Adolfo Suárez’s state funeral later today, on Monday 31 March, marks the passing of the principal architect of Spain’s transition to democracy. The story was an unlikely one.

After nearly forty years of dictatorship, General Francisco Franco died in his bed, still at the helm of a regime that had killed c.150,000 Spaniards during and after the Civil War 1936-9. His chosen heir, King Juan Carlos, who had been groomed for office from the age of nine, became head of state in accordance with Franco’s wishes. Juan Carlos then appointed an unknown apparatchik to the key post of prime minister; to many, any hope of change seemed likely to be dashed. The exiled communist leader, Santiago Carrillo, even suggested that the new king would go down in history as ‘Juan Carlos the brief’, so short was his reign likely to be.

Yet, both king and prime minster were already committed to democratisation. Despite his civil service career, the new prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, was convinced that Spain had to reform. During the final, chaotic years of the dictatorship, many within the regime had become convinced that democracy was a better option, particularly as it brought with it the possibility of joining the European union. The law of the dictatorship was, though, the law of the land and, once appointed as premier, Suárez began the delicate task of constructing democracy through an entirely legal process.

TransicionCartelesCongreso1This ‘pacted’ process depended on compromise and consensus. ‘Dialogue’ was the watchword of the time.  Despite the clamour on the streets, the Spanish transition to democracy was a state-sponsored, legal process in which Suárez developed new political rules that would satisfy most within the regime and most of those who actively opposed it. The most spectacular example of this came on 18 November 1976, when the pre-democratic parliament, the Cortes, voted the Law of Political Reform into existence and itself out of it.  This astonishing act of parliamentary hara-kiri marked a key stage in the process of transition, which was finally cemented by the 1978 Constitution.

The democratic constitution was Suárez’s greatest achievement. In 1981, and in defence of the principles of that constitution, he won great personal respect when Lieutenant-Colonel Tejero marched into the Cortes and gunpoint and tried to hold democracy hostage.  When ordered to fall to the floor, virtually all the deputies understandably complied. Only Carrillo, the veteran communist leader—who would not bow to the Civil Guard—and a veteran military man, General Gutiérrez Mellado—who ordered Tejero to surrender his arms to a superior officer—remained upright. Suárez, who had also stayed on his feet, went to Mellado’s aid when Tejero jostled and manhandled him. 1

The actions of these three men, who had little in common politically, demonstrated the transition consensus in physical form. In a sense, they performed it. They were not alone. In the aftermath of the attempted coup, three million Spaniards took to the streets to demonstrate for democracy.

A conference held in Sheffield last Friday to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War rightly talked about the fear of the transition, the partisan and often bitter memories that conditioned the process of democratisation. And the point is often made that, in Spain, democracy is created in an essentially undemocratic way. But this should not be overstated. Emphasising fear denies the people agency; there was a popular mood for democratic change as well as an elite intention. Indeed, without this democratic agitation, which did much to shape the commitment to change, there would not, ultimately, have been a transition. Suárez may have been the architect of Spanish democracy, but he was not its author.

Mary Vincent teaches Spanish and European history at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Spain 1833-2002: People and State (OUP, 2007); there is a detailed account of the transition in chapter 6.

Header image: Mural from the ‘Adolfo Suárez and the Transition’ [to democracy] Museum, ©Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr
Inset image: Political posters from the 1970s on a simulated street wall in an exhibition celebrating 20 years of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 [Wikicommons]


  1. A Spanish news report, including video of the attempted ’23-F’ coup, is available here.
Tags : 23-FAdolfo SuárezLaw of Political ReformSpainSpanish Civil WarSpanish democracySpanish historySpanish transition to democracy
Mary Vincent

The author Mary Vincent

Leave a Response

eighteen + 20 =