History of Modern Spain

The constitution of modern Spain came into effect on January 1st, 1979, after a referendum seeking its approval was endorsed by 58% of the population just the previous month. The first elections to be held after Franco’s death, in July 1977, had produced a Spanish Congress with a centre-right party holding the majority of seats led by the King’s great ally, Adolfo Suárez. The constitution was drawn up by representatives of all the political parties, except the PNV, representing the Basque separatists.

The constitution established Spain as a Parliamentary Monarchy with the king as ‘head of state and supreme commander in chief of the armed forces’ and a symbol of the unity and permanence of the state. It also established the legislature of the country, the Cortes Generales, which consists of two separate chambers, the Congress of Deputies and the Senate, both of which serve concurrent terms lasting for a maximum of four years. In addition, the country is divided into 17 autonomous regions, comunidades autónomas, with their own regional governments which have control of a range of different areas. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first two regions to establish themselves in this manner were the Basque Country and Catalonia, which led to criticism from the right wing groups and the army who envisaged this as a threat to national unity. In 1981, Antonio Tejero Molina, of the Guardia Civil, attempted a military coup to take control of the country in the Cortes but, largely thanks to the intervention of the king, this was a short-lived attempt.

In 1982, the first elections after the introduction of the constitution saw Spain make its final break with the Franco era. The Socialist party, PSOE, under the leadership of Felipe González, won with a considerable majority and were able to remain in power for 14 years. The main bills passed during this time were concerned with increased personal freedoms and education as well as enrolling the country into the European Economic Community and cementing its position in NATO. Joining the European Community brought an economic boom which continued until 1991 when a slump and an increasing number of embezzlement and bribery scandals put the government under increasing pressure. The biggest of these scandals involved Luis Roldán, the head of the Guardia Civil, who ended up being jailed for 28 years.

It was little surprise, therefore, when, in 1996, the PSOE lost the election to the centre-right Partido Popular – the People’s party – meaning that the new Prime Minister, or Presidente del Gobierno, to the Spanish, was the former tax inspector, José Mariá Aznar. As has been customary after Spanish elections, Aznar had to govern without an overall majority, leading to various political allegiances being formed. The 2000 election, when Aznar was re-elected, was the only time in the history of the present system that a party had, in fact, an overall majority. The government’s main focus throughout its two terms was an economic one, with unemployment falling to about 15% – still the highest in western Europe but 10% down from the end of the PSOE era. Aznar’s government, though, was hit hard by the seemingly badly-managed Prestige oil tanker disaster, causing great damage to the Galician coastline and then by its unswerving loyalty to the war in Iraq – even to the extent of sending Spanish forces to the Gulf.

Despite these issues most commentators still considered the PP to be heading for success in 2004 under the new leadership of Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy. However, the terrible train bombings in Madrid, just three days before the election, proved disastrous for the government. 191 were killed and 1755 injured as a result of the al-Qaeda terrorist inspired bombs and the governments’s handling of the events, rather than the bombings themselves, allowed the PSOE, who had pledged to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq, to gain success.

The President since 2004, then, has been Mister Bean lookalike José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has brought social issues to the forefront of his political agenda. Spain has now approved same sex marriages, for example; a move strongly supported by the electorate but equally vehemently opposed by the church and conservatives. Zapatero’s cabinet, which brought attention from all over the world, now has 9 women and 8 men, reflecting his determination to improve the status of women in the country. Indeed, the new Defence Minister, Carme Chacon, was appointed to the post when heavily pregnant, provoking some interesting photo opportunities when visiting the troops in Afghanistan. She gave birth to her son on May 19th this year.

Three particular concerns of the government of Zapatero have been ETA, Catalonia, and the aftermath of the Civil War. After negotiating a cease fire with ETA in March, 2006, to the chagrin of his opponents who accused the President of negotiating with terrorists, Zapatero was forced to change his position when the bombing campaign was resumed at Madrid Barajas airport. At present, the policy appears to be to try to apprehend and imprison the terrorists, but also to have as much dialogue as possible with elected Basque representatives.

In October 2005, the President became the first ever person in his position to be booed at the traditional military parade in Madrid, because of his support for changes in the status of the autonomous community of Catalonia, and he is now having to tread a delicate path between wanting to please those states looking for more autonomy and those worried about the break up of Spain.

In October, 2004, the government announced its intention of legally rehabilitating all the people who were suppressed during and after the civil war, and followed this by ordering the removal of the last remaining statue of Franco from the streets of Madrid. All of these issues, and many more fascinating areas, are dealt with in the 2006 book of Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain; a great read for anyone interested in the social developments of this engrossing country.

Finally, no review of modern Spain can be finished without stressing the importance of King Juan Carlos himself. When he assumed the throne, the communist leader, Santiago Carrillo, coined the phrase ‘Juan Carlos the brief’, indicating how long he anticipated the monarchy to remain. However, there can be few kings held in such generally high esteem by their subjects than Juan Carlos – he is regularly to be seen at Grand Prix, yacht races –indeed all sporting events – and is genuinely a man of the people. Despite his brushes with controversy – he is an unashamed and frequent hunter and also he recently interrupted the speaking Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez by saying, Por qué no callaste? (‘Why don’t you shut up?’) – he is still greatly admired for his role in leading Spain out of the Franco years. There is an eminently readable book by Paul Preston, published in 2004, Juan Carlos: Steering Spain from Dictatorship to Democracy.

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