Democratic Transition (Transición) in Spain
and Pact of Silence (1975–1982)

A dictatorship that dissolves itself. The democratic transition (Transición) in Spain seemed like a little miracle to many contemporaries. The interplay between the regime's reformist forces and the democratic opposition made the transition possible, but it was by no means entirely peaceful.

On November 20, 1975, Prime Minister Carlos Arias Navarro tearfully announced Franco's death to the Spanish television audience. Two days later, Juan Carlos, a grandson of Alfonso XIII whom Franco had personally chosen as his successor in 1969, was proclaimed king. Contrary to all expectations, the young monarch strove for a rapid democratization of the country. In sharp contrast to Franco's regime of the victors, he announced in his inaugural speech: "The institution I embody unites all Spaniards." Initially, the most important practical measure was the appointment of Adolfo Suárez, the reform-minded Secretary General of the state party, as prime minister. In consultation with Parliament Speaker Torcuato Fernández-Miranda and other like-minded reformists, a political reform law was drafted to establish a pluralist democracy. In November 1976, the law passed the Francoist parliament, and a month later it received an overwhelming 97.4% approval in a referendum.

At the beginning of the following year, political parties – including the communist PCE – were successively legalized, with the first free elections in 40 years taking place in June 1977. Adolfo Suárez was confirmed in the office of prime minister, now as head of the liberal-conservative Union of the Democratic Center (UCD). The reform process accelerated from this point onward. In October 1977, a general amnesty freed all political prisoners of the Franco regime. At the same time, it protected public servants from any criminal prosecution – a pact of silence and oblivion. On December 6, 1978, a new constitution came into force, drafted with the cooperation of the parties represented in Parliament and modeled in large part on the “Basic Law” of the Federal Republic of Germany. Furthermore, in Catalonia and the Basque Country statutes of autonomy were adopted by referendum in 1979. At the same time, the years 1979–1981 were marked by severe crises. Spain's economic problems, latent since the oil crisis, led to high unemployment. The Basque Country was simultaneously shaken by attacks perpetrated by the terror group ETA.

Founded in 1959, this socialist and separatist organization became increasingly radicalized in the late 1960s. In the struggle against the authoritarian Franco state and for the freedom of the Basque Country, attacks were carried out against state law enforcement agencies and "collaborators." This practice continued after Franco's death and reached its bloody climax in 1980 with 93 casualties. On February 23, 1981, Suárez resigned from the office of prime minister. During the election of his successor, Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, a momentous incident occurred in Parliament. Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero and 300 Guardia Civil soldiers occupied the parliament building and took the deputies hostage. At the same time, tanks were deployed in Valencia. The military coup failed due to the indecisiveness of the generals and a televised speech by Juan Carlos in which the monarch withdrew his confidence from the military. The failed coup and the assumption of power by the Socialist Workers' Party of Spain (PSOE), which emerged victorious from the 1982 elections, marked the end points of the democratic transition (Transición).

Failure of the Reforms and Carnation Revolution (1968-1982)

On the night of 25th April 1974, young officers dealt the death blow to the anachronistic regime in Portugal via the Carnation Revolution. Liberated from dictatorship, a euphoric Portuguese population set out on the complex road to democracy.

The agony of the dictatorship could not be averted even by a change in the prime minister’s office. Salazar had become incapable of governing in 1968 due to his precarious health condition. In 1970, the aged dictator died – in the meantime mentally deranged. He was replaced by the technocrat Marcello Caetano, who initially demonstrated a desire for reform in the “Marcellist Spring”, but soon failed because of the regime’s recalcitrant old guard. The old guard wanted to fight the Colonial War, which at times consumed half of the state budget, with all its might and to the bitter end. Finally, on 25th April 1974, a group of 400 officers, the Armed Forces Movement (MFA), revolted against the regime. It collapsed like a house of cards without really being able to put up a fight.

The unexpected collapse of the dictatorship in Portugal was followed by an even more turbulent phase of transition to democracy between 1974 and 1976. This phase of transition was characterised by a decisive break with the dictatorial regime. The most important institutions of the Estado Novo – the political police, the single party, the corporative chamber, the censorship authorities, and the mass organisations – were quickly dissolved and initially replaced by the provisional Junta of National Salvation. Both Prime Minister Marcello Caetano and President Américo Tomás were forced into Brazilian exile. The public sphere was freed from the traces of the former dictatorship and the civil service was subjected to lustration processes (saneamentos). The political police were put on trial in lengthy proceedings. The decolonisation of the former Portuguese colonies in Africa was formally completed by 1975.

The handling of the revolution by the MFA in alliance with the already established parties such as the traditional Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and newly emerging parties such as the Socialist Party (PS) and the People’s Democratic Party (PPD) turned out to be anything but unproblematic. Likewise, the successive weakening of the conservative forces within the military led by António de Spínola contributed to the escalation, as they attempted a coup on 11th March 1975. The left wing of the MFA, now on the alert, became increasingly radicalised, created a revolutionary council, carried out “savage purges” of the state apparatus, allowed land occupations and nationalised banks and companies. The phase of the “hot summer” was only mitigated by the electoral victory of the moderate forces – the PS and PPD – in the first free elections in Portugal on 25th April 1975. Even a final coup attempt on 25th November 1975 by radical left-wing elements in the military was not able to block the path to a liberal democracy. The transition in Portugal is generally considered to have been completed only with the dissolution of the Revolutionary Council in 1982 and the associated withdrawal of the military forces from politics.