on November 20th 1975, the day that General Franco died, when the Regency Council temporarily assumed the functions of the Head of State until two days later.

November 22nd was when Juan Carlos I of Borbón was proclaimed King of Spain before the Cortes and the Council of the Realm. Franco had designated Juan Carlos his successor “with the title of king” six years earlier.

The king confirmed his position as Head of State to the president of the Francoist government, Carlos Arias Navarro. However, the difficulty of bringing about any reforms under his government quickly became clear and this would cause a distancing between Arias Navarro and Juan Carlos I. Finally, the king demanded Arias Navarro’s resignation on July 1st 1976 and he was substituted by Adolfo Suárez. The new president began conversations with the leaders of the main political parties of the opposition and social groups, which were more or less legal or tolerated at the time. Suárez’s aim was installing a democratic system of government in Spain.

The means by which this was done was the eleboration of a new Fundamental Law, the eighth, the Law for the Political Reform which, not without tension, was finally passed by the Francoist Cortes on November 18th and at referendum on December 15th 1976. As a consequence of its approval by the Spanish people, the law came into force on January 7th 1977. It effectively abolished the Francoist political system in only five articles and led to the calling of democratic elections.

The elections were finally held on July 15th 1977. They were the first elections since the Civil War. The Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD) coalition, led by Adolfo Suárez, was the most voted party and, although it didn’t have an absolute majority, was able to form a government. From this moment onwards, the process of reconstructing democracy in Spain began. At the same time the new Constitution was drafted. On December 6th 1978, the Constitution was ratified by referendum and came into force on December 29th.

Adolfo Suárez resigned at the beginning of 1981 because of, amongst other things, a worsening relationship with the monarchy and internal pressures from within UDC. During the vote in the Congress of Deputies to elect Leopldo Calvo-Sotelo as his successor, there was a coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, General Alfonso Armada and Lieutenant General Jaime Miláns del Bosch amongst others. The coup, known as 23-F, failed because the King refused to give it his support.

UCD’s internal tensions brought about its disintegration throughout 1981 and 1982 and the party finally dissolved in 1983. The Christian democrat sector would end up joining Alianza Popular and the centre right. On the other hand, the social democrat members would join the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). Meanwhile, ex-president Suárez and a group of dissidents began a new centrist political project that would have representation in Congress until the 1993 elections, the Centro Democrático y Social.

The PSOE succeeded UCD after obtaining an absolute majority of 20 seats out of 350 and beginning the II democratic legislature. For the first time since the general elections of 1936, a party considered left-wing or progressive was about to form government. The majority of historians place this event as the end of the Transition, although some prolong it until January 1st 1986, when Spain joined the European Economic Community.

There were hundreds of deaths during the transition, both at the hands of far left terrorist groups, mainly Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the Grupos de Resistencia Antifascista Primero de Octubre (GRAPO), and by far right groups, as well as by the forces of public order. Investigations set the figure at between 500 and 700 people between 1975 and the start of the 1980s, with ETA being responsible for more than half of them.

Stages in the Transition to Democracy

I am currently writing articles on the main stages in Spain’s Transition to Democracy in chronological order, which I will publish as I complete them.

  • The Political Situation in Spain after the Death of General Franco
  • The Proclamation of Juan Carlos I
  • The Project for Reform of the Arias Navarro Government
  • The Democratic Opposition and the end of the Arias Navarro government
  • The Law for the Political Reform under Adolfo Suárez
  • Red Holy Saturday: The legalisation of the Spanish Communist Party
  • The First Democratic Spanish Elections – June 15th 1977
  • The Law of Amnesty and the “Pact of Forgetting” – Autumn-Winter 1977
  • The Regional Question – The Basques and Catalans
  • The Provisional Generalitat – The Catalan Government 1977-1980
  • The Drafting and Passing of the 1978 Spanish Constitution
  • Autonomous Communities in the 1978 Constitution
  • The General and Municipal Elections of March and April 1979
  • The Statute of Sau – The !979 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia

You can also read my chapter on The Transition to Democracy from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective, which is a brief but useful overview from a Catalan point of view.