SPAIN: The People’s Struggle and the Role of Adolfo Suárez

Adolfo Suárez González (1932–2014) was a Spanish lawyer and politician. He was Spain’s first democratically elected prime minister after Franco’s dictatorship, and the key figure in the country’s transition to ‘democracy’.

Born into a rural, middle class Catholic family, he moved into politics in 1955 after studying a law degree. He soon joined Opus Dei, got married and, in 1965, became programme director of TVE. He gradually climbed the ranks and became a friend of Prince Juan Carlos, thanks to his position as director general of TVE – which he received in 1969.

Though Franco didn’t completely trust Suárez, Juan Carlos did, and he ensured he got a good job in the state telephone monopoly. Boosted by Juan Carlos within the Movimiento Nacional (or Falange) – the sole political party in Spain, his dynamic and youthful image was seen as a key to avoiding a bloody transition. He subsequently held several government posts during the late Francoist regime. As Secretary General of the Party, he told Franco, just a month before his death, that democratisation was inevitable. After the Caudillo died, Suárez used his influential position in the Party to move towards ‘democracy’. As acting minister of the interior, he was credited with preventing a potential massacre after police brutality had provoked left-wing protests in the north of Spain.

Having already made moves to negotiate with opposition parties, Juan Carlos requested the resignation of Prime Minister Arias in 1976. By choosing Suárez as his replacement, the king “risked his crown”, facing hostility from both conservative Francoists and democratic sectors which saw him as part of the Francoist establishment. As a nationalist, he was given the task of beckoning in an age of ‘democratic’, parliamentary monarchy without annoying conservatives and the military. One method used to prevent a bloody response by the army to left-wing requests for reform was to promise generals that the Communist party would not be legalised.

Though full of conservative Catholics, Suárez’s cabinet was committed to reform, promising a referendum on political reform and elections before 30 June 1977. This Political Reform of 1976 is considered to be the beginning of ‘La Transición’.

By allowing the Socialist party to meet in Madrid, Suárez both courted the opposition and boosted a potential rival to the Communists. Nonetheless, the vice-president and minister of defence, General Fernando de Santiago, soon resigned when Suárez looked set to legalise unions. Suárez was clearly managing a very delicate balancing act and, when senior Francoist figures were kidnapped by the allegedly Marxist-Leninist splinter group Grapo (potentially infiltrated or even created by the extreme right and the police), he managed the situation effectively.

When ultra-right terrorists murdered five people, including four Communist labour lawyers, Suárez began to respect the strength and discipline of the communists – seen in a massive display of silent solidarity at their funerals. The Communist Party was legalised later that year, infuriating the military and leading to plans to overthrow the government. These deaths, however, were not exceptions. Around 500 people died at the hands of security forces and far-right paramilitary groups during the “Transición”.[1] [2]

Suárez’s electoral campaign, in which his UCD party contained conservative elements of previous Francoist officials, concentrated on the media, where his resources were virtually unlimited. The banks also funded a huge advertising campaign, focussing on Suárez’s appearance. The fact that sixty per cent of UCD voters were women is probably a representation of this tactic. In 1977, the UCD won Spain’s first free elections in 41 years with 34.5% of the vote, while the Socialists won 29.2%.

The lack of real change under Suárez, however, along with his authoritarian treatment of UCD deputies, eventually split the party. With high inflation, the all-party pacts of October 1977 saw ‘the left’ agree to austerity in exchange for other reforms. The economy stabilised, but unemployment rose significantly as a result. With increasing federalisation, Catalonia soon voted ‘the left’ into power, which soon lobbied for autonomy.[3] The same thing happened in the Basque region, though this was not enough to encourage ETA to put down its arms. Suárez dealt with calls for independence by giving limited autonomy to 12 other regions in addition to Catalonia.[4]

The democratic process of creating the Constitution caused discontent within Suárez’s party but, after winning the 1979 elections, he said “consensus is over”. Trying to avoid debate in parliament and control his own party, he neglected demands for change in the nation, and Andalucía and Galicia soon called for autonomous statutes like those conceded to the Basques and Catalans.

He had few solutions to problems of terrorism, economic recession, and military conspiracy, and his popularity soon plummeted. A few key events eventually encouraged him to resign as Prime Minister. Firstly, his right-hand man resigned in 1980, and then he failed to go to the Basque country after a gas explosion killed 48 children.[5] Equally, he didn’t attend the funeral of a couple of colleagues killed in ETA terrorist attacks.[6] After intense criticism of his leadership, he resigned in 1981.[7]

After leaving government, he was bestowed with a plethora of titles by the King throughout the rest of his life. A month after his resignation, as parliament was confirming his replacement, Lieutenant Colonel Tejero led the 23-F coup (or “El Tejerazo”), but was soon defeated. Suárez apparently displayed great courage during the coup by refusing to lie on the floor.

In 1982, Suárez founded the Democratic and Social Centre (CDS) party, joining the Liberal International in 1988. In 1991, he retired from politics. His youngest daughter soon became a TV news anchor for Antena 3 and married a nephew of Franco’s son-in-law. In 2005, it was announced that Suárez was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and could no longer remember his period as Prime Minister of Spain. He died last week.

Suárez largely managed to avoid significant bloodshed in Spain’s transition to ‘democracy’, but the inevitability of democratisation was due to the resistance of the People, not due to politicians like Suárez. And, though the government has moved out of its fascist, totalitarian phase, the Spanish people still do not have true democratic control of their government. Just like other nations in the world, the increasing consciousness and subsequent resistance of the People is what will finally bring about true democracy. Suárez may have played a part, but the People will have the final say.



General information adapted from and

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About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
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