Spain Table of Contents

SPAIN'S TRANSFORMATION from a rigid, authoritarian, highly centralized regime into a pluralistic, liberal parliamentary democracy with considerable regional autonomy stands as one of the more remarkable political developments of the twentieth century. That this was accomplished without civil war or revolutionary upheaval and in the midst of unfavorable economic circumstances is all the more extraordinary. Despite decades of living under a repressive dictatorship, most Spanish citizens adapted readily to the new democratic system, and they turned out in large numbers for referenda and elections.

The institutions established under the new democratic regime were based on the principles of modernization and decentralization. The 1978 Constitution, which enjoyed massive popular support, established Spain as a democratic state ruled by law. Spain's form of government is that of a parliamentary monarchy, with political power centered in the bicameral Cortes (Spanish Parliament).

One of the most striking features of Spain's new governmental system is the devolution of power and responsibility to the regions. Regional differences had been the source of longstanding tensions between the center and the periphery in Spain. The 1978 Constitution addresses these conflicts by providing for an unprecedented degree of regional autonomy, although not all Spaniards have been satisfied with the pace of the devolution process. At the same time, the relationships between the more powerful autonomous regions and the central government remain complicated by the deliberately ambiguous terms of the Constitution.

The dismantling of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco y Bahamonde (dictator of Spain, 1939-75) and the establishment of democratic political institutions did not immediately permeate all levels of society. Reactionary elements within the army remained opposed to democracy, and rumors of coup plots were a persistent feature of the early years of democratic rule, although they subsequently subsided as the government stabilized. The civil service also resisted transformation, remaining almost as inefficient and cumbersome as it was under Franco.

Although Spanish citizens had minimal experience with political involvement prior to the advent of participatory democracy, they took to it enthusiastically, and, after a shaky beginning, a viable party system developed. The stability of this party system was evidenced by the declining support for extremist parties and by the peaceful transfer of power from a conservative coalition to the Socialist Workers' Party in the 1982 elections. In the late 1980s, the major challenge to the governing Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol-- PSOE) came from within its own ranks, as labor leaders complained that Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez Marquez had forsaken his socialist roots in favor of market-oriented policies.

Spain continued to seek an independent role in the international arena, while maintaining a European focus through membership in the European Community (EC) and, through association, on its own terms, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Other major foreign policy goals continued to be the re-establishment of Spanish sovereignty in Gibraltar, the retention of the North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and an influential role for Spain in Latin America. In 1987 Spain expressed a latent anti-Americanism, prevalent in the country since the 1898 Spanish-American War, when the government delayed renewal of the long-standing agreement for United States use of military bases in Spain in exchange for military and economic assistance.

One difficult problem facing the government in the 1980s was the ongoing menace of Basque terrorism, as militant separatists continued to perpetrate assassinations and bombings in spite of vigorous antiterrorist measures. A more far-reaching challenge lay in the economic realm. Workers were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their diminished earnings and with the government's failure to deal with the unemployment problem.

The political changes since 1975 have been dramatic and profound. Spain has benefited from the shrewd leadership of its king and its prime ministers, who successfully presided over the transition to democracy and its consolidation. Nevertheless, Spanish leadership confronted the challenge of sustaining social stability in the face of economic and regional pressures.


For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Spain.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress