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The making of modern Spain

Forty years ago today, the country held free elections, and democracy was restored after the dark years of the Franco dictatorship

A woman voting 40 years ago in Madrid.
A woman voting 40 years ago in Madrid.Joaquin Amestoy

It was 40 years ago today that Spain held its first democratic election after emerging from a dictatorship. Parties of all political stripes took part, marking a point of no return in the country’s democratic evolution. This process ultimately led to a very advanced Constitution that reaffirmed the existence of a rule of law, and not merely a state governed by laws; a document that established turns in power among various rival parties, and which designed and implemented a territorial system of devolved powers creating true political self-government that would be equally accessible to all regions of Spain, but which would run at different speeds and levels of devolved power according to each region’s own political desire and specific characteristics.

These four decades have represented and consolidated the deepest, most long-lasting democratic period in Spain’s entire recent history. The principles of one person, one vote; the encoding of fundamental individual rights following the high standards of the United Nations Declaration and the European Convention on Human Rights; the acknowledgment of collective identities and their corresponding linguistic and cultural rights; the separation of powers; the concepts of majority rule and respect for minorities – all of this has enabled a country afflicted by a tempestuous recent history to join the club of the world’s most advanced democracies.

The fact that we still have unresolved challenges and pending issues ahead of us should be an incentive for change

It has not been easy to achieve. The transition from dictatorship to democracy drew ire from extremists, nostalgics, coup-mongers and new-fledged terrorists. Many citizens gave their lives for the sake of reconciling old enemies and defending everyone’s liberties. Yet for all its difficult moments, at no time did this transitional process (an essentially peaceful one in both design and implementation) cease being considered a role model for many others wishing to walk down a similar path.

Despite all the imperfections and errors inherent to any human endeavor, it is profoundly unfair to the generations that made all this possible to see their achievements disparaged, scorned or minimized by anti-establishment extremism or by decentralizing forces. It is also unfair to the younger generations, who have the right to see themselves reflected in the most brilliant page in Spanish history of the last few centuries.

Spanish democracy is neither “the 1978 regime,” an expression that is sometimes spread around as though to implicitly associate it with the earlier autocracy (“the regime” being a stand-in for the Franco era), nor is it damaged in its rules, its institutions or its pursuits. The democratic transition was for everyone, not just for one of the “two Spains,” and it should not be atomized.

These days, Spain is on equal footing with the best democracies of the West, and justly so

These days, Spain is on equal footing with the best democracies of the West, and justly so. And it is finally also well placed within the EU, among the top countries in the world. Having said that, this reality should in no way make us complacent about our achievements. But nor should we scorn or belittle them. Today’s democratic Spain has managed to resolve, channel or dilute some of the great systemic problems of its own earlier history.

The fact of the matter is, we have evolved from a poor, backward economy to a modern and prosperous one (even if its growth model needs to be improved and balanced). Traditional social problems have either been digested or treated and placed within rational limits: social and territorial cohesiveness, despite its ups and downs, has taken hold.

What’s more, the issue of religious fanaticism and the Catholic Church’s traditional interference with civil power, not to mention the atavistic military insurgency, have both vanished. Gender equality and sexual freedom have made quantum leaps and placed Spain at the forefront of these social gains. And the focal points of terrorist violence have been put out through great effort and sacrifice. Is all this not deserving of public acknowledgement and collective satisfaction (if not downright pride)?

The fact that we still have unresolved challenges and pending issues ahead of us – just like many other democracies – should be an incentive for change, not a reason for collective depression or for a complete overhaul. The rigidity still found in political life and in some institutions, particularly political parties; the precious little innovation in social-economic relationships; the top-down attitude in government agencies; the increase in social segments subjected to miserable living conditions; fuel poverty and growing inequality; the sudden rough turn taken by the Catalan issue... All of this should encourage us to put greater pressure on authorities and our political representatives to come up with a sweeping program of reform, including a constitutional reform that is now necessary in order to update that magnificent document, so that it may give us a further 40 years of worthy accomplishments in the pursuit of freedom.

English version by Susana Urra.

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