Adolfo Suárez was the right man at the right time: a statesman catapulted by circumstances to lead Spain’s extraordinary transition from dictatorship to democracy. His death not only brings back memories of happier times, but above all provides an opportunity to reflect on the importance of consensus in a country that needs it as much now as it did four decades ago. Suárez relied on dialogue and consensus more than any politician has done since, and understood the need to put the interests of the country before those of his party.
What Spain needs now, more than ever, is what Suárez was a master of: the search for peaceful outcomes to conflicts that seem beyond solution. All the recent opinion polls show that what people want more than anything is a return to the style of politics that characterized the Transition, a longing that has become more acute in proportion to the decline of the country’s institutions. People need credible institutions at this critical time, when Spain is being buffeted by external and internal problems; instead they find politicians interested only in pursuing narrow party interests, rather than working together to tackle the challenges the country has been facing for the last five years or more.
Contrary to the arguments that see consensus as blurring the lines, Suárez’s approach produced civil liberties and multi-party democracy. It was Suárez who pushed aside the special powers of the Franco regime, insisting that the Constitution must provide the basis for all Spaniards to live in peace together.
Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy was a participative process led by Suárez and King Juan Carlos. Suárez, a man who had begun his political career under the dictatorship, took the first steps to dismantle the one-party state, setting up the so-called Moncloa Pacts, which brought all democratic parties, along with business and labor unions, together to work for the common good. Importantly, he also understood that writing a new Constitution would require the involvement of the right, center and the left, as well as representatives of the country’s regions.
He was appointed prime minister in mid-1977, just 18 months after the death of General Franco. The king had promised the reestablishment of civil rights and a modern democracy, but the process was stalling. Suárez was tasked with speeding things up at a time when there was mounting public pressure for sweeping change. In two-and-a-half years he created an effective political system, backed by a Constitution approved by the electorate in a referendum. In doing so he faced conspiracies from some sections of the military in cahoots with the far right. There was also the question of increased violence from Basque terrorist group ETA, as well as other far-left armed organizations, all of which could have brought the process of democratization to a halt at any time.
During those early years, Suárez was supported not only by the king, but also by Socialist Party leader Felipe González, Communist Party head Santiago Carrillo, and the formerly exiled chief of the Catalan regional government, Josep Tarradellas, among others. All of them believed in Suárez and the king’s sincere intentions to build a fully functioning democracy.
A place in the history books
But Suárez came under increasing political pressure toward the end of the 1970s, not just from the opposition in Congress, but also from sectors within his own UCD party. After announcing that he would be stepping down in January 1981, just a few weeks later he boldly stood up to soldiers who seized Congress as part of an attempted coup, demonstrating once again his absolute commitment to democracy.
He then set up the CDS, hoping to lead the middle ground in Spanish politics, but found himself outmaneuvered by González on the left, and the wily Manuel Fraga, a former minister under Franco, on the right.
In effect, Suárez was the victim of his own success, and was swept aside by Spain’s process of political normalization. Consensus soon became a thing of the past, and confrontational politics the norm, particularly after José María Aznar took over the Popular Party.
Over the course of the last two decades, as Spanish politics has become increasingly polarized, figures like Adolfo Suárez are now sorely missed. That said, he left his mark: that of a constructive approach to politics, to working together, avoiding conflict, and overhauling this country’s political system. His achievements will earn him a place of honor in Spanish history books for the simple reason that without him, things would not have been the same.