Adolfo Suarez: Spain’s first democratically elected Prime Minister who oversaw the transition from the country’s Franco years

 

When Adolfo Suarez resigned as Prime Minister of Spain in January 1981 after five years in office he pointed out in his farewell speech that no other person in the previous 150 years had democratically ruled Spain for so long. But considerable though that achievement was, others – such as being the co-founder of modern Spanish democracy itself – were more important.

Suarez masterminded Spain’s first democratic elections in nearly 50 years, legalised the Communist Party and oversaw the creation of the 1978 Constitution, one of the longest-lasting in the country’s history. In the process known as la transición [the transition], Spain’s political life mutated from a semi-military dictatorship to fully-fledged democracy.

Used as a model by a number of Eastern bloc countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall, some would say la transición’s greatest failing was, and perhaps remains, the 1976 Law of Amnesty, which indirectly allowed crimes committed by members of Franco’s regime to remain uninvestigated. But much of the credit for what was an overwhelmingly and surprisingly peaceful change of political system in Spain has to go to Súarez. He was described as he was dying by his former press officer, Santiago Gonzalez, as “probably the most important politician we’ve had in recent times.”

Suarez was born in Cebreros, a small town in Avila, and graduated in law in 1954. He became secretary to the governor of Avila, Herrero Tejedor, and when Tejedor was made vice-secretary of the Movimiento – the dictatorship’s one permitted political party – in 1961, Suarez became his chef de cabinet. In 1968 he became governor of Segovia and the following year director-general of the TVE television network; his inside knowledge of the workings of the Spanish media was to be invaluable.

After Franco’s death in November 1975, the paradox faced by those in favour of reform – most notably King Juan Carlos – was that Franco had left so many political checks and balances in place that only someone steeped in the culture of a decades-old dictatorship apparatus would be able to oversee the changes necessary to bring about democracy.

Speed and a cool head were needed. Rising pressure from the still-illegal political opposition for an all-out ruptura, or break with the past, looked set to lead to a vicious circle of violence, repression and authoritarianism in the worst style of Latin American dictatorships. Nobody wanted another Civil War but it seemed impossible to rule out.

For the King room for maneouvre was limited. Thanks to Franco’s laws he could only choose a prime minister from a list presented by the Council of the Realm containing 17 diehard Francoists. Following seven months of fumbling by Franco’s final choice of prime minister, Carlos Arias Navarro, the King’s selection of Suarez as Spain’s next premier, in July 1976, was greeted with bafflement and dismay by the reformists. That Suarez was the youngest member of the outgoing Cabinet at 43 hardly seemed relevant: his 15 years close to the leadership of El Movimiento made him seem just another of Franco’s faithful followers.

Instead Suarez began to move in a wholly unexpected direction. With lightning speed and deftness he began to dismantle Franco’s authoritarian legacy. Three months after being sworn in he presented a bill that permitted universal suffrage and a new, two-chamber parliament. It passed by a huge majority, 425 votes to 59, and a month later was endorsed in a referendum, with 94.2 per cent voting in favour.

Both Francoists and the opposition parties were on the back foot, and he exploited that to ensure that the next series of reforms came even faster. Between February and April 1977 the Socialists and Communists were legalised, trade unions and their right to strike were recognised and the Movimiento abolished. Then on 15 June, in the first free elections since 1936, Suarez became the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, at the head of a new centrist political party, the UCD.

Suarez oversaw the creation of a new Constitution to consolidate his reforms. It recognised Spain as a constitutional monarchy, abolished the death penalty and ensured that there was no official state religion. Finally, in a clear attempt to reduce separatist tensions which had partly underpinned the 1936-39 Civil War, the potential power of regional governments, or so-called autonomous communities, was increased.

The consitution was endorsed in a second referendum in December 1978, and the following year Suarez was re-elected. But his second term, as the Autonomous Communities – 17 of them, each with their own flag, capital and government – gained in strength, the traditional institutions, particularly the army, made increasingly vocal protests against what they viewed as the country’s dismemberment. The UCD became increasingly fractured over questions such as the introduction of a divorce law – which Suarez favoured – and when the King appeared to withdraw his support, he quit.

Shortly after Suarez’s resignation on 23 February 1981 an attempted coup saw most of Spain’s top politicians held hostage overnight in parliament by a machine gun-wielding Guardia Civil officer, Antonio Tejero, and his troops. Although the coup failed, the UCD’s role overseeing democratisation was clearly drawing to an end, and Suarez’s importance with it.

Suarez’ great strength during the transition – and what made him the ideal nexus between different political forces for one of the most dramatic changes of direction of any European country in the late 20th century – was that although he was convinced that democracy was preferable to dictatorship, he had few political axes to grind. But as soon as democracy was established and with no clear manifesto, he was arguably no longer needed as a catalyst.

In the 1982 elections the Socialists under Felipe Gonzalez swept into power while Suarez’s breakaway party for the UCD, the CDS, gained just two seats. He remained in parliament for another nine years then quit for good in 1991. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s since 2003, and had been in hospital for a week pneumonia. His family said he had long forgotten that he was Prime Minister, but memories of what he achieved and his huge political legacy will take far longer to disappear.

Adolfo Suarez, politician: born Cebreros, Spain 25 September 1932; married 1961 Maria Amparo Illiana (five children); died Madrid 23 March 2014.2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all