The Spanish Transition to Democracy


Vision and Motivation

According to an old saying, there are “two Spains” — one that is traditional, religious and conservative; the other modern, secular and progressive.  The conflict between them accounts for much of Spain’s political turbulence, both historically and throughout much of the twentieth century. It was the backdrop to the country’s 1936-1939 civil war, in which traditional, Catholic and quasi-fascist forces rebelled against and defeated a short lived democratic republic. The government’s defeat ushered in almost forty years of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. His death in November, 1975 ended “the long dark night of dictatorship” but threw Spain into political uncertainty. [1]  The prospects for a democratic transition were highly uncertain.  “Everything is tied up, and well tied up” (“Todo esta atado, y bien atado”) boasted Franco, referring to the institutional groundwork he put in place to ensure the regime’s survival without him.  The armed forces remained loyal to Franco and his regime and thus posed a very real threat to democratic reforms. The regime’s governing structures were full of Francoist stalwarts resistant to change. The specter of the two Spains and memories of the civil war raised fears of violence and a widespread desire to avoid another fratricidal conflict that would tear the country apart.

On the other hand, society had changed immensely in the previous three decades. Spaniards were better educated, their standard of living had improved dramatically and many wanted their country to be like others in Western Europe, with the freedoms and economic prosperity this implied. Spain also had an existing group of clandestine political and labor associations agitating for democratic change. Neighboring Portugal and Greece had recently overthrown their authoritarian regimes. Many hoped it would now be Spain’s turn.


The Back Story

Spain’s democratic transition was strongly influenced by the experience of the Second Republic and the civil war that overthrew it, as well as by changes that took place within Spain during Franco’s rule. To understand the transition it is necessary to briefly describe these periods in Spain’s past. 

The government at the time of the Spanish civil war, the Second Republic (1931-1939), represented modern, secular, liberal Spain. This was Spain’s first experience with democracy, and the Republic faced hostility at its birth from the segments within the Armed Forces, monarchists, the powerful Catholic Church, and wealthy landowners and industrialists. Extremist groups on the left and the right actively worked to destabilize the regime. Exacerbating political divisions, the new 1931 Constitution was written by left leaning groups who imposed their platform without compromise, and its institutional choices fueled government instability. Frequent changes in governments brought wide policy swings between liberal reforms and right wing reaction. The tipping point came with the 1936 electoral victory of the “Popular Front,” a coalition of leftwing parties including communists. As hardline Socialists acclaimed the coming revolution, fascist terror squads stepped up their activities, strengthening conservatives’ support for a coup.[2] In July 1936, coordinated military strikes aimed at overthrowing the government began Spain’s civil war.  The rebels received significant help from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.  The Republican forces’ principal source of aid was the Soviet Union.  After three bloody years, the Republican government surrendered to the Nationalist forces.

Juan Carlos with FrancoNationalist General Francisco Franco became the country’s caudillo, or supreme leader, after the war ended and instituted a quasi-fascist dictatorship. He claimed that he fought “to save Spain from Marxism at any cost.”[3] And the costs were severe: more than half a million lives were lost during the war and many thousands more would die in the reprisals and hardships that followed. Freedom of expression and association were banned and fascist ideas and institutional forms were used to control political and social life. In the 1950s Franco turned to technocrats to run the economy, Spain’s international isolation gradually ended and changes began to occur within the regime.  During the 1960s and ‘70s, piecemeal reforms and tentative liberalization occurred, but within a context of ongoing repression.

In 1969, Franco designated Prince Juan Carlos de Borbón as his successor. Franco hoped to secure the continuation of his regime by using the legitimacy brought by Juan Carlos’ royal lineage. Juan Carlos was the grandson of Spain’s last ruling monarch and had lived under Franco’s care since the age of 10.  At the time of the dictator’s death, he was seen as loyal to Franco. Few would have guessed the key role he would play in the transition. Indeed, pundits predicted he would be known as “King Juan Carlos the Brief.”


Goals and Objectives

The Spanish transition was led by reformers within the Franco regime, principally King Juan Carlos and a few trusted advisers. Their goal was to carry out a political transition by using the laws and institutions of the old regime itself. Reforming the authoritarian system by legal means, they reasoned, would decrease the likelihood of military intervention.  Looming constantly in the background was the fear of military action against political change. A transition grounded in legality would both avoid a vacuum of power and give democratic reforms the legitimacy of the law. Another concern was that mass protests and strikes could spur the military into action to restore order and take over the government. Given the need to reassure the military and the old regime’s right wing supporters on the one hand, as well as groups favoring democratic change on the other, the best chance for democratization to succeed was to make sure political reforms were seen as legitimate and were accepted by all key groups. 

A number of objectives had to be met in order to implement democratic reforms using Francoist laws and institutions. First, and most remarkably, it was necessary to convince the Francoist Parliament or Cortes to actually vote itself out of existence. This feat was accomplished a year after Franco’s death, with the passage of the Law for Political Reform. In passing this law, the Francoist Cortes formally legitimized the process of democratization. The next objective was to change specific laws in order to lay the groundwork for elections to select a new parliament. The parliament would also act as a Constituent Assembly and draft a new democratic constitution. To this end, a decree law in early 1977 legalized the right to political association, making it possible to freely organize political parties.[4] Other government decrees in the spring of 1977 set the rules for the elections, legalized the Communist Party (whose existence, unlike other political groups, was explicitly banned by law), recognized the rights of labor to organize and repealed censorship laws.

Even as regime moderates tried to carefully advance reforms, pro-democracy groups were skeptical of the government’s intentions. Mindful of this, another key objective of regime reformers was to strengthen mutual understanding with left wing opposition groups. The King held early –and secret- meetings with some opposition representatives. As the transition got underway in mid-1976, communication increased in an attempt to build confidence and exchange ideas on how to move forward. Shortly after Adolfo Suárez became head of government in July 1976 he held an unpublicized meeting with two Socialist Workers Party leaders and assured them of his commitment to reform and to legalizing the communist party. [5]  This was an extremely delicate question as the fight against communism was at the heart of the civil war. The fact that the Spanish transition was later called a combination of “pacted reform and pacted rupture” (reforma pactada/ruptura pactada) refers to these and other efforts at dialogue and compromise. These initiatives set the stage for political change to occur with broad legitimacy and support from widely disparate groups, thereby increasing the chances for the transition’s success.



Within the Regime

King Juan Carlos, who assumed the throne immediately after Franco died, is widely referred to as the “pilot” or the “motor” of the transition. The second key figure in the transition was Adolfo Suárez. In July 1976, the King chose Suárez as his new head of government from a list of names proposed by the Spanish Cortes. In the crucial years of 1976 and 1977, the figures most responsible for the key reforms that enabled the transition were the King and Suárez, aided by a third pivotal player, the King’s former tutor Torcuato Fernández Miranda. Fernández-Miranda, a brilliant political strategist, devised the strategy to ensure that the Cortes would vote to dissolve themselves and that Suarez’s name would be included on the list of candidates for head of government they submitted to the King. This ensured Suárez’ selection, paving the way for the King and he to work together to advance democratic reforms. 

Juan Carols, despite being Franco’s chosen successor, favored democracy out of both personal conviction and pragmatism. His brother-in-law was deposed as King of Greece for failing to support democratization and his own position as King initially seemed precarious. But he also genuinely believed that Spain needed a democratic government. In a 1971 visit to the United States, Juan Carlos stated that Spaniards “wanted more freedoms; the problem is deciding the timing.” [6] He also recognized the growing demand for democratic change coming from broad sectors of Spanish society and understood the benefits of integrating Spain with European democracies. The King played critical roles in both reassuring the military and building bridges between the regime and the opposition by personally meeting with a range of opposition leaders. In mid-1976 he even asked Socialist leaders – whose activities were still technically illegal –to come up with concrete ideas for how the government should address the demands of the labor associations, which at the time were also illegal.[7]

Adolfo Suarez is sworn in as head of government as King Juan Carlos looks onAdolfo Suarez was the King’s choice to lead the transition. In the King’s words, he was “young and modern, and ambitious enough to want to be the man who dealt with the period we were going through.” [8] Also critically important was the fact that Suárez came from within the Francoist system and was not known as a reformer. This allayed suspicions that radical changes were coming. [9] In fact, the newspaper El País reported Suárez’ appointment as a victory for regime hardliners. Within days of his appointment, however, Suárez gave a televised speech promising his government would respect the wishes of the majority of Spaniards for a modern democracy. His government’s program clearly stated the goal of working for the “establishment of a democratic political system based on the guarantee of civil rights and freedoms, on equal opportunities for democratic groups, and the acceptance of genuine pluralism.”[10] Suarez also promised to hold a referendum on constitutional reform and general elections within one year.

The King and Suárez had to walk a fine line between the risk that right wing elements in the Armed Forces would overthrow the government and the need to reassure the opposition– and reduce social unrest– by implementing real changes. The PSOE’s leader Felipe Gonzalez warned that lack of progress toward democracy would create a major crisis whose first casualty would be the monarchy.[11] But if the pace of change was too fast, or if the nature of reforms instilled fear among right wing elites, the whole process could be reversed by a coup. On the other hand, if change was too slow or seemed cosmetic, popular unrest and mass action could also trigger military intervention to take over the government.

Mindful of these constraints, the King and Suárez’ actions were guided by three principles: legalityinclusion of all key groups, and negotiation and compromise.  Specifically, this meant democratic change was pursued by careful respect for the rule of law; inclusion of key groups across the political spectrum in the transition process; and the frequent use of dialogue and negotiation. [12]  Acting according to these principles was vital in promoting the transition’s success. Groups with widely different political orientations felt reassured that their interests would be protected under the new democratic system.

Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) leader Felipe Gonzalez with Adolfo SuarezThe commitment to negotiation and compromise exhibited by Suárez and his government from 1976 through the adoption of the Constitution in 1978 was the most significant behavioral trait of the Spanish transition’s leadership.[13] Scholars would later credit the commitment to dialogue and compromise as creating a “new tradition of consensus” and toleration within Spanish society, in stark contrast to the historical animosities of the two Spains. [14] It created trust among erstwhile enemies and laid the groundwork for the spirit of consensus that spread among the broader political class and contributed to the success of the transition as well as the new system’s rapid consolidation. 

While maintaining dialogue with opposition leaders, Suárez nonetheless remained firm on a number of important questions. For example, he refused to establish a provisional government and also refused to hold immediate elections. The formation of a provisional government was a key demand of the leftwing opposition. Suárez argued against it on the grounds that only elections could determine who should represent the people. He also understood the critical importance of giving all groups in society sufficient time to organize to compete in the all-important founding elections.[15]  He was convinced, correctly as it turned out, that inclusive elections were key in that they would reveal the true extent of support for various groups and therefore supply legitimate negotiating partners in addressing thorny questions of democratization, state structure, social and economic issues.  As he described it in a televised 1976 speech, “The future is not written because only the people can write it.”[16]  The commitment to the primacy of elections was both principled and tactically savvy, since at the outset of the transition period the Communist party was thought to be the strongest opposition force.  As it turned out, elections revealed that the voters preferred more moderate options.

Within the Opposition

Leaders of Coordinación Democrática succeed in meeting but have trouble coordinatingThe main opposition political groups in 1976-1978 were the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the smaller Popular Socialist Party; the Communist Party; a right wing coalition (Popular Alliance) led by a former Minister under Franco; Suarez’ center-right Union of the Democratic Center (UCD) coalition; and regional parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country.  There were many other parties too, from monarchist to Christian Democrat to extreme right and left wing groups. Whereas no one had a voice under Franco, now everyone wanted to be heard. To more effectively exert pressure for democracy, two coalitions of left wing groups merged in 1976 into the umbrella association “Coordinación Democrática” (Democratic Coordination). This facilitated dialogue between the left wing opposition and regime reformers.[17]  

Despite divisions on a number of important questions, the main opposition groups shared the goal of establishing democracy. The ever-present threat of a military takeover that could lead to more years of repressive authoritarian rule reinforced arguments for moderation and provided a powerful incentive to work together to achieve needed reforms. Most opposition groups also understood the importance of presenting a unified front in favor of democratic reforms. This is exemplified by Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo. Prior to joining Coordinación Democrática, Carrillo came out in favor of a negotiated transition to democracy rather than a radical break with the system, a position his party had long advocated.  As Carrillo later explained, “the choice was not between monarchy and republic, but between dictatorship and democracy.”[18]

The first general elections took place in June 1977 and produced a coalition government headed by Suarez and his recently created UCD. In October 1978, after 15 months of intense negotiations, the parliament approved a new constitution which was overwhelmingly ratified by the public in a December 1978 referendum. The constitution’s ratification could be considered the end of the transition. Alternatively, the signing into law of regional autonomy statutes for Catalonia and the Basque Country in 1979 or the Socialist party’s victory over the UCD in the 1982 general elections are also widely thought to mark the end of the transition period.


Civic Environment

Demonstration in Madrid after the 1977 Atocha Massacre

After years of repression, Spaniards exploded into the streets. Popular pressure from citizens complemented political leadership from above and kept the transition moving forward. The clear message was that if political leaders wanted social peace they needed to institute genuine democratic reforms. Social action thus reinforced the difficult process of elite bargaining. The rough balance of power between the left and the right strengthened the cause of moderates on each end of the political spectrum who advocated negotiation and compromise. Left wing groups were more amenable to negotiating with the regime as it became evident that mass action alone would not bring down the government. At the same time, the extent of public protests signaled to regime hard liners the high costs of continuing to ban basic freedoms. This helped Suarez and the King to implement their reform agenda. Interestingly, the Suarez government constantly made use of opinion polls to keep track of popular attitudes. And these revealed that even as citizens took to the streets in huge mass demonstrations their aims were moderate.  Measures legalizing the rights of expression and association were on the books by mid-1977. In 1975 and 1976, Freedom House classified Spain as “Partly Free” but by 1978 the country earned its first “Free” rating.[19]

Labor mobilization was one of the main sources of pressure from below. The two most important labor organizations were associated with the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party. In the first year after Franco’s death, 150 million working days were lost to strikes compared to 14.5 million the previous year.[20]  Rising unemployment and inflation accounted for part of the surge in strikes, but these soon embraced political goals as well. Workers demanded the right to strike without reprisals and to have truly representative trade unions. Most workers favored a negotiated reform process aimed at moderate change rather than sweeping social transformation, and saw Western capitalist countries as models to emulate rather than socialist systems.[21] The leader of the communist affiliated labor group declared that “Workers now more than ever are aware of their responsibility to the whole community.  We don’t want to turn everything upside down…(and)…imprison everyone who has imprisoned us. We want freedom for everybody as in Western Europe.”[22]

Demonstration in Madrid after the 1977 Atocha Massacre

In addition to labor mobilizations, mass protests for political reforms and demonstrations against police and extremist violence were an important aspect of the civic environment. A major Madrid newspaper reported almost 800 collective actions between 1976 and 1978.[23] Violence by the Basque regional separatist group ETA increased during the transition, a problem that would plague Spanish democracy for decades. In early 1977, Madrid was rocked by politically motivated kidnappings and violence from the right and the left. An extreme leftwing group, GRAPO, seized a prominent General and murdered four policemen. A neo-fascist group shot a student demonstrator. In the infamous “Atocha massacre,” neo-fascist gunmen assassinated five labor lawyers associated with the communist party in Madrid.  After negotiating for government permission, the Communist party held a mass funeral for the victims, its first tolerated demonstration.[24] Ironically, a terrorist attack aimed at reviving civil war era fears of communism had the opposite result — more than one million people filled Madrid’s streets in solidarity with the communist party.  Afterwards a regime insider and former fascist sympathizer wrote that “many of us began to think that the communist party had to be legalized.” [25] Just three months later the party was legalized.

Finally, any discussion of civil society in Spain at this time must mention the influence of the Catholic Church. Spain was and is an overwhelmingly Catholic country and the Church was a bastion of the Franco regime. But during the decades prior to Franco’s death, many within the Church began questioning the regime, advocating for social justice, and spreading new attitudes throughout society.  At Juan Carolos’ coronation mass, Madrid’s Cardinal Enrique y Tarancón used his sermon to stress the need for freedom and respect for human rights. He also supported democratic reforms, saying that the Church would demand “the necessary common participation… in the decisions of government.”[26]


Message and Audience

The principal message of the King and Suárez was that democratization would benefit all social groups and was the best assurance for social peace and prosperity. To convey this message to diverse audiences– ranging from sectors loyal to the old regime, the Armed Forces and the conservative establishment to political groups across ideological and regional divides– the principles of legality, inclusion, negotiation and consensus-building were consistently employed.

Top: Suarez’ asks the military to have confidence and remain calm; bottom: a Socialist leader tries to come up with strategies to strengthen his party’s imageThe first challenge, as described above, was to convince the Francoist Cortes to vote themselves out of existence by approving a political reform law. To advance this goal, Suárez gave speeches to the Cortes and on TV in which he made a carefully crafted argument that democratization represented the continuation of the modernization process begun by Franco.  Supporting reform, he argued, was thus a historic responsibility. At the same time, Suarez raised the specter of social conflict if political change was blocked.  He made the logical observation that since organized social forces already existed in Spain, it would be foolish to pretend that they did not. “These forces, call them parties or not, now exist as a public fact…The aims of parties are specific and not the least of them is to assume power.” Most importantly, Suarez argued that “if the road is not opened by the legality which is being proposed by the state itself, there will only be apparent peace, below which will germinate the seeds of subversion.”[27]

Along with efforts to frame their message in ways that calmed conservatives’ fears, the King and Suárez also engaged in meetings with political opposition leaders on the Left. Communism and regional autonomy were flash points during the civil war and continued to be potentially explosive issues during the transition. As evidence of his commitment to political inclusion, Suarez took the risky step of legalizing the Spanish Communist Party despite the fact that sectors within the military strongly opposed legalization.[28] But he chose his timing carefully, after the Atocha massacres and during a sleepy Easter holiday.  He also allowed the Catalan leader, Josep Tarradellas, to return from exile to head a newly re-established regional government. After the 1977 elections, as inflation and unemployment rose and strike activity increased, Suárez called leaders of the main parties to his Moncloa residence to negotiate an economic stabilization plan. In the resulting “Moncloa Pacts,” difficult compromises were cobbled together by government and opposition figures. They were subsequently passed in parliament and contributed to social peace and support for the new democracy.

Crafting the Constitution

The strategy of inclusion and consensus building was also used to write the Constitution, reinforcing the message that Spanish democracy embraced all sectors of society and ensuring a charter that was widely supported.  The new parliament created a 7 person constitution drafting sub-committee composed of members of the four major parties in the legislature (including the communist party), plus a representative of Catalan and Basque nationalists.[29] The members of the commission negotiated exhaustively, often acrimoniously, and sometimes late into the night at Madrid restaurants.

Among the most divisive issues were the monarchy versus a republican form of government, a unitary versus federal state structure, and the position of the Catholic Church. Compromises were negotiated on these and other issues over the next 15 months. The monarchy was preserved but with limited powers. The regional question was resolved with creative ambiguity. The constitution proclaimed both the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and the “right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions.”[30] This formula created a quasi-unitary state with the flexibility to decentralize. In 1979, autonomy statues for the Basque and Catalan regions were approved in Parliament. The special position of the Catholic Church and the rights to religious education were acknowledged, key issues for conservatives.[31] The fact that the Constitution of 1978 was a well-crafted document representing a broad consensus greatly aided both the success of the democratic transition and Spain’s speedy progress towards consolidating its democratic system.


Outreach Activities

Internationally, the King traveled to the United States in 1976 and publically affirmed his commitment to democracy. Shortly after the 1977 elections, the Suárez government applied to become a member of the European Community, and joined the Council of Europe in November 1977. All the major political parties supported this move as a means of advancing Spain’s modernization and international legitimation.  Within the political opposition, the main Socialist party, the PSOE, had close connections with the Socialist International and the German Social Democratic Party.



Critical to the success of Spain’s democratic transition was the ability to maintain the rule of law from the beginning to the end of the process and to persistently uphold principles of inclusion and accommodation of different groups’ views and concerns.  This persuaded a wide range of groups that they had a stake in the success of the democratization process. Without such a strategy, many of these groups might have hardened their stances, making political accommodation more difficult if not impossible, and likely leading to a far less positive outcome for Spain.

The founding elections of June 1977 and the enactment of the new constitution in 1978 established Spain’s new democratic regime.  Subsequent governments could then use the new institutional processes and structures to address collective problems and goals from a basis of legitimacy and broad based support. A coup attempt led by a military officer in 1981 failed after the King decisively condemned it, but served as a reminder that democracy is a continuing project whose success requires equal parts firmness in its defense and willingness to compromise with political opponents.

The struggles of the Spanish people and the choice of opposition groups and regime moderates to create a new democratic system on the basis of broad based consensus –despite old and deep seated social divisions– make the Spanish transition an enduringly relevant model of peaceful democratic change. In the words of historian Javier Moreno Luzon, the transition put an end to the dispute between the two Spains. “(G)uided by their leaders, citizens overcame their past divisions –the terrible legacy of the civil war and the interminable tyranny of Franco—and together constructed a large period of peace, liberty and progress.”[32]


Learn More

News and Analysis

Brzezinski, Marc and Andrea Bonime-Blanc, “Mideast Shift: Lessons from Europe? Politico, February 6, 2011. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0211/48921_Page3.html.

Chislett, William. Spain: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Chapter: “The Transition to Democracy 1975-1982.” http://www.transicion.org/En/archivos/Spains_Transition.pdf#pag16.

Freedom House Freedom in the World 2013. Spain. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2013/spain#.VVUVmflViko.

International Herald Tribune “A Special Report: Focus on Spain, 1976.” 15 November, 1976. http://www.transicion.org/40archivo/ArchivosWilliamChislett/IntHeraldTribune_SpecialReport1976.pdf.

International Herald Tribune “A Special Report: Focus on Spain, 1977.” May, 1977. http://www.transicion.org/40archivo/ArchivosWilliamChislett/IntHeraldTribune_SpecialReport1977.pdf.

Maxwell, Kenneth. “Startling Normality” New York Times 29 December 1985. http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/29/books/startling-normality.html.

Shmemman, Serge. “After Franco’s Death, Spain Returned to Turmoil.” New York Times 24 February 1981.  http://www.nytimes.com/1981/02/24/world/after-franco-s-death-spain-returned-to-turmoil.html.

“Spanish Transition to Democracy.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_transition_to_democracy.

TIME “Spain: A Vote for Democracy.” 29 November 1976. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,914721,00.html.



Bonime Blanc, Andrea. Spain’s Transition to Democracy: The Politics of Constitution Making. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987. Print.

Clark, Robert P. and Michael H. Haltzell, eds.  Spain in the 1980s: The Democratic Transition and a New International Role. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger. 1986. Print.

Gilmour, David. The Transformation of Spain: From Franco to Constitutional Monarchy. New York: Quartet Books, 1985. Print.

Gunther, Richard. “Spain: The Very Model of the Modern Elite Settlement.” In John Higley and Richard Gunther, eds. Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1991, pp.38-80. Print.

Juan Linz. “Innovative Leadership in the Transition to Democracy and a New Democracy: The Case of Spain” in Gabriel Sheffer, ed., Innovative Leadership in International Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, pp.141-186. Print.

Linz, Juan and Alfred Stepan. “The Paradigmatic Case of Reforma-Pactada-Ruptura Pactada: Spain”, in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp.87-115. Print.

McAdam, Doug; Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly. Dynamics of Contention. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Print.

Pérez Diaz, Víctor. The Return of Civil SocietyThe Emergence of Modern Spain. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.

Powell, Charles. Juan Carlos of Spain: Self Made Monarch. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996. Print.

Preston, Paul. The Triumph of Democracy in Spain. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1986. Print.

Franco. New York: Basic Books, 1994. Print.

Share, Donald. The Making of Spanish Democracy. New York, Praeger, 1986. Print.

Tusell, Javier and Álvaro Soto eds., Historia de la Transición. Madrid, Alianza Editorial. 1996. Print.



Radio Televisión Española (RTVE) has a series of videos in Spanish on the history of the transition. http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/la-transicion/transicion-capitulo-8/2066930/.

Spanish Transition Foundation website, available in Arabic, English, French and Spanish, contains videos, documents and information on Spain’s transition to democracy, including the 1978 constitution in Arabic. http://www.transicion.org/En/indexEn.php.



April 1939:  Spanish Civil War ends, beginning of authoritarian regime led by General Francisco Franco.

November 1975:  Franco dies. His designated successor, the grandson of the country’s last monarch, is crowned King Juan Carlos I.

March 1976:   Large protests in the Basque city of Vitoria after police shoot striking workers. Political parties of the moderate and left wing opposition unite to form the coordinating group “Coordinación Democrática.

July 1976:  Adolfo Suárez appointed President of Government, begins negotiations for political reform law.

November 1976:  Spanish parliament passes the Law on Political Reform, paving the way for democratic elections in June 1977.

December 1976:  A popular referendum shows overwhelming public support for the Law on Political Reform. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) celebrates its 27th Congress in Madrid and affirms it will participate in upcoming elections for a new parliament.

January 1977:  More than 150,000 people demonstrate peacefully in Madrid after a right wing terrorist group murders communist labor lawyers in an incident known as the Massacre of Atocha.

February 1977:  Adolfo Suárez meets with Santiago Carrillo, head of Spain’s communist party (PCE) to discuss the democratization process.  Decree establishes the right to political association, making it legal to form political parties.

March 1977:  Right to strike is legalized.

April 1977:  Suárez legalizes the Communist Party. Francoist “National Movement” disbanded.

June 1977:    First free elections in four decades are held. Suárez’ UCD wins plurality. New parliament will draft a democratic constitution.

October 1977:  Pacts of Moncloa signed, in which government and opposition agree on a program of economic reforms.

October 1978:  Parliament approves new Constitution.

November 1978:  Discovery of a coup plot known as “Operation Galaxy.” Arrest of Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero.

December 1978:  Constitution is overwhelmingly approved by the voters in a referendum.




[1] “Country is Shaking off the Bonds Left By Franco; The Economic Situation is Difficult, but Not Critical. Makes Slow Progress Toward Democracy” by William Chislett   International Herald Tribune, Nov 15, 1976. http://www.transicion.org/40archivo/ArchivosWilliamChislett/IntHeraldTribune_SpecialReport1976.pdf.

[2] Preston, 1994 p.114, pp.128-129.

[3] Ibid., p.153.

[4] Prior to the June 1977 elections Suarez had wide authority to issue decree laws. The King could also issue Royal Decrees; for example, the March 1977 decree establishing the rules for carrying out the first elections.

[5] Tusell and Soto, 1995, pp.118-121 describes these meetings in detail.

[6] Powell, 1996, p.51.

[7] Tusell and Soto, 1995 p.121.

[8] Powell, 1996, p.108.

[9] Ibid., p.108.

[10] Ibid., p.114.

[11] Ibid., p.113.

[12] Linz, Juan. “Innovative Leadership in the Transition to Democracy and a New Democracy: The Case of Spain” in Gabriel Sheffer, ed., Innovative Leadership in International Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993, pp.141-186.

[13] Sole Tura, Jordi. “The Spanish Transition to Democracy” in Clark, Robert P. and Michael H. Haltzell, eds.  Spain in the 1980s: The Democratic Transition and a New International Role. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, p.29.

[14] Perez Diaz 1993, p.20.

[15] Gunther, Richard. “Spain: The Very Model of the Modern Elite Settlement.” In John Higley and Richard Gunther, eds. Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1991. In the context of a transition from authoritarian rule, elections that are held too quickly give an important advantage to groups that already have some kind of organizational base.

[16] Quoted in Linz and Stepan, 1996, op.cit. p.95.

[17] Preston, Paul. The Triumph of Democracy in Spain, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1986, pp.64-66.

[18] https://es.wikiquote.org/wiki/Santiago_Carrillo.

[19] Freedom House country status and ratings by region,1973-2013 available at: https//freedomhouse.org/.

[20] McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001, p.180.

[21] Pérez Díaz 1993, p.272.

[22] “Freed Labour Leader Sees Rise of Democracy.” New York Times Dec. 1, 1975. http://www.transicion.org/40archivo/ArchivosWilliamChislett/Nov1975.pdf.

[23] McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001, p.180.

[24] Powell 1996, p.126.

[25] Juan Francisco Fuentes, “El alter-ego de Adolfo Suarez” http://elpais.com/elpais/2014/04/09/opinion/1397046432_518757.html?rel=rosEP.

[26] New York Times November 26, 1975 “Crowds in Madrid Cheer King as Police Break Up Protest” http://www.transicion.org/40archivo/ArchivosWilliamChislett/Nov1975.pdf.

[27] Quoted in Linz and Stepan, 1996, op.cit. pp.93-94. Italics added.

[28] Suárez gradually replaced military hardliners in high positions with moderates, among the most important being the 1976 appointment of General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado as the first Vice President for Defense. The continued threat of military intervention was demonstrated by the discovery of a coup plot in Nov. 1978, “Operation Galaxy” and the failed coup attempt in February 1981.

[29] These are the two regions of Spain with significant historical autonomy movements. The main Basque party, the PNV, engaged in behind the scenes negotiations but ultimately did not endorse the constitution and urged citizens to abstain from voting in the December 1978 constitutional referendum.

[30] Constitution of 1978, Title VIII.

[31] Constitution of 1978, Chapter II, Sections 16 and 27, available at http://www.congreso.es/portal/page/portal/Congreso/Congreso/Hist_Normas/Norm/const_espa_texto_ingles_0.pdf

[32] El Pais Online. “La Transicion, Epopeya Agrietada” Javier Moreno Luzon http://elpais.com/elpais/2014/04/09/opinion/1397046432_518757.html?rel=rosEP.

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