20th C Spain. Overview: Politics


1885-1902: Regency; 1902-1931: Alfonso XIII; 1923-30 monarchy with dictatorship of Primo de Rivera; 1931-1936: Second Republic; 1936-39: Civil War; 1939-1975: dictatorship of Francisco Franco; 1975-- Restoration of Bourbon monarchy, Juan Carlos I.



Modern Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions. Within mainland Spain, 15 of the 17 regions form a quilt of uneven pattern and size, the borders of some regions following naturally along geographical lines, others stitched by historical circumstances. The Balearic and Canary Islands make up the other two regions.  Holding these disparate parts together is difficult given the historic penchant of Spaniards to identify themselves first with their village (pueblo) and then with their region, the patria chica (small homeland). Spain, as a nation, has always been a tough sell, and the battle between centralization and regionalism has been a constant in Spanish history.


During much of the 20th century, Spain was politically unstable, a carry over of the chaos of the 19th century.  Three assassinated prime ministers in the space of 24 years (1897, 1912, 1921), not to mention numerous bombings, attempts on the life of the king, labour strikes, uprisings, rumbling separatism and military repression are uncomfortable reminders of the volatile nature of Spanish life in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, things did not get better: a discredited monarchy was subsumed, from 1923 to 1931, into a strange hybrid of monarchy and dictatorship. This was followed, from 1931 to 1936, by a volatile Second Republic, then a bloody Civil War (1936-39), and finally a long dictatorship (1939-75) under General Francisco Franco.

Spain under Franco


Following Franco’s victory in 1939, Spain was for a while an international pariah.  It was refused entry into the newly formed United Nations, France closed its border, and members of the UN removed their ambassadors. Only the Vatican, Portugal and Argentina maintained diplomatic relations. But attitudes changed dramatically in the 1950s with Soviet expansionism and the threat of communism around the world.  Suddenly Franco’s repressive regime and fascist connections were conveniently forgotten in favour of his staunch anti communism, particularly for the U.S.A.  Even more important was Spain’s strategic position, mid way between Europe and Africa and controlling the western end of the Mediterranean.  So began Spain’s international rehabilitation although it was denied entry into the European Union (EU) as long as Franco remained in power. After Franco’s death in 1975, the way was paved for integration.  In 1982 Spain became a member of NATO, and in 1986 it was officially accepted as a member of the EU.

Spain in Transition


After Franco’s death in November 1975, a new Constitution was approved, the monarchy restored and political and social transition achieved despite earlier fears that the country would sink into violence.  The peaceful transition from a highly centralised, dictatorial regime to a pluralistic, liberal democracy showed a remarkable political sophistication and a determination not to let the scars of the Civil War impede progress towards democratic reforms.  Indeed, many issues were downplayed in the early years of the transition in order to avoid inflaming passions. Even so, a botched coup on February 23, 1981 (now simply referred to as F 23), plots on the king’s life, ongoing terrorist activities of Basque nationalists (ETA), and rumblings of linguistic nationalism and separatism in the Basque Provinces and Catalonia are constant reminders of underlying historic and national tensions.

Since the first elections of the post Franco era in1978, Spain has seen the peaceful exchanges of socialist and conservative governments although most have been unable to obtain a majority and have been forced to form coalition governments with small regional parties that often have separatist agendas. The improved economy has gone some way to mitigate the independence threat, as has membership in the EU under whose umbrella many separatists view themselves as Europeans rather than Spaniards.

“New” Spain, “Old” Spain


One of the buzz words of the political and social transformation that has taken place is “New” Spain.  Implicit in this, of course, is the idea of an “Old” Spain resisting change. Another term is "The Two Spains" alluding equally to the present situation between the "New" and "Old" Spain.

Some of the changes that created the "New Spain" were born out of reaction to the restrictions of the Franco years: sexual liberation, empty pews in churches, feminism, the movida madrileña (“swinging Madrid”) of the 1980s, women entering the work force or attending universities, a plunging birth rate etc.  Other changes were legislated: for instance, the various autonomies with linguistic pluralism in some regions, the removal of Roman Catholicism as the official state religion, the right to divorce and to abortion. The last 4 years under the socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero have brought further changes including enhanced women’s rights, a fast track to divorce and legalised gay marriage.

The clash between the “old” and the “new” is never far from the surface, even now. Periodic developments are reminders that the wounds have not healed totally. In January 2006, for example, a ruling by the National Court to return all documents confiscated from the Catalan National Archive after the Civil war and deposited in the National Archive of Salamanca met with the widespread disapproval of right wing politicians and public.  

More recently a controversial bill, approved by Congress in October 2007, called the Ley de la Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory Law) openly confronts some burning issues. It deals specifically with the Franco regime and amongst its provisions seeks to remove all public symbols and statues of that regime as well as giving all grandchildren of Spaniards exiled during the Civil War or Franco’s time the right to Spanish nationality. In addition, the government will provide maps of mass graves so that the remains of the victims may be exhumed and reburied if relatives wish. For opponents, this is an unnecessary reopening of the past, for supporters it is a means of closing a painful chapter in Spanish history.

A major social impact on “New” Spain has come from the amnesty granted in 2005 to 700.000 illegal immigrants, and from the waves of new immigrants arriving between 2001 and 2007, estimated at some 2.800.000.  A total of 4.800.000 immigrants is now calculated to be living in Spain, making up 15% of the population. According to government statistics, Moroccans represent the largest group (about 583.000), followed by Romanians whose numbers shot up enormously from 31,641 in 2001 to 407,159 in 2007.

There is a certain irony in this search for work in Spain by foreign nationals.  In the 1960s and early 70s it was Spaniards who emigrated in search of work. In that period about 2 million --mostly men— left their villages mainly for Switzerland, France and West Germany, sending back much needed money to their families, money that also went a long way to helping balance the national budget. This reversal of emigration to immigration is a telling indicator of the changed fortunes of Spain.

The dramatic increase in immigrants was a major factor in the recent general elections in Spain (March 9/08), which were won by the PSOE (the Socialist Party), although without a majority. In the debates prior to the elections, both the PSOE and the conservative Partido Popular (PP) agreed that the immigrants had contributed enormously to the country’s economic progress and neither side suggested reducing the level. The crux of the matter was integration.  The PP proposed an integration contract that would oblige all immigrants to learn Spanish, obey the law and adhere to “Spanish customs.” Failure to do so would result in deportation. The PP proposal was to be enforced by law; the PSOE maintained its policy of persuasion (it had in fact set up a fund of $2.6 billion in 2007 to help immigrants adjust to their new environment, a generosity that infuriated many native-born Spaniards).

The result of the March 9 elections in which the PSOE won 169 of the 350 parliamentary seats to the PP’s 154, is seen as general approval for Zapatero’s policies, but the PP vote is a reminder that a good percentage of Spaniards (40% to 43.5% for the PSOE) remain attached to conservative values. Besides the immigration contract, Manuel Rajoy, the PP leader, attacked the rising crime rate (which he attributed largely to immigrants), and also called for a return to family values and less regional autonomy. A deciding factor against the PP may have been the tacit support of the Pope for Rajoy in a rally in December 2007, and the strong backing of the Church.  For many Spaniards, the spectre of the Church interfering once again in politics is an ominous reminder of its past power.

Besides forming a coalition government, Prime Minister Zapatero also has to address rising inflation (at 4.3%), and growing unemployment which is partly the result of a housing boom gone bust.  And in the background the question of the regions remains a constant.  The murder of a former socialist politician on March 7 (the eve of the elections) by ETA, the Basque terrorist group, was a potent reminder of the political violence that has beleaguered Spain for so long.

Three very readable books in English on 20th-century Spain are:
Hooper, John   The New Spaniards, revised edition, London 1995
Hopkins, Adam   Spanish Journeys: A Portrait of Spain, London 1993
Tremlett, Giles  Ghosts of Spain: Travels through Spain and Its Silent Past,  London 2006, 2008.  The Afterword to the 2008 edition by Tremlett (the Madrid correspondent of the English newspaper, Guardian) has very illuminating comments on what faces Spain in the future.        

For a variety of topics touching on modern Spain, see the very interesting site: http://www.culturespain.com/
March 28, 2011: for excellent discussions on the following: the lingering legacy of Franco: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/28/spain-lingering-legacy-franco
Unemployment and the young: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/28/new-europe-spain-graduates-emigrate
The modern Spanish family: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/28/new-europe-spain-family-recession
Housing crisis: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/28/residents-trapped-spanish-ghost-towns
Other topics:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/series/new-europe
For an incisive analysis of Spain's economic woes as of March 2012, see http://www.culturespain.com/2012/03/29/the-spanish-economy-and-the-budget-in-spain/ Also click on the link to Spanish economy at the end of the article.
For an update, October 23, 2012, see:  http://www.culturespain.com/2012/10/23/troubled-spain-the-reality-of-the-current-political-and-economic-situation/
Another fine analysis of Spain's turbulent economy http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15734280
September 22, 2012. Fine article on one aspect --health-- of Spain's problems arising from its economic woes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19682049
February 19, 2013: The New York Times has several articles on Spain's present political and econmic woes: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/spain/index.html?inline=nyt-geo
For some personal views of Spain's growing disillusionment with the European Union in 2013, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23064490