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The power of a symbol

The farewell ceremony for Adolfo Suárez underscores society's desire for a new approach to politics

The emotional intensity, the restrained yet powerful visuals, and the high attendance by both members of the elite and regular citizens at the farewell ceremony for Adolfo Suárez this week represented a well-deserved tribute to the life and career of Spain’s first democratically elected premier. The evocation of a brave and honest leader who was open to discussion – to recall virtues that have been underscored endlessly in recent days – has also become proof, with every passing hour, of the enormous power of symbols.

During his life, Adolfo Suárez, for all his shortcomings and defects, was able to head the most delicate political operation that several generations of Spaniards have ever participated in, and he did so in a dignified, efficient manner.

In death, his evocation has become a catalyst for some of society's most significant impulses. This country has amply proven the high degree of civility and comity achieved over three decades of democratic government, at a time when the economic crisis is increasing social tension, exacerbating certain territorial disputes, and pushing up disaffection among voters.

People want more dialogue and less partisanship, more reconciliation and less aggression

In their farewell to Suárez, Spaniards refuted the notion that their criticism of the regime’s corrupt, oligarchic tendencies means they are rejecting the entire democratic system; they have repelled the idea that their dislike of wrongful procedures implies a mass rejection of democratic politics. On the contrary, through a variety of channels, through the media, on the streets and in the lines that snaked around Congress, there was a proliferation of requests for a new way of conducting public affairs, based on more dialogue and less partisanship, more reconciliation and less aggression; more agreements and fewer confrontations. The somewhat pompous exaltation of a former prime minister who had not been among us for a decade (Suárez had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and had retired from public life in 2003) belies a desire to train a concave mirror on the shortcomings of today’s stagnant political life. The oft-repeated praise of the values that inspired the transition from dictatorship to democracy can be construed as a call for a kind of democracy that has been stripped of its corrupt interests and partisan politics. Ultimately, the values of the Transition are none other than the values inherent to any democracy: tolerance, respect, liberties, the rule of law, a majority government and a scrupulous respect for minorities.

The citizen tribute to Suárez conceals a dual desire: to ensure that what the Transition represented is not wiped away (although its failures can and must be examined with a critical eye), and to ensure that the model of coexistence set up at the time does not become stagnant. It barely deserves mentioning that Catalan premier Artur Mas issued comments that were out of place with the general feeling of national reconciliation, mostly because he was moved by a utilitarian desire that was later corrected by the body with the power to do so. And in any case, he did not succeed in dampening the mood created by Suárez’s farewell ceremony.

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