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The abdication of the king ends Spain’s imperfect transition

Handout  released by the Spanish Royal House shows Spain's King Juan Carlos posing for his new official portraitsTranslated from the original by Vicenç Navarro

The message that the Spanish establishment – the power structure for the financial, economic, political and media elite – has been promoting 24  hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year and through thirty- six years of democracy, is that, as result of a model Transition, Spain has enjoyed a democracy homologous to any Western European democracy, that under the direction and supervision of the King of Spain the country achieved levels of welfare and quality of life similar, if not better, than the rest of the European Union. The King, whose power derives from the Dictator, was the architect of representative and democratic institutions that actually meant a break with the previous regime. This is the idealized vision of the Transition, which produced democracy, and the role of the monarch in that process that the Big Media and mass means of persuasion have constantly repeated over the years. The complete lack of ideological diversity of the media ( with a very marked discrimination against the left ) explains that this view has become conventional wisdom in the country.

The data, available for all those who want to see it, shows, however, the sheer falsity of this view. First, the transition was far from exemplary. It was not, nor could it be. The heirs of those who led the military coup of 1936 and established the dictatorship controlled the state apparatus. Led by the monarch, they had all the power structures – including the media – at their disposition. The successors of those who had defended the Republic, and had been defeated by the fascist rebels (who had won the support of Hitler and Mussolini ) and who, later, were brutally repressed (for every political assassination that Mussolini carried out, Franco carried out 10,000), had just come out of hiding, prison and / or exile. There could be no greater imbalance between the Right, led by the King, and the Left, who had led the democratic forces in the resistance against the dictatorship. It was absurd to expect such an unbalanced relationship as in the period 1975-1978 between the Right and the Left to produce a ‘model’ transition and democracy. Actually, this imbalance of forces created a greatly limited democracy and a dramatically insufficient welfare state.

Incomplete and inadequate welfare democracy

There are multiple indicators of the inadequacies of Spanish democracy. One among many was the massive protection the media have always provided for the King. In no other country had the Head of State been promoted as much as the King of Spain. For many years one could not criticise the monarchy or the monarch, nor fly the republican flag. I remember the sad, shameful and embarrassing decision of the President of the Spanish Cortes, the Socialist José Bono, to prohibit freedom fighters (defenders of the Republic against the fascist coup, who had been invited to be present at the Cortes ) carrying republican flags. It was more than symbolic that it was a socialist, José Bono, who proposed the ban. The incorporation of Spanish socialism into that State by laws that favoured bipartisanship was central to the inferior democratic system of Spain.

Another indicator of the deficient democracy has been the lack of social conscience of the Spanish state. Thiry five years of democracy and Spain continues to have one of lowest public expenditures by inhabitant in EU-15, the group of richer countries of the EU. The fact that Spain will spend much less than the average for the EU-15 in public transfers (such as public pensions) or in the public services of the welfare state (health , education , social services , housing social , home services , schools, kindergartens, and so on ), is precisely because of the enormous influence that the upper classes of society have on the state, a state that is among the poorest, most corrupt and most insensitive to the needs of citizens in the EU-15.

The end of an era

But today we are seeing the end of this transition. During the democratic period, the Spanish state had never before lost so much legitimacy. Today , the populations’ rejection of the democratic institutions and the political class is widespread. The famous slogan of the 15-M indignados movement “they do not represent us” has become a widespread slogan. The poor quality of the democratic State explains how the ruling parties (all of them close to the financial and economic establishment) are carrying out policies (cuts in social spending and falling wages ) that were not in their manifestos. The lack of a popular mandate not only explains the outrage, but also the rejection and anger against such institutions. It is important to stress that this rejection does not translate into animosity towards democracy, but in a protest for their constant misrepresentation by the political class that runs Spain.

Today, the decline of bipartisanship and its replacement by a plurality of parties, in which the rebellious left is reaching the majority with great popular appeal, threatens the continuance of that regime. The discrediting of the institutions of the imperfect Transition from dictatorship represent its main threat. From this stems the desire to make significant changes in the figures that led the Transition – such as the King – in order to present the image that there is a transformation that can prevent the end of the regime. The Monarch’s abdication in favor of the figure of Felipe is an important step in this direction.

The challenge for democratic forces

Today, the scale of the anger and rejection of the Spanish State is such that it has now spread to the majority of the population. All indicators show that the political and media establishment, based in the Madrid, the capital of the kingdom, is losing its capacity for mobilization and persuasion. The credibility of its instruments, such as the mass media, have collapsed to lows never before seen in the democratic period. The TV and newspapers are seen more and more as tribunes of that establishment. And there’s a high degree of popular mobilisation. Just a few months ago, about two million people took to the streets of Madrid in the Dignity March, with a rally of republican flags hoisted in a challenge to the central state authorities that had forbidden them. Today what is happening is what the power structure is most afraid of : that people overcome their fear. The remarkable increase in repression is an indicator of this.

he products of the imperfect Transition. A state with little social conscience, a hierarchical, exclusive and centralising state, which has opposed the redefinition of Spain as multinational entity in which the peoples and nations of Spain are joined together voluntarily, and not by force, which has opposed a Spain where the right to decide exists throughout the state and at all levels. There is now an enormous urgency of genuine democratic forces to put aside their differences and factionalism and work together to secure a real break with the legacy of dictatorship, to change the balance of power between social classes, guided by a different view of Spain. This great peaceful mobilization of the population is necessary because when the people move, they can move mountains. Never forget that while Franco died in bed, the dictatorship died on the street. The second transition, a Republican transition to a just, plural and democratic Spain requires such a mobilization. Our history shows that this is possible.

Vicenç Navarro is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University Pompeu Fabra

This translation first appeared at Revolting Europe. The original Spanish first appeared at El Publico


  1. Dave Roberts says:

    Is Antonio Tejero still in prison?

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      According to Wikipedia at least, “Tejero was the last of the coup leaders to be released from jail on 2 December 1996, having then served 15 years in the military prison at Alcalá de Henares. He lives in Torre del Mar in the Province of Málaga.”

  2. Dave Roberts says:

    No mention of March 1981 which is the defining moment in modern Spanish politics. Not a good article and how he works out that there is a “complete lack of ideological diversity of the media ( with a very marked discrimination against the left) I don’t know.

    My daily read is the biggest selling daily in Spain. El Pais is the equivalent of the Guardian only better and more balanced.

  3. Dave Roberts says:

    It looks like 90% of the Cortes will go along with the change. The Socialists were calling for a referendum to have the monarch elected but they are supporting the process at the moment. The only parties against are Izquierada Plural which is the the old CP and the Greens. for an explanation.

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