Elected Government: November 1933-February 1936. The Right Takes Charge.
From the experience of two years of radical changes under the leftist Republican government (1931-33) of Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, the Right learned that any hope of wrestling control from the Left depended on their ability to form a strong conservative coalition. The Right, e. g. traditionalists such as the church, powerful landowners and the military, were determined to arrest further erosion of their authority and turn the tide back as far as possible. But first they had to gain power, and in this the republican reforms themselves and the speed and frequent insensitivity with which they were implemented, provided the Right with a focus for collaboration.
Unity came in the form of the Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas (CEDA: Spanish Confederation of Autonomous Rightist Groups), an umbrella coalition of Catholic organisations led by the energetic university professor and lawyer, José María Gil Robles. CEDA first met in Madrid in February 1933 to draw up a common platform of attack. Its strategy was to win political power through the ballot box, and then make fundamental constitutional changes to protect traditional or historic values: religion, property, family, and the unity of the fatherland. Even so, CEDA’s espousal of such traditional values was not sufficient to satisfy the more extreme rightists, including many monarchists, Carlists** and ultra conservative Catholics. **The Carlists were reactionary Catholics who supported the claims to the throne of the descendants of the 19th-century pretender, Don Carlos de Borbón. Their strongest presence was in Navarre.
CEDA’s strategy produced dividends in the November 19 elections, when it won 115 seats. It was closely followed by Alejandro Lerroux’s Radicales (a centrist party that became increasingly conservative) with 104 seats. The big losers were the Socialists with 58 seats, just half of what they had won in 1931. It’s important to note, however, that although there was marked swing to the right in the Cortes (Spanish Parliament), no party had anywhere near a majority in a parliament of 472 members.
There are several factors that account for the political swing to the Right: e. g. the fragmentation of the Left, the large absenteeism of the Anarchists, the frustrations of many moderates with the chaos of the first two years of the Republic, the mobilisation of rightist forces, women’s vote (a right –ironically guaranteed by the leftist Constitution– exercised for the first time by women in Spain, including nuns).
With CEDA the largest party in the Cortes, we might expect it to take immediate steps to try and implement its agenda. But here we hit one of the imponderable paradoxes of Spanish politics at this time! CEDA, being made up of Catholic groups with a decidedly conservative outlook, maintained an ambivalent relationship with the Republic which was officially secular and had introduced reforms undermining those traditional values that CEDA represented. CEDA acknowledged the Republic, but they did not view it as permanent. It was, as Gil Robles argued, an “accidental” system to which he himself never swore loyalty.
The president of the Cortes, Niceto Alcalá Zamora –a devout Catholic and committed Republican– now found himself in a predicament. As president, he was empowered by the Constitution to invite individuals to form a government, normally from the party with the highest representation. But he could scarcely invite Gil Robles, a man whose commitment to the republic was questionable at best. The solution for Alcalá Zamora was to bypass Gil Robles for the aging Alejandro Lerroux. Alcalá Zamora’s decision did not affect CEDA’s long term strategy because the party did not plan for immediate control of government. As a result, it did not push for nor did it get a single member in the Lerroux’s cabinet, believing that it was only a matter of time before its role would be more prominent and decisive.
Political stability during the two years of rightist rule was unfortunately no greater than during the preceding bienio (two years). Ten different cabinets and twenty-one different parties grappled with essentially the same problems, but approached them from a different ideological point of view. The obvious starting point, if the rightists wanted to undo what had been done during the previous bienio, would be to change the Constitution, the legal framework that had permitted so many radical changes. Here, however, the Right ran into a snag because built into the Constitution was a provision that required any amendment adopted in the first four years of its life to obtain a two-thirds majority in the Cortes, a most unlikely event given the numerous parties involved (after December 1935, a simple majority would suffice). And once an amendment was passed, the law required that parliament be dissolved and new elections called, something that the fledgling CEDA was not anxious to precipitate, at least until it was better established. It was more important to work carefully and strategically. CEDA was rewarded for its patience in October 1934 when three of its members were finally brought into the cabinet, but it was a move that precipitated the most serious and bloody crisis of the second Republican government.
The issues of church-state relationship, agrarian reform, regional autonomy and military reorganisation continued to retain their emotional impact, and it was time to roll back as many of the leftist reforms as possible.
Regarding church-state relationship, the one-time anti-Catholic Lerroux –desperate to remain in power— quickly came to terms with CEDA pressure. Anticlerical persecution stopped, educational reforms were rolled back or ceased: e. g. Catholic schools were allowed to function as before, the Jesuits received back their property, state support for the clergy was reintroduced, and religious displays, e. g. processions and the use of rosaries were again seen in public.
The military reforms of Azaña remained largely intact, although there was an increase in the officer corps and religious services were restored. General José Sanjurjo, who had led an unsuccessful military coup in August 1932, was pardoned in April 1934, as were others implicated. In May 1935 Gil Robles –who had earlier defended some of the accused in the abortive sanjurjada rising– became Minister of War. As a result, several senior liberal and pro-republican commanders were removed or placed on the reserve, and there was a decided shift to the right in the appointments made (one being the promotion of General Francisco Franco to chief of the general staff).
Agrarian reform had from the beginning been a major headache for the Republic. The first government, under Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, had managed to pass an Agrarian Reform Bill in September 1932, but it had met with strong resistance and suffered from a lack of organisation. Nevertheless, despite resistance from the powerful estate owners, a substantial amount of land was distributed in 1934, more in fact than during the Second Republic’s first government (1931-33), but still a drop in the bucket. Furthermore, the Municipal Boundaries Act (allowing landowners to hire workers outside their municipalities) was repealed in May 1934.The effect was to drive down salaries and often left local workers evicted and without work. After the frustration from unrealized hopes for the majority of workers during the first two years of the Second Republic, the deteriorating situation under the rightist government (1933-35) left passionately embittered workers ripe for violence.
Catalan autonomy. It was inevitable that the interests of Catalonia would clash with the centralist vision of CEDA and the administration of the second bienio, especially since the autonomous government –the Esquerra Republicana Catalana— of the Catalan parliament –the Generalitat– was left wing.
Matters came to a head in Catalonia in April of 1934 when the Generalitat passed a law (the Law of Cultivation Contracts) favouring tenant farmers in a dispute with landowners. The law protected the farmers from eviction by the owners and gave the tenants the right to buy land that they had worked for 18 years. Protests by the owners were taken up by the Catalan conservative party (the Lliga Catalana) in the Cortes, which declared the Catalan law an attack on property rights and therefore unconstitutional. An appeal to the predominantly right-wing Tribunal for Constitutional Guarantees confirmed that social legislation fell within the competence of the Madrid Government, and that the Law of Cultivation Contracts was unconstitutional. The Tribunal decision was a major setback for Catalan autonomy, and the Esquerra withdrew its members from the Cortes in protest.
Nevertheless, despite heated rhetoric, a solution did seem to be possible by late September, but a sudden change by the government in Madrid in October 1934 provoked a widespread crisis. The spark that ignited what became known as Red October was the selection of three members of CEDA with influential portfolios (agriculture, justice and labour) to a new cabinet on October 4, 1934.
Reaction was swift. On October 5, strikes broke out throughout Spain but were quickly crushed by government forces. This was followed by a declaration of martial law on October 6. On the same day, Lluis Companys, President of the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, proclaimed a Catalan State within the Spanish Federal Republic. It was not a declaration of independence, but it was a reaffirmation of Catalan nationalism at a moment when any such assertion was seen as a challenge to Madrid’s powers. Madrid did not hesitate to respond. On the following day, the army besieged the Generalitat, Companys and his cabinet surrendered and were imprisoned, and the statute of autonomy temporarily suspended to be replaced by military law. Madrid once more took over all the administrative powers that had been transferred to Catalonia over the two previous years; it was a centrist’s dream.
But there was much more instability to come, with implications for all of Spain.
Barton, Simon A A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd ed. 2009.
Carr, Raymond Modern Spain 1875-1980 Oxford 1980.
Casanova, Julian and Carlos Gil Andres Twentieth-Century Spain: A History Cambridge 2014.
Esdaile, Charles J Spain the in Liberal Age: From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939 Oxford 2000.
Jackson, Gabriel The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931-39 Princeton 1965 (3rd printing, 1972).
Payne, Stanley Spain’s First Democracy: The Second Republic, 1931-1936 Madison, Wisconsin 1993.
Preston, Paul A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War London 1996