Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century, Spanish politics has been characterized by the struggle to establish a democratic polity: a struggle which was far more protracted and bloody than that experienced by the majority of other western European countries. One of the main reasons for this democratic tardiness was that Spain long remained economically underdeveloped, thereby condemning both state and society to chronic weakness. Democracy in Spain thus remained elusive precisely because capitalist development also remained elusive. Such a situation led to the well-known maxim that Spain was somehow different from her European neighbours. In particular, Spanish politics was characterized by a series of fault-lines which, broadly speaking, divided the political community into two main antagonistic blocs—the forces of reaction and tradition on the one hand, and the forces of reform and modernity on the other. Within these two broad camps other polarities could be discerned: centralists against regionalists; monarchists against Republicans; the church against anticlericals; workers against employers. One of the sharpest divisions was the perennial conflict between the need to establish a unitary, centralized state on the one hand, whilst satisfying regional differences on the other.
   The attempt to reconcile state and nation played a key role in the struggle between the two main antagonistic blocs—the traditionalists and the modernists—for hegemony. This struggle resulted in a permanent, and seemingly unbreakable, cycle whereby periods of authoritarianism and centralized government were followed by attempts at democratization, generally accompanied by some form of regional autonomy. Thus the formal democratic façade of the Restoration Monarchy (1875–1923) was followed by the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923–31). In turn, this period of centralized dictatorial rule was followed by the Second Republic (1931–6) —Spain's first period of genuine democratization which was accompanied by a limited process of regional devolution. This democratic interlude was followed by one of the longest, most centralized, dictatorships in western Europe under General Franco. Only with the successful establishment of democracy in the 1970s would this dynamic between authoritarianism and democracy, reaction and modernity, centralism and regionalism, be broken.
   To understand the success of democratization in the 1970s, however, it is necessary first to examine the reasons for its failure in the 1930s. In this sense it is impossible to overestimate the importance of history in understanding the politics of contemporary Spain. During the Second Republic the struggle between traditionalists and modernists reached its zenith. The forces of reaction—the church, the armed forces and the landed aristocracy—reacted vehemently against the alternative value system articulated by the Republican forces, mainly the working class and its political allies at the time, the urban middle class and the intelligentsia. The Second Republic put forward a programme to modernize and democratize Spanish politics and society. It was not a socialist programme, nor was it a revolutionary one (although it was perceived by many as such); rather the Second Republic represented the desire simply to bring Spain into line with the rest of western Europe. However, in many senses the Second Republic was a premature political development which could not be sustained given the existing balance of power in Spain at that time. The cardinal error of the governments of the Second Republic was above all the attempt to change the balance of political power without changing the economic and social status quo which underpinned it. The most powerful class—the large landowners —were the staunchest opponents of democracy. At the other end of the spectrum, the urban middle and working classes, who were most favourably inclined towards democracy, were numerically weak and fragmented. The only other numerically significant class, able to provide a counterpoint to the strength of the landed élites, was the class of impoverished landless day labourers. Such a class configuration was not conducive to the establishment of a parliamentary democracy and resulted instead in a hostile and increasingly polarized class struggle between the landless day labourers on the one hand and the large landowners on the other. The latter would be most consistently hostile to democracy whilst the former were inherently revolutionary. Such a class structure could not support a modernizing reform programme like that proposed by the Republic. Its programme was at once too radical for the landowners yet too reformist for the landless. Thus, the Second Republic collapsed into a series of confrontations between the two value systems—tradition and modernity—which became so bitter and polarized that, by 1936, the Second Republic's descent into a bloody threeyear Civil War seemed, to many observers, inevitable.
   Controversy surrounding the Spanish Civil War has led to a variety of conflicting interpretations, partly inspired by the intense social divisions which underpinned the struggle, partly because of the international interest which it aroused. Thus, the Spanish Civil War has been viewed through many different lenses: first, it has been seen by many as an ideological war, a fight between fascism and communism. Alternatively it has been seen as a religious war, a Catholic crusade against atheism. Third, it has been seen as an international war, a testing ground for WWII which was looming on the horizon. But, valid as many of these interpretations may be, the Civil War in Spain was above all a Spanish war fought by the forces of reaction against the forces of reform. It was a final attempt on the part of the conservative pillars of Spanish society-the monarchy, the military, the church and the landed élites—to preserve their interests against the sudden emergence of mass politics. The Francoist dictatorship (1936–75) kept alive the division of Spain into two antagonistic blocs, but with the added dimension that the forces of reaction became the permanent victors, and the forces of reform the eternally vanquished. Yet although Franco was able to maintain Spain in a kind of political stasis owing to a combination of passive tolerance and indifference to authoritarian rule by much of the population, and a policy of selective repression for the remainder, he was unable to stop socio-economic progress and the consequences that would ensue from it. Ironically, it was the inability of the regime to cope with the transformations wrought by the period of exceptional economic growth and social change in the 1950s and 1960s, which the dictatorship itself had deliberately promoted, which led to the political weakening of the regime. Economic growth, which had been intended to maintain the status quo simply served to highlight the inability of an anachronistic political system, established in an agricultural and rural world, to meet the challenges of an increasingly industrialized and urban society. Thus, in sharp contrast to democratization in the 1930s, social and economic transformation and the change in values and attitudes which that implied, both preceded and facilitated the subsequent political transformation in the 1970s.
   Following the death of Franco in 1975, therefore, Spain did not undergo a political revolution, but rather an evolution from dictatorship to democracy. Arguably a revolution had already occurred in social and economic terms during the 1950s and 1960s, thereby obviating the need for a political upheaval. The Spanish economy had become integrated into the western market-based capitalist framework, thereby simultaneously strengthening state and society and changing the balance of classes within Spain. Capitalist development thus produced a class configuration which was far more conducive to the establishment of democracy. Neither the landowners nor the landless peasantry were any longer of any significance. Instead, they had been replaced by the burgeoning urban working and middle classes. Thus, by 1975, Franco's death represented little more than the last symbolic blow to a regime which had been disintegrating for years. As such, there was no real need for a clean break from the past, but rather a continuation of the process of slow transformation and evolution which had already been taking place for decades.
   Continuity, not change, thus facilitated the Spanish transition to democracy, making it one of the most successful models of political transition from dictatorship to democracy which subsequent regimes in eastern Europe and Latin America would attempt to emulate. Spain's authoritarian regime was literally dismantled from within by the very people who had worked to uphold its maintenance for many years. Indeed, many of the leading actors of the transition were successful precisely because they emphasized their links with the previous regime. Adolfo Suárez, the main architect of the transition, had occupied several important positions in the Francoist system. The other actor who contributed invaluably to the transition process, King Juan Carlos I, had been hand-picked by Franco to succeed him and, with that purpose in mind, had been brought up and educated under the dictator's guidance. It is precisely this continuation between the two regimes, in respect both of personalities associated with the previous regime and of the maintenance of existing policies, political structures and institutions, which explains the speed and relative ease with which Spain moved from dictatorship to democracy. By 1977, not even two full years after Franco's death, general elections had been held and Spain was a functioning parliamentary democracy. The new democratic constitution of 1978 was accepted overwhelmingly by popular vote in a referendum of that year. By 1979 local elections had been held and a process of significant regional devolution, which would eventually lead to the establishment of a quasi-federal state of autonomous communities, was well under way. Although many problems were still to be faced in the coming years—not least an attempted military coup in 1981—they would be tackled with the same skills employed in the transition. Negotiations, pacts and the élite cohesion which these imply, continued from the transition period into the period of democratic consolidation. The benefits of such a transition through transaction were immediately apparent. A high degree of élite consensus and cohesion which came from a shared desire to learn from the failed democratic experiment in the 1930s, facilitated the series of agreements and pacts negotiated by élite elements from both the authoritarian regime and the democratic opposition. In a relatively peaceful manner, élites were able to reach agreement on the most important issues that have traditionally divided Spanish society, thereby resolving the historic polarization between two antagonistic blocs. Consensus has thus replaced confrontation in contemporary Spain. Ironically, though, the very continuity which facilitated the transition has also meant the continued existence of authoritarian proclivities within Spain's political system, evident in such diverse aspects as an excessively dominant core executive, the shallow roots which political parties have put down in society, a relatively toothless parliament and an underdeveloped democratic political culture. The fact that Spain's transition was evolutionary rather than revolutionary also explains the lack of ideological content in much of Spain's contemporary politics. Consensus, so essential to achieving democracy, has almost become an ideology in itself which means that there is often a lack of genuine debate on many of the important questions which face the country. Nevertheless, although such costs may cast doubt on the quality of democracy in Spain, its existence is beyond question. It does seem, therefore, as if the cycle between dictatorship and democracy at long last appears to have been broken. Although Spain's political system displays distinguishing traits, many of which are a product of the country's particular historical legacy, it also shares features in common with any other established European democracy. In particular, the social, political and economic problems now facing Spain are the same as those faced by the majority of countries in western Europe. If differences still exist they are now those of degree rather than kind. Spain, in political terms at least, is no longer different.
   Further reading
   - Bell, D.S. (1983) Democratic Politics in Spain, London: Frances Pinter (a well-documented study which covers a range of issues on the Spanish transition to democracy).
   - Carr, R. and Fusi, J.P. (1991) Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy, London: Allen & Unwin (an excellent book which covers both the historical back ground to the transition as well as the actual transition process itself).
   - Heywood, P. (1995) The Government and Politics of Spain, London: Macmillan Press (the most upto-date and comprehensive account of the government and politics of Spain under democracy).
   - Preston, P. (1986) The Triumph of Democracy in Spain, London: Methuen (the most comprehensive guide to the Spanish transition to democracy).

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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