Center-Right Government Takes Over in Spain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The victory of José María Aznar’s Popular Party in 1996 ended the fourteen-year rule of Spain’s Socialist Party, under the leadership of Felipe González. In spite of the scandals and corruption that plagued the Socialist government, the Popular Party failed to win an absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies, reflecting the electorate’s deep mistrust of a political party with roots in Spain’s fascist past.

Summary of Event

Spain successfully transitioned to democratic rule following the death of its fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, in 1975. After an initial period in which Spain was governed by the center-right Unión de Centro Democrático (Centrist Democratic Union), the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), or PSOE, a party that had been illegal during Franco’s rule, won the election of 1982 by a wide margin and ruled Spain for fourteen years under Felipe González as prime minister (1982-1996). Spain;government Political parties;Spain [kw]Center-Right Government Takes Over in Spain (June 10, 1996) [kw]Government Takes Over in Spain, Center-Right (June 10, 1996) [kw]Spain, Center-Right Government Takes Over in (June 10, 1996) Spain;government Political parties;Spain [g]Europe;June 10, 1996: Center-Right Government Takes Over in Spain[09490] [g]Spain;June 10, 1996: Center-Right Government Takes Over in Spain[09490] [c]Government and politics;June 10, 1996: Center-Right Government Takes Over in Spain[09490] Aznar, José María Iribarne, Manuel Fraga González, Felipe

The PSOE governed with an absolute majority from 1982 until 1993. The party sought to modernize Spain, consolidate its democracy, and integrate it into Europe. It brought Spain into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1986. It lowered Spain’s external debt and reduced inflation through painful economic adjustments that brought labor unrest. A series of political scandals associated with senior PSOE leaders that began in the 1980’s also undermined support for the Socialist government.

Although support for the PSOE progressively weakened, the Alianza Popular, renamed Partido Popular (PP) in 1989, failed to increase its support among the electorate. Most of its leadership is made up of the children and grandchildren of leading figures of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975). In part because the Spanish electorate feared putting in power a party with such roots, the PP performed dismally in the 1980’s.

The PP came to be the ruling party in Spain in 1996 by casting itself as the true political center and by taking measures to quell the electorate’s fears of its fascist roots. Manuel Fraga Iribarne relinquished the presidency of the Partido Popular and designated the uncharismatic but skillful José María Aznar to take his place, thus making someone who never held office in Franco’s government the public face of the party. The PP’s move to redefine itself as centrist did have the desired result of improving its standing with the electorate. Its share of the vote rose to almost 35 percent in the 1993 election, while in the three previous elections it had gained an average of 25 percent of the vote.

Due to the PP’s improved performance in the 1993 election, the PSOE was forced to form a minority government with the support of the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties. When those parties withdrew their support in late 1995, the PSOE had to call an election. The scandal of the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (antiterrorist liberation groups), or GAL, was an important factor in their decision. The GAL were individuals secretly hired by the Ministry of Interior to kill Basque separatists with ties to Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque homeland and freedom), or ETA, a secret organization that sought Basque independence from Spain through violent means. The GAL scandal damaged the PSOE the most and dominated public attention for the last two years of the party’s rule.

The 1996 election campaign pitted the PP, led by José María Aznar, against the PSOE, led by the Prime Minister Felipe González. Since both parties were trying to claim the center of the political spectrum, their platform proposals did not greatly differ. Political observers predicted that González and the PSOE would lose the election badly because of the numerous scandals associated with them and because they had alienated their working-class base.

The PSOE argued that it had modernized Spain and brought it prosperity. The economy was growing, and unemployment and inflation were down. The PP claimed it was in a better position to lead Spain forward and would continue many of the PSOE’s policies, but would execute them with greater success. It campaigned on the need for a change of government and presented itself as the party of the center that would end the corruption and abuse of power perpetrated by the PSOE.

The PP did not make an issue of the corruption allegations that plagued the PSOE because a partisan press kept the corruption investigations and allegations in the electorate’s awareness. Most notably, the newspaper El Mundo aggressively investigated and reported on charges of corruption against members of the PSOE government. Especially explosive were the investigations of the links between the GAL scandal and the government of Felipe González.

The defeat of the PSOE was a foregone conclusion. To try to avoid what looked to be inevitable, the PSOE mounted a defensive and highly negative campaign that included ads that linked the PP with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. It argued that the social welfare benefits established by the Socialist government would be dismantled by the PP. González told voters to the left of the PSOE that a vote for a leftist party that had no chance of governing, such as the Communist Party, would be in effect a vote for the PP. However, the PSOE misstepped when it made the minister of interior, José Barrionuevo, a PSOE candidate while he was being prosecuted for having set up the GAL to fight a dirty war against Basque separatists.

In the end, the PP won the election, but not with the wide margins that most political pundits predicted. The PP did not win enough seats in the Congress of Deputies to govern with an absolute majority. Felipe González actually looked happier than José María Aznar on election night, since the PSOE lost by a much narrower margin than anticipated. Aznar and the PP were faced with the need to form a coalition government with the same Catalan nationalist party (Convergència i Unió) that had been a coalition partner of the PSOE. This made the victory of the PP almost sweet for the PSOE, since the PP was especially opposed to the nationalist aspirations of Catalonia and the other regional nationalities of Spain, such as the Basque Country and Galicia. While Aznar and the PP negotiated with Convergència i Unió and other minor nationalist parties, González led an interim government from March, 1995, until Aznar was able to install his government in June.

Significance

The election results of 1996 confirm trends in political attitudes and behavior characteristic of the Spanish electorate since Spain became a constitutional monarchy in 1978. Most of the Spanish electorate favors the political center. In order to govern successfully for fourteen years, the PSOE had to move to the center. In order to achieve electoral success for the first time, the PP had to position itself in the center. The strength of the vote for the PSOE, in spite of the scandals associated with its rule, attests to the persistent distrust of the right in a significant portion of the Spanish electorate. The PP’s move to the political center turned out to be more apparent than real. Aznar’s first guest after he assumed control of the government was his mentor Manuel Fraga Iribarne, who had been a minister in Franco’s dictatorship. Although the PP did enact many moderate policies in its first term (1996-2000), its policies became much more conservative when it was able to govern with an absolute majority (2000-2004). Spain;government Political parties;Spain

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amodia, José. “Spain at the Polls: The General Election of 3 March 1996.” West European Politics 19 (April, 1996): 813-819. Discusses the campaign themes of the Popular and Socialist parties in the 1996 election and the election results. Includes tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balfour, Sebastian, ed. The Politics of Contemporary Spain. New York: Routledge, 2005. Collection of articles on Spanish politics since Spain’s embrace of democratic government in 1977 on such topics as corruption, terrorism, the Popular Party, the Socialist Party, and the monarchy. Analyzes electoral politics. Extensive endnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbons, John. Spanish Politics Today. New York: Manchester University Press, 1999. Features a chapter on political parties and elections and on the structure and inner workings of the branches of government. Lists references after each chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gies, David T. “Spain Today: Is the Party Over?” Virginia Quarterly Review 72 (March, 1996): 392-407. Overview of the history of Spain’s democracy from 1977 to 1996, with emphasis on the lead-up to the 1996 election.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkin, Jonathan. “An Incomplete Alternation: The Spanish Elections of March 1996.” International Journal of Iberian Studies 9 (February, 1996): 110-116. Gives background and analysis on why the Popular Party did not realize a more decisive victory against the Socialists in the 1996 election. Includes tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montero, José Ramón. “Stabilising the Democratic Order: Electoral Behavior in Spain.” West European Politics 21 (April, 1998): 53-79. Examines Spanish elections from 1977 through 1996, including party performance over time, the effects of election laws on election outcomes, and characteristics of the electorate. Includes many tables.

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