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The myth of consensus

The Transition did not emerge from agreement between the regime and opposition

The constitutional system that began in 1976, just after Franco's death, is now showing signs of dysfunction and fatigue, and its defenders are telling us we should sit down around a table once more and work out a consensus like the one that produced the miracle of Spain's Transition from dictatorship to democracy, with no violence done to the fabric of the law. But was the Transition really a product of consensus?

Upon Franco's death in 1975, King Juan Carlos solemnly swore to observe the body of fascist laws that kept the regime going as it had been conceived in 1946. He kept the existing government in office. Only the speaker of the parliament, Torcuato Fernández Miranda, an intelligent conservative who saw the imperative need for substantial change, ventured to speak publicly of allowing the existence of real political parties, and elections by universal suffrage - principles on which, for the last 40 years, the regime had blamed all the country's ills. A deal based on these principles was negotiated by a youngish man, Adolfo Suárez - the last chief of the fascist party, whom the king had appointed prime minister for the purpose of dismantling the regime - under the direction of Miranda, the brains of the operation.

The Transition, then, did not emerge from any consensus between regime and opposition. It was imposed by the reformist faction of the Franco regime and then rubber-stamped in a referendum by the people, who were eager for anything that would prevent violence.

To call the first elections in 1977 democratic is to stretch the term

To call the first elections in 1977 democratic is to stretch the term. The political parties had been formed from above, with no appeal to the grassroots. This seemed desirable at the time, for the sake of governability. Yet it has been the principal factor in corruption in the last 30 years. The electoral process was massively prejudiced: by the regime's control of the media, and by an electoral law made to measure to ensure a clear parliamentary majority for Suárez's party, the UCD (a ramshackle affair put together out of a very broad spectrum of the right, which fell to pieces in a few years). This electoral law, which is weighted in favor of the major parties and the regional nationalist parties, is another legacy of those days - which, needless to say, these parties are unwilling to change.

The results were, however, doubly surprising. Suárez got only 34 percent of the vote, while the Socialists, against such heavy odds, attained 29. The new parliament immediately declared its intention to write a new, democratic Constitution. The mere existence of the Socialist Party saved the country from confrontation between the reformist Francoism of the UCD on the one hand, and a euro-communist party on the other. This would have guaranteed that the right would remain in power indefinitely because however much the communists had renounced their revolutionary ideology, broken with the Soviet Union, and recognized the monarchy, in the days of the Cold War a communist government was not on the cards.

And now, in the writing of the Constitution, consensus did begin to function, though it far exceeded the coordinates first conceived by the regime. Two pressures were decisive: that of a Francoist army that continually threatened a coup, and the fear on both sides of a new civil war.

The intense fear of conflict during the Transition explains the passivity of the population when a coup was eventually attempted on February 23, 1982. Nobody moved to stop it, trusting to the general conviction that, in a democratic Europe, a military dictatorship could not last long. It also conditioned the tacit "amnesia" to the effect that there were to be no trials of retribution against the extreme right for the massacres of the left during the Civil War and after it.

In those days, with the exception of fringe elements, everyone involved in the Transition to democracy was satisfied with it. Only now are their grandchildren beginning to complain that it was something of a botched job.

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