Spain in the 1980’s

by | January 4, 2022

The change of political leadership, but not of the institutional and social system, characterized the history of the Spain in the Eighties. The process of homologation to the political, economic, cultural and social models prevalent in Western Europe, which had already begun in the last years of the Francoist era, now appears to be over: the partial international isolation of the country also officially ended with the accession to the Alliance Atlantica (May 1982) and the European Economic Community (January 1986).

The general political elections that were held in 1979, following the approval of the Constitution, seemed to confirm the roots of the centrist Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD), created by Prime Minister A. Suárez González, architect of the transition to democracy. However, the difficulties created by the unfavorable economic situation, the failure recorded by the majority party in the first consultations for the Parliaments of Catalonia and the Basque Country (March 1980) and the growing opposition within the UCD prompted Suárez to resign from the government in January. 1981. He was replaced by L. Calvo Sotelo, former vice president of the Council in the last ministry and member of the right wing of the UCD.

On the occasion of the inauguration of the new executive, the most sensational manifestation of the hostility of a part of the armed forces to democracy was recorded, through the kidnapping of parliamentarians within the Congreso (Chamber of Deputies) by soldiers of the Guardia Civil (police force equivalent to the Carabinieri in Italy) led by ten. Colonel A. Tejero. The coup attempt, supported in the province by some general officers, including in Valenza by J. Milans del Bosch, returned thanks to the decisive action of King Juan Carlos: about thirty officers were sentenced to prison terms. Later, in October 1983, another military conspiracy was discovered, and even later there were at times outbursts of intolerance in the Castrian circles: the civil authorities faced them both with disciplinary measures and, above all, with a policy of wage improvements, more defense budgets, and reforms (the 1977 plan was followed by a major modernization plan in 1983).

The need to control the military by offering them, in exchange for the acceptance of democracy, positive counterparts, can partly be traced back to the most important initiative of the government of Calvo Sotelo: the entry of the Spain into NATO (with some reservations regarding the full military integration) in May 1982, despite opposition from the left and the more nationalist part of the right. The measure, which was followed in July by the renewal of the defense pact with the United States, marked a significant step, given the reluctance of the Spain in the last two centuries to enter into international alliances. Despite other important measures (especially the law of June 1981 on divorce), the weakness of the government of Calvo Sotelo was highlighted by uncertainties in the management of some scandals, Democratic and Social Center (CDS). As already in 1979, the elections were anticipated, which were held in October 1982. The UCD suffered a collapse far beyond expectations, obtaining only 12 seats in Congress (not very dissimilar was the result for the Senate, although in this they are present also 49 members designated by the regions). The Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), with 46% of the votes obtained, thanks to the current electoral system (proportional correct which favors the major formations and precludes access to lists that do not obtain at least 3%), an absolute majority (202 deputies out of 350); part of the moderate votes already in the UCD poured into the center-right formation Alianza Popular (106 seats); the Communists (PCE) had only four deputies, and two the Suárez CDS. Since then the socialists had a monopoly on the government, led continuously since December 1982 by the party secretary, F. González. The new executive showed great restraint and quickly abandoned both the Marxist language and the series of structural reforms originally promised. Especially in the economic and financial fields, interventions were adopted in line with the mechanisms of the market, which allowed the new political class to gain the trust of the traditional capitalist centers. The economy continued to be gradually freed from the constraints in force in the Franco period both internally and abroad; limited measures (mostly a subsidy policy, especially in favor of agricultural workers) were adopted to reduce the high unemployment rate, long the highest in Europe (in 1986 more than 3 million, equal to 21% of the workforce). In strictly economic terms, this line made it possible to reduce the assisted sectors (steel mills, shipyards, etc.) and favored a restructuring based on competitiveness, enhancing the skills of national entrepreneurs, increasingly present on international markets, especially after the opportunities offered by joining to the EEC. Politically, the centrist line de facto followed by the government also deprived the moderate opposition of any concrete reason for protest. The unequal distribution of the new well-being, however, aroused grievances on the part of the less favored social classes. The same socialist union, the Unión General de los Trabajadores (UGT), ended up dissociating itself at the end of 1987 from government policy and putting an end to the collateralism, including electoralism, which had been implemented until then: together with the main opposition union, the pro- communist Comisiones Obreras, then gave birth to demonstrations of dissent, including a general strike that paralyzed the activity of large cities in December 1988.

A part of civil society also criticized the PSOE for excessive arrogance in the management of power for having placed its men in every sector of public life. Indeed, the formation of a young political class appeared rapidly, replacing the previous one. However, only sporadic criticism came from intellectual circles, given the attention and generous provisions reserved by the government for culture and its operators. Accentuated changes in customs (a departure from traditional morality in religious, sexual, and behavioral matters in general) affected Spanish society, at least in the major cities. The Suárez government in January 1979 had stipulated with the representatives of the Catholic Church, in compliance with art. 16 of the Constitution, four agreements replacing the previous concordat (translated into ordinary law in the following December) regarding the independence of the state from all denominations, the teaching of religion in public schools, etc. Some friction subsequently manifested itself between the González government and the ecclesiastical hierarchy regarding the legalization of abortion and the greater controls desired by the government on private schools (more than 30% of pupils attend a confessional school). Similarly to what occurs in other Western countries, and perhaps to an even greater extent than those, there was a drop in tension and ideals in Spain: the term was adopted desencanto to indicate the failure of the rosiest expectations connected with the advent of democracy, and the neologism pasotismo(“carelessness”) was coined to mean the rejection, especially of the youth, of any civil, political and social concern.

The end of the previous centralism was another of the characteristics that differentiated the democratic Spain In several stages since 1978 a regional order was implemented. In order to mitigate the political impact produced by the granting of effective autonomy to regions (Basque Country and Catalonia; to a lesser extent, Galicia) with specific characters of differentiation such as language, the whole Spanish territory was divided into 17 autonomous communities with of its own parliament (elected for four years), government council, administration, flag. The process, inevitably, also took on artificial characteristics as regions that had never existed before had to be created (e.g., Castile-La Mancha, Cantabria, La Rioja, Madrid, etc.), and it caused current administrative expenses to soar dramatically in a state that in the Franco period was in the last place among the OECD countries. The granting of a special statute, wider than the ordinary one, to the three linguistically different regions mentioned above seems to have substantially satisfied Catalonia’s demands for autonomy: there it quickly consolidated (absolute majority in the regional Parliament, and 18 seats in the Congreso of Madrid in the 1989 elections) a moderate party of nationalist inspiration, Convergencia i Unió (CiU), which, under the undisputed leadership of the financier J. Pujol, became a competitor of the PSOE, a party that in Catalonia is in second place thanks to the votes obtained among immigrants. If Galicia has never shown serious separatist intentions (the greatest political force is Alianza Popular), in the Basque Country (Euskadi) the granting of a strong autonomy (also including its own police) did not alleviate the existing tensions. The persistence of terrorism in Spain (minor armed actions were carried out, however, also by subversive groups of other origins, such as the GRAPO, generically far left, and the Catalan Terra Lliure remained linked to the independence requests of a part of the Basque population.).

Spain in the 1980's