It is an undisputed truth that the Spanish transition to democracy was one of a remarkable nature. Not only was it smooth, swift and consensual, but it took place within the institutional framework of Franco’s authoritarian regime. This was an unusual situation and one which had not previously occurred in any other country. This essay seeks to explore the ways in which various institutions from the Franco regime helped path the way to the democracy, ensuring that the transition was smooth and swift. However, not all of the institutions helped contribute to such a transition, namely the military. It did not favour such democratic change and therefore it made numerous attempts to prevent such a transition from occurring.

The ensuing discussion is to be divided into four sections. The first of these sections will outline the regime and its unique nature, and talk about the transition to democracy as a whole. The second section is to focus on the institutions which helped to contribute towards the swift and smooth nature of the transition: the monarchy, the Catholic Church and the media. The third section will focus on the military as an institution, which attempted to prevent such the transition from occurring, and the final section will summarise the findings and provide a conclusion. Essentially this discussion is to focus on the three main ‘poderes f�cticos’, which is the phrase used to describe the centres of power which was hugely influential during Franco’s reign. (Heywood 1995: 57) The monarchy was also of huge significance and therefore shall also be included in the discussion.

Spain’s democratisation, although unique in its nature, came at a time when democratic regimes were commonplace. Around one-third of the democratic regimes existing today are the result of transitions from authoritarian regimes that have taken place since 1973, with undeniably the most frequent and praiseworthy references being made to the Spanish model of transition to democracy. (Colomer 1991: 1283) This sudden surge of democratisation has been labelled as part of the “first wave” of Huntington’s, “Three Waves of Democracy”, a concept that comes from one of the most universally renowned piece of literature on the subject of democratic transitions. (Huntington 1991: 13-26) Being in the first wave of democratic transitions, it could be assumed that subsequent transitions would follow the mould of Spain’s transition. However what was witnessed in Spain was in fact totally unique to Spain.

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The Franco regime provided an institutional framework which consequently enabled the transition to democracy to be facilitated with ease:

“…a great irony of Francoism is how institutions and procedures created to sustain authoritarianism had the unintended consequence of preparing the nation for liberal democracy.” (Encarnacion 1997: 401)

This idea is summarised well by Elias Diaz, who calls Franco the, “champion of democracy, the true architect of the transition” (Diaz 2002: 35). What had happened, in fact, was that Franco’s authoritarian regime had suffered under the pressures of modernisation and opposition. What had once been a regime committed to Franco’s Fundamental Laws and the glorified National State was, at the time of Franco’s death, a regime made up of institutions which seemed to path the way to a smooth and consensual transition to democracy. By the mid-seventies these economic, social and cultural institutions of Spain were, “already quite close to those of Western Europe, and the cultural beliefs, normative orientations and attitudes that go with the workings of these institutions were also close to the European ones” (Perez Diaz 1990: 15). In summary, the political transition to democracy worked so smoothly and swiftly because many institutional structures were already in place to encourage such change.

One of the key factors regarding the smooth and swift nature of the Spanish transition to democracy was the fact that there was a great degree of administrative and legal continuity from Franco to democracy. Essentially, there was no lustration in Spain for the administrative structures remained in tact during the transition from Franco’s regime to democracy. Franco’s regime had lasted thirty-six years and had created a complex institutional structure, and therefore, “change, when it came, was initiated from within the old regime.” (Ross 2004: 132)

There was no need for a revolutionary overthrow of any existing institutions, for most of the changes that were made during the transition merely took place through the mechanisms of the dictatorship. A solution was proposed by the anti-Francoists, who wanted to move away from the authoritarian regime, which suggested using the legality of the Franco Fundamental Laws and the Cortes in order to constitutionally move away from the regime, against the spirit and intent of those laws (Linz & Stepan 1996: 91). This reinforces Encarnacion’s view regarding the “great irony of Francoism”. After all, Franco’s authoritarian rules and laws were manipulated by the political class in order to proceed with the democratic transition.

This next section is to look closely at the institutions of the Franco regime which contributed to the swiftness and the smooth-nature of the subsequent democratic transition. The first institution which shall be discussed during this section will be the monarchy. Franco’s regime was, in fact, a monarchy, even thought there had been no king or queen on the throne since the beginning of the Second Republic, in 1931. Nevertheless, following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, in a bid to regain support, Franco formally restored the monarchy once more in 1947, “although the dictator refused to allow anyone to accede to the throne while he remained alive.” (Heywood 1995: 47)

Consequently, following the death of Franco in 1975, King Juan Carlos slipped onto the thrown with ease, for the institutional structures in order for him to commence his reign were already in place. The Fundamental Laws were still in force after Franco’s death, one of which stated: “the king has power almost commensurate with that of Franco.” (Arango 1978: 255) This therefore enabled him to have an overwhelming impact over the nature of the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

King Juan Carlos had been educated under Franco’s rule, and it was the dictator’s plan that, “Juan Carlos, who swore loyalty to the Principles of the Movement, would continue Francoism after Franco.” (Carr 1980: 167) Franco had believed that, by designating Prince Juan Carlos as his heir in 1969, he had essentially left everything “tied down and well tied down” (Heywood 1999: 35). By this he assumed that Franco would carry on with his regime, in line with authoritarian principles. Nevertheless, Juan Carlos was to prove himself to be the “motor of change”, and the catalyst behind the peaceful transition (Carr 1980: 173). Clearly, Franco had not assumed that Juan Carlos would take the stance that he had over the democratisation of Spain. Essentially, therefore, because there was a position for King Juan Carlos within Franco’s institutional framework, it enabled the democratic transition to swiftly roll into action.

In addition to the monarchy, the Catholic Church was a central part of Franco’s regime, and will be the second institution that shall be looked at in detail, with a particular focus on its contribution to Spain’s democratic transition. It played an essential role in the transition to democracy due to the fact that it’s stance within the regime changed dramatically over the course of Franco’s dictatorship. By the time of Franco’s death the Catholic Church was willing to embrace an accommodation with secular forces, whereas during the beginning of the dictatorship it had promoted the values of authoritarianism (Romero Salvado 1999: 162). This change in stance was extremely important for the transition, for it meant that the prospect of democracy was no longer opposed by the Catholic Church, and instead it was promoted without resistance:

“The Catholic Church was not in the mood for preaching holy crusades and supporting Francoism as she had done in the past. Far from it Catholics were looking for an accommodation with…the new regime” (Perez-Diaz 1990: 17)

There were two main strands to the altered relationship of the Catholic Church and the Franco regime, both of which contributed in significant measure to the success of Spain’s transition. (Heywood 1995: 69) The first of these was a strain of ‘technocrats’ within the Catholic Church, who were associated with Opus Dei. Their role promoted central changes within the Franco regime, which consequently aided the smooth transition to democracy. By the end of the 1950’s, these so-called ‘technocrats’, had assumed leading positions in the government and in 1959 they drafted a Stabilisation Plan, which was soon authorised by Franco himself (Diaz 2002: 35). This plan sought to liberalize and modernize the Spanish economy (Closa & Heywood 2004: 9), and came about because these ‘technocrats’ believed that the Franco regime could only be maintained by bettering standards of living in Spain, which involved improving the economy.

The necessary economic growth, they believed, was best achieved by allowing market forces free rein and thereby ending government intervention in the economy (Ross 2004: 118). Ironically, it was largely a death of its own making, since the Francoist apparatus had put all its weight behind Spain’s economic expansion, but was unable to accept the decentralising pressures which came in the same package with economic development (Conversi 2002: 226).

Through seeking to modernize the Spanish economy, Franco was essentially digging a grave for his authoritarian regime for it seemed as if economic liberalization and authoritarianism were incompatible. The considerable economic development which was introduced through the Stabilisation Plan, alongside a major process of capital accumulation, both helped Spain move away from the authoritarian tendencies of Franco’s regime, and essentially helped the smooth transition to democracy following the dictator’s death, as the economy was sufficiently modernized to support such a change. This can be attributed to the Catholic Church as an institution, for it was the ‘technocrats’ who largely pushed for such economic change.

In addition to this, the Catholic Church also helped push for change in another area of Franco’s regime and this seemed to path the way to further pro-democratic tendencies. This next main aspect of change involved the unlikely development of a dialogue between young Catholics and leftist opponents of the dictatorship (Heywood 1995: 69). The newly found contact between these two groups laid the groundwork for, “pluralist co-operation which was to mark the Spanish transition to democracy.” (ibid: 70) Clearly, with the new generation of members of the Catholic Church being surrounded by an anti-Franco landscape, the likelihood was that, when change was to occur following the death of Franco, it would not only be allowed, but also encouraged. Consequently, the Catholic Church provided an institutional legacy which, through the liberalisation of the economy and through the new found dialogue between anti-Francoists and young church members, laid the foundations for a smooth and consensual transition to democracy.

A second of the ‘poderes f�cticos’, and therefore one of the main institutions within the Franco regime, was the media. General Franco controlled a chain of over thirty newspapers which served as a mouthpiece for the state. Rigid censorship existed alongside a system of so-called ‘consignas’, which were items prepared by the government which newspapers were obliged to print. (ibid: 75) Radio and television were equally as monopolised by state control, however in 1966, a Press Law was drafted by Manuel Fraga, which has been seen as paving the way towards a relaxation of the government’s censorship of the media, nevertheless, the government maintained its tight hold over the media (ibid: 75).

It was expected, therefore, that following the death of Franco, such censored media coverage would continue to promote pro-authoritarianism, however we learn instead that, “the media had been a key actor in the smooth transition to democracy.” Due to its oppressed role within the Franco regime, it seemed that the media was now firmly in favour of democracy. This was never more clearly demonstrated than on the night of the failed military coup attempt of 23 February 1981. The media coverage of the military was negative and the overall message of the media was pro-democracy: “there was a journalistic-government consensus in which both parties promoted democratic values and the new political system” (Jimenez 2002: 82). Such media coverage acted catalyst for a successful democratic transition, for it mobilised civil society into trusting the new political landscape.

The first section thus focused on the three main institutions which contributed to the smooth, swift and consensual nature of Spain’s unique democratic transition: the monarchy, the Catholic Church and the media. However, this second section is to focus on another one of the ‘poderes f�cticos’, the military, which was an institution with major political influence in Franco’s Spain. (Heywood 1995: 57) Unfortunately, the Army acted as a powerful obstacle to most democratic reforms, which was very different to institutions discussed previously, and: “It appeared as though the advent of democracy could only be achieved by eliminating the influence of the Army in political life”. (Conversi 2002: 223)

From the early 1970’s, when the prospect of democratic change after the dictatorship became an increasingly palpable threat, “military hard-liners had been struggling both to stamp out liberalism within their own ranks and to use their power to block civilian efforts to bring about a transition.” Nevertheless, following the death of Franco, Juan Carlos immediately inherited the role of Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces (Carr 1980: 181), which enabled him to hold a substantial level authority over the military. Regardless of this fact the military institution reacted against this authority on a number of occasions. Heywood describes:

“The armed forces have developed from a position of looming menace in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, acting as a constant threat to the successful development of democratic stability, to one of full subordination to the civil estate.” (Heywood 1995: 78)

At the time of Franco’s death, a large number of the military’s commanding officers had been, “thoroughly socialised into the anti-democratic values of his regime” (ibid: 60). It had been assumed, therefore, that a transition to democracy would be one refuted or blocked by the military. Nevertheless, they were so centrally embedded in the institutions of the Franco regime that they were almost, “compelled by circumstances to remain faithful to their sovereign and thus to the system.” (Arango 1978: 256) They had taken an oath of loyalty that passed from Franco to the king according to ritual and formula devised by Franco himself. Therefore Juan Carlos, and consequently the democratic transition, enjoyed a situation where some of the key resisters to democracy had their future institutionally embedded in the post-Franco regime, due to their role during Franco’s authoritarian regime. For example, in February 1977 and again in the following April, “the king issued decrees forbidding the military to participate in politics or to show public preference for the political options being presented to the nation” (ibid: 255).

This does not go to say that the military did not resist such demands. In contrast, they attempted to reverse the democratic changes which were taking place in Spain on a number of occasions. The military’s most conservative cadres grew restless and eager to knock off the entire democratisation process, (Preston 1987: 232) which was never more clearly highlighted than through the failed military coup of 1981, as discussed previously. The coup involved Lieutenant-Colonel Antonia Tejero Molina leading the, “storming of the Cortes in what ultimately proved to be an abortive coup attempt” (Heywood 1995: 62).

The coup ended in total humiliation for the military, and finally ended the Army’s attempt to reverse the democratic process. Yet, the after-shock of this exploit had detrimental consequences for the not-yet consolidated democracy. To a certain extent, it stalled further democratic advances in areas such as regional autonomies. Consequently, we can derive from this that the military was an institution which did not contribute to the smooth and consensual nature of Spain’s democratic transition. Although democratisation eventually occurred, it is clear that the military did not contribute to swift and smooth transition to democracy, particularly due to the numerous coup attempts (Preston 1995: 201).

This final section is to summarise the ways in which the institutional legacy of the Franco regime shaped Spain’s transition to democracy. The discussion above has focused on the four main institutions of the Franco regime: the monarchy, the Catholic Church, the media and the military. Each institution has been discussed at length, in order for us to see how they contributed to the shaping of Spain’s democratic transition. The monarchy was the main catalyst for change, and enabled a swift and smooth transition, mainly due to the nature of King Juan Carlos’ rule and the institutionally entrenched nature of the role of the monarch. The Catholic Church provided a pro-democratic landscape in two ways, which ensured that upon Franco’s death, the institutional framework was in place to equally promote such a smooth and unopposed transition.

The media, which had been oppressed during Franco’s regime, was given a free voice after his death, and it was one that promoted democratisation and change, which also helped contribute to the smooth transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The only anomaly to the rule found in this discussion comes from the institution of the military. It did not want to push for democratic change and was still set in the ways of Francoism after his death. The Army tried to prevent such a change from occurring on numerous occasions, however they were essentially controlled by the new pro-democratic king, and therefore could not prevent the transition to the extent they had hoped for. They, therefore, did not contribute to the swift transition as the other institutions mentioned in this discussion had. It seems clear, therefore, that Franco’s institutional legacy shaped Spain’s transition to democracy in many ways:

“There is no denying the importance of forces and institutions rooted in the previous regime, without which the whole process would have been even more difficult than it actually was.” (Diaz 2002: 36)

This discussion could be developed by looking into various other institutions within the Franco regime and how they helped shape Spain’s transition to democracy, such as the nature of political parties, the bureaucracy and labour organisations. Nevertheless, by looking at the selected institutions, in enables us to take a close and detailed look at the unique nature of Spain’s transition and conclude that the institutional legacy of Francoism had a huge impact on the smooth, swift and consensual transition from authoritarianism to consolidated democracy.


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Preston (1987) “The Triumph of Democracy in Spain” London: Routledge

Preston (1995) “The Politics of Revenge: Fascism and the military in twentieth-century Spain” London: Routledge


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