Chapter 23: The Transition To DemocracyApril 21, 2021
When General Franco died on November 20th 1975 both Spain and Catalonia entered a period of uncertainty known as La Transición during which the centralised powers of the dictatorial regime were slowly democratised. Franco’s expressed desire had been that the totalitarian system he had created should remain in place with King Juan Carlos de Borbón as its nominal figurehead. However, the assassination by ETA of the dictator’s designated political successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973 meant that Carlos Arias Navarro was Prime Minister at the time of Franco’s death.
Less charismatic than Carrero Blanco but just as reactionary, Arias Navarro had authorised a number of summary executions in 1974, including the garrotting of Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich. His aversion to any kind of political liberalisation was clear. It was Arias Navarro who announced the death of the dictator on Spanish television on the evening of November 20th 1975. There is something quite pathetic about his heartfelt elegy in praise of the man who had ‘dedicated his life to the good of Spain’.
King Juan Carlos officially became Head of State just two days later. The King kept Arias Navarro as Prime Minister along with Manuel Fraga Iribarne as his Deputy and Minister of the Interior. Fraga’s famous phrase “La calle es mia!” – “The streets are mine!” – marked the regime’s attitude to the ensuing demonstrations in favour of democracy. One of reasons for choosing a continuist government was a very real fear of the large and powerful group of right-wing army officers and civil servants known as The Bunker. Still loyal to Franco, The Bunker viewed the maintenance of a fascist Spain as their patriotic duty and would seize power if the democratisation process moved too quickly.
The King had ideas of his own and on November 25th announced an amnesty for 15,000 political prisoners and exiled republicans. He also pushed for further reforms and Arias Navarro’s unwillingness to apply them led to his dismissal in favour of the younger Adolfo Suárez in July 1976. Arias Navarro immediately joined the ranks of The Bunker and in the first general elections held a year later stood for the right-wing Alianza Popular, founded by his colleague Manuel Fraga.
Catalonia After Franco
The death of Franco was a cause for celebration in Catalonia but it was also a period of uncertainty and jockeying for political power. The popular movement continued to be led by the Assemblea de Catalunya. Although there was a significant increase in strikes and pickets, for the most part the demonstrations were peaceful. Once again religious groups played an important part and it was a one of these, Pax Christi, that called for the Marxa de la Llibertat or March for Freedom.
Under the familiar slogan of “Freedom, Amnesty and Statute of Autonomy”, the marchers were divided into 5 columns starting in various Catalan towns in July 1976. The march was to be completely peaceful. The plan was to stop and give talks and meetings in the different villages along the way. New marchers would join and the march would finish with a peaceful demonstration on Catalan National Day on September 11th at the Monastery of Poblet.
This was much too much for the regime still headed by Arias Navarro and, when the different marches set off, the police and civil guard reacted with violence. There were 150 arrests made between July 1st and 3rd and many marchers ended up serving prison sentences. However, 300 people managed to meet at Poblet on September 11th. The march was of symbolic importance more than anything else as the main Diada demonstration that year, the first since Franco’s death, took place in Sant Boi de Llobregat, the burial place of Rafael Casanova with a massive crowd of over 80,000.
On a political level, the main Catalan parties formed the Consell de Forces Polítiques de Catalunya or Council of Political Forces of Catalonia in order to negotiate the restoration of the Catalan institutions and were in contact with Josep Tarradellas, President of the Generalitat-in-exile, from an early stage. Many left-wing groups favoured an estrategia de ruptura or rupture strategy with a referendum on the monarchy, the immediate formation of a provisional government and the trials of Franco’s former collaborators. It is not surprising that the King decided to replace Arias Navarro with the more progressive Adolfo Suárez in July, the same month as the Marxa de la Llibertat.
On December 15th 1976, a referendum on the Law for the Political Reform, which would legalise all political parties, including the Communists, and pave the way for the first democratic elections, gained support from 69% of Catalan voters. At the same time, other significant cultural events were taking place, such as the founding of Avui, the first newspaper in Catalan since the Civil War, the launch of Catalan radio station Radio 4 and the recognition of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans.
These events, combined with the subliminal threat of The Bunker, meant the rupture strategy was dropped in favour of a smoother process of democratisation. Obviously sensible at the time, one can’t help but regret that former Francoists were able to continue in Spanish politics by simply donning the mantle of democrat. The consequence of this was that Franco’s systems of favours and privileges were never fully dismantled.
The Restoration of the Generalitat
The first democratic General Elections of June 15th 1977 saw a convincing victory by Adolfo Suárez’s Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD) with 166 seats out of 350. The democratic socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) led by Felipe González came second with 116 seats. The more extreme parties on both the left and right gave a more modest showing. The Partido Comunista Español won only 19 seats and Manuel Fraga’s Alianza Popular took a disappointing 16 seats.
In Catalonia, though, the results were somewhat different with the autochthonous socialists of PSC and communists of PSUC taking 28% and 18% of the votes respectively. Jordi Pujol’s Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) were clearly the conservative Catalanist alternative with 17% of the vote against the post-Francost Alianza Popular’s 3%, the same as the disappointing result for Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). Had local government infrastructure been in place, Catalonia would have had a left-wing government. It was no surprise that Spanish President Suárez was to stall over calling municipal elections, which were not finally held until 1979.
The autumn of 1977 was important for Catalonia, though. Not surprisingly, La Diada on September 11th 1977 was more left than nationalist-inspired. With over a million people calling for “Freedom, Amnesty and Statute of Autonomy”, it was the biggest demonstration in post-war Europe. La Diada of ’77 gave an unmistakable signal to Madrid that the time for dismantling the centralist state had come. On September 29th, the government repealed the Francoist law abolishing the Catalan institutions and the provisional Generalitat was restored.
The President of the Generalitat-in-exile, Josep Tarradellas had already met with Adolfo Suárez in June to prepare his return. Tarradellas finally arrived in Barcelona on October 23rd and pronounced his famous “Ja sóc aqui!” – “I’m here at last!” – from the balcony of the Palau de la Generalitat to great rejoicing and a crowd of 300,000. The dark side was that two days earlier, the government had decreed a full amnesty not only to those who had fought for democracy but also exempting those who had participated in the Franco regime. This meant that the dictator’s henchmen would never be brought to justice.
The 1978 Constitution
The next key event was the drawing up of the new Spanish Constitution by Gabriel Cisneros, Miguel Herrero y Rodríguez de Miñón and José Pedro Pérez Llorca of governing UCD, Gregorio Peces-Barba of PSOE and Manuel Fraga of Alianza Popular. Catalonia was represented by conservative Miquel Roca Junyent and communist Jordi Solé Tura.
The Constitution established a constitutional monarchy with a hereditary head of state and a democratically elected president. From a Catalan point of view, it laid down the basis for a decentralised system of Autonomous Communities each with their own Statute.
The 1978 Constitution also guaranteed a high degree of political and cultural centralisation. Article 3 goes as follows:
“Castilian is the official language of the State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it. The other Spanish languages will also be official in their respective Autonomous Communities according to their own Statutes. The richness of the distinct linguistic modalities of Spain represents a patrimony which will be the object of special respect and protection.”
It is important to note that knowledge of the Castilian language is seen as a duty for all Spaniards, including Catalans, whilst the use of Catalan is simply officially recognised in Catalonia but not obligatory. Article 2 further stresses the pre-eminence of the Spanish state, when it distinguishes between the Spanish Nation and the minor nationalities.
“The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible fatherland (patria) of all Spaniards. It acknowledges and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities of which it is composed and solidarity among them.”
Just to make sure that the pre-eminence of Spain couldn’t be challenged by the Catalan-speaking countries of Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands grouping together, Article 145 states that “No federation between Autonomous Communities will be permitted under any circumstances”.
Although not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, the three historical nationalities were Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, all of which had had Statutes of Autonomy at some point prior to the Civil War. However, the obvious trick was to extend the decentralisation to other regions in what is known as café para todos or coffee for everybody, thereby relativising the impact of Catalan and Basque autonomy.
In the end, 17 Autonomous Communities, all of which were supposed to have common historical, cultural and economic characteristics were created. However, some of the communities, particularly those comprising a single province, had never shown any national conscience or laid claim to any form of self-government previously. The autonomic system was diluted even further when Andalusia claimed a historical identity and joined the priority group of communities, to which the uniprovincial Community of Madrid was also added later.
In the negotiations, the Basque Country and Navarre managed to obtain special tax conditions, known as the concert economic, based on their historic charters. However, this special treatment wasn’t conceded to Catalonia partly because although Catalanist, the socialist and communist negotiators were linked to Spanish parties and favoured solidarity with workers in the rest of Spain. Similarly, the threat of a violent reaction from the Bunker was never far away. The shadow of the dictatorship must have preyed on the minds of those on both sides of the negotiating table.
Café para todos and the uneven tax system have been continual causes of friction between Catalonia and central government over the last 35 years. Similarly, the imbalance between obligatory Castilian and voluntary Catalan has been another source of conflict, particularly in the field of education, where central government has been particularly interventionist.
Once again an opportunity had been missed to put Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain on a solid basis. The elimination of the historic rivalries that have caused so much instability throughout Spain’s history would have made the fledgling Spanish democracy a much more solid proposition.
The Catalan Statute of Autonomy was passed by referendum in June 1979, although the turnout of 59.6% was significantly lower than that for the Constitution just a year earlier. As a result of the statute, exclusive jurisdiction in matters of culture, environment, communications, transportation, commerce, public safety and local governments was ceded to the Generalitat. However, in education, health and justice, jurisdiction was shared between the Generalitat and central government. This was the theory, at least.
The General Elections of March 1979 had shown little variation with respect to those of 1977. For this election, Jordi Pujol’s Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya formed an alliance with the Christian Democrat Unió Democràtica de Catalunya, which was to become stable in the form of Convergència i Unió (CiU). At the same, the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC) absorbed the Catalan Federation of PSOE and the old Reagrupament Socialista party. CiU and PSC, the two political formations that have dominated Catalan politics until very recently, were now established.
The next couple of years were ones of political demobilisation. The communists of PSUC began losing support as both the trades unions and the neighbourhood associations became less necessary and so less active. Some residual grumbles remained but most of the major political battles had finalised with satisfactory results.
Things in Spain were far from perfect, though. The economic crisis had brought with it unemployment of 20% and inflation of 16%, both virtually unheard of under Franco. Furthermore, ETA violence was on the rise. However, when Jordi Pujol became first elected President of the Generalitat in 1980, it seemed as if the crucial decisions of the Transition had been taken and democracy was here to stay.
At 6.21 pm on February 23rd 1981, during the investiture ceremony of incoming President Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, a group of Guardia Civil stormed into the Spanish Parliament brandishing machine guns. The scene was being filmed for television and later that evening, the whole of Spain sat dumbstruck as shots were fired and its democratically elected representatives dropped to the floor in fear. The group of insurgents was led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero of the Guardia Civil, and the event is known as 23-F or El Tejerazo.
Only three deputies remained upright as the first shots were fired. Outgoing President Adolfo Suárez and Defence Minister General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado ordered the insurgents to disarm whilst communist leader Santiago Carrillo sat quietly smoking a cigarette, apparently undisturbed by events. Machine gun rounds were fired into the air and Tejero ordered silence.
Shortly after, the Captain General of the Third Military Region, Jaime Milans del Bosch, rose up in Valencia and tanks rolled through the streets for the first time since the death of the dictator. Milans del Bosch declared a state of emergency and tried to convince other senior military figures to support the coup. The head of the tank division in Sant Boi de Llobregat on the outskirts of Barcelona and the Francoist chief of the local police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, were ready to enter the city and arrest Jordi Pujol but fortunately the Captain General of Catalonia refused to join the conspiracy.
The threat of The Bunker had been far from exaggerated. A rapid response from a figure of authority was required. The refusal by the King Juan Carlos to support the insurgents was to be instrumental in defusing the uprising.
At nine o’clock that night, a communication from the Interior Ministry announced the formation of a provisional government with the undersecretaries of different ministries, under the instructions of the King. The aim was to ensure governance of the state and close contact with the Assembly of Military Chiefs of Staff.
At 1:14 am on February 24th, the King came on television dressed in milititary uniform as the Captain General of the Armed Forces. In a show of authority, Juan Carlos made his position clear. “The crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate, in any form, actions or attitudes attempting to interrupt the democratic process.”
At that moment, the coup was taken to be a failure. An isolated General Milans del Bosch cancelled his plans at 5 am that morning and was arrested. Tejero resisted until the following midday and was arrested outside the Congress building.
Catalan Language Under Attack
Although the attempted coup was put down relatively easily, it was clear that the ghost of Franco still haunted Spain. The fledgling democracy entered a period known as the democracia vigilada or democracy under surveillance. The right’s main rallying cry had always been “España, Una y Grande” – “Spain, United and Great!” – so in order to pacify the Bunker, the LOAPA or Ley Orgánica de Armonización del Proceso Autonómico was drafted.
A result of a pact between PSOE and UCD, the LOAPA was officially designed to harmonize the devolution process. Its surreptitious aim was to curtail the powers of the two main Autonomous Communities, Catalonia and the Basque Country by standardising the political power and representation in each region.
Similarly, barely a month after the Tejerazo, a manifesto with the title Por la igualdad de derechos linguisticos en Cataluña was signed by a few intellectuals and civil servants. The manifesto claimed that Castilian-speakers were subject to discrimination and made an explicit call to oppose Catalanisation by political means. Given recent history under Franco and the bias against Catalan in the Statute, this insulting example of Castilian belligerence provoked an immediate reaction from Catalan cultural groups.
Within five days, the Crida a la solidaritat en defensa de la llengua, la cultura i la nació catalana, a Call for solidarity in defence of the Catalan, language, culture and nation was published with the support of over 1,300 institutions and voluntary associations. The organisers set a vast mobilisation campaign in motion culminating in a festival-cum-demonstration in FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou, which holds around 100,000 people. On 14 March 1982, the Crida and other groups organised an enormous anti-LOAPA demonstration.
In a pattern recurring throughout Catalan history, what started as a reaction against an attack on Catalan culture turned into an increasingly political movement. Because this attack occurred within the framework of autonomy agreed by Catalonia with Madrid, the Crida’s leaders capitalised on the threat to the core values of the nation. Various smaller left-wing Catalanist parties gathered together as Terra Lliure or Free Land, which had formed in 1978.
Prior to the General Elections of October 1982, the UCD dissolved and former-Franco minister Manuel Fraga’s Alianza Popular became the main party on the right of the political spectrum. PSOE won a majority of 202 out of 350 seats in Congress and with a left-wing government in power for the first time since the Civil War, it seemed Spain’s transition to democracy was complete.
Central government realised that the Catalan situation could get out of hand and, following a decision by the Constitutional Court, withdrew the LOAPA. However, as part of the LOAPA pact, PSOE had shown their true anti-Catalanist colours and with Francoist Alianza Popular as the other main political force in Madrid, it was clear that Catalonia and Spain’s post-Transition honeymoon was over.
The amnesty for Franco’s collaborators and the failure to reform the administration meant the Transition had left problems unresolved. For a certain sector of Catalan society, only with independence would Catalonia be liberated from the centralist threat. The seeds of a Catalan separatist movement from the rest of Spain had been sown once again.