Spain Holds Its First Free Elections Since the Civil War

In Spain’s first elections in forty-one years, the people chose the constituent assembly that would draft a constitution to transform Spain from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Summary of Event

Most Spaniards awaited the end of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship with hopeful anticipation, but some feared that Franco’s death would inaugurate a period of civil unrest because of the long-frustrated democratic aspirations of the Spanish people. When Franco died in November, 1975, Spain had felt the yoke of his repressive regime for almost forty years. The material progress of the last two decades of the dictatorship did not compensate for the lack of political freedoms and the violation of human rights that characterized the regime. Spain;government
[kw]Spain Holds Its First Free Elections Since the Civil War (June 15, 1977)
[kw]First Free Elections Since the Civil War, Spain Holds Its (June 15, 1977)
[kw]Elections Since the Civil War, Spain Holds Its First Free (June 15, 1977)
[kw]Civil War, Spain Holds Its First Free Elections Since the (June 15, 1977)
[g]Europe;June 15, 1977: Spain Holds Its First Free Elections Since the Civil War[02850]
[g]Spain;June 15, 1977: Spain Holds Its First Free Elections Since the Civil War[02850]
[c]Government and politics;June 15, 1977: Spain Holds Its First Free Elections Since the Civil War[02850]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;June 15, 1977: Spain Holds Its First Free Elections Since the Civil War[02850]
Juan Carlos I
Suárez, Adolfo
González, Felipe
Carrillo, Santiago
Iribarne, Manuel Fraga
Franco, Francisco

Franco had chosen Juan Carlos I to succeed him as absolute monarch. Franco was certain that his dictatorial regime would remain intact under the new king. His loyal supporters controlled all the organs of government. Most Spaniards, however, wanted to see fundamental change in their government. After forty years of dictatorship, they hoped to have a democratic and representative government that respected the rights of the individual. Since the final years of Franco’s regime were marred by terrorism and violent confrontations between workers, students, and police, it was uncertain whether a smooth transition to democracy would occur.

The king’s political convictions would be decisive in determining Spain’s future, as he was heir to Franco’s absolute power. At the time of Franco’s death, these convictions were not known. Obedient and quiet at Franco’s side at state functions, it seemed that he would be too weak a personality for the fight to establish democracy in Spain, even if he did believe Spain needed a democratic form of government. Appearances were deceiving. Juan Carlos did in fact want Spain to enjoy a modern democracy, and he possessed the extraordinary skill and personal strength to be successful in achieving it. With steady determination, he orchestrated the peaceful dismantling of the Francoist state and prepared the way for a democratic system of government.

In spite of the pressure of opposition groups who wanted democratic government to be instituted by decree, the king decided to use the fundamental laws of the dictatorship to dismantle it. Through his skillful diplomacy and that of the prime minister, Adolfo Suárez, his tactic was successful. The Cortes, the legislative body whose members had all been chosen under the dictatorship, voted itself out of existence when it passed the Law of Political Reform Law of Political Reform (Spain, 1976) by an overwhelming margin in November, 1976. The law called for the creation of a new bicameral legislature, elected by universal suffrage, that would act as a constituent assembly to write a new constitution for Spain.

In accord with the Francoist legal code, the Law of Political Reform was submitted to the Spanish people in a referendum. It was approved by 94 percent of the voters. The king and the prime minister spent the first six months of 1977 preparing the country for elections. Political parties Political parties;Spain were legalized. The Falange, the only legal party under Franco, was dissolved. The Francoist syndicates disappeared, and free trade unions, banned in 1936, were reestablished. Catalonia and the Basque region, whose regional identities had been suppressed under Franco, were able to express their patriotic feelings freely for the first time since Spain’s civil war. Amnesty was granted to political prisoners. Military tribunals that had tried civilians for political crimes were abolished. Even the Communist Party was legalized, although much to the displeasure of the armed forces. Spaniards were able to enjoy once again the freedom of expression, information, association, and assembly that had been denied to them under Franco’s rule.

Adolfo Suárez, head of the Unión de Centro Democrático party, and his wife, Amparo, cast their votes in the first free elections to be held in Spain in forty-one years on June 15, 1977.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Opposition figures were also instrumental in paving the way for a smooth transition to democracy. Felipe González convinced the socialist party, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, to compromise on its demand for an immediate repudiation of the Francoist state and the creation of a provisional government. The socialists agreed to Suárez’s plan to dismantle the dictatorship with its own laws. They accepted the idea of a constitutional monarchy and dropped the Marxist revolutionary rhetoric from their platform. The Communists, under Santiago Carrillo, also moderated their initial demands for the transition by accepting the monarchy and democratic principles of government. Through their willingness to compromise, González and Carrillo proved that the opposition was willing to cooperate to ensure Spain’s smooth transition to democracy.

Suárez and King Juan Carlos I not only masterminded the legal dismemberment of the Franco regime in the Cortes but also ensured Spain’s smooth transition to democracy by frequently consulting with the opposition and the military. Their negotiations with the opposition convinced it to modify its demands, thereby preventing confrontation. Juan Carlos maintained the allegiance of the military to the throne and prevented its revolt against the elections. Given the military’s close association with and support of Franco’s dictatorship, rumors were rampant that the military would not tolerate free elections. The military’s loyalty to the throne and its obedience to the wishes of its commander in chief, the king, triumphed over its distaste for democracy. The military allowed the elections to proceed without a revolt on its part.

Prevented from voting in free elections for more than forty years, the Spanish people participated enthusiastically in spite of the violence that erupted beforehand. Supporters of the Francoist state were implicated in outbreaks of terrorism designed to prevent the elections from going forward. They failed to create an atmosphere of anarchy that would provoke the intervention of the military. Spaniards were determined not to allow political violence to escalate as it had in the 1930’s, before Franco’s dictatorship.

The elections took place as scheduled on June 15, 1977. Almost 80 percent of the electorate exercised their right to vote. The extremes of the political spectrum, right and left, received little support from the Spanish electorate. Most Spanish voters were moderates. The two centrist parties, Unión de Centro Democrático and Partido Socialista Obrero Español, together captured almost two-thirds of the popular vote. Adolfo Suárez’s party, Unión de Centro Democrático, won the most votes. The results of the election signified a great personal triumph for Suárez. The voters were clearly grateful to him for his role in fashioning the moderate and nonviolent path that led from dictatorship to democracy.


The results of the elections in June, 1977, disproved Franco’s claim that democracy was a prescription for national disintegration and chaos. Although some tried to incite political violence, they were not successful in disrupting the elections. The Spanish people expressed an overwhelming desire for change through peaceful means. The Francoist party, Alianza Popular, headed by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, performed miserably in the elections. Overall, less than 10 percent of the population voted for candidates that prided themselves in having been a part of Franco’s regime. The policies of the dictatorship were roundly repudiated. Almost everyone thought that it was time for a change.

The people of Spain made it clear that they wanted to leave behind forty years of dictatorship and inaugurate a new democratic era for Spain. The members of the constituent assembly, the new Cortes, were elected in June, 1977, to write the constitution that would guide Spain as a democratic nation. No one party was strong enough to impose its political philosophy on the assembly. The constitution would embrace divergent views and reflect the moderate politics of the vast majority of the assembly members and of the Spanish nation.

Spain’s new constitution was approved by the Cortes and ratified by a national referendum in December, 1978. When the king sanctioned it on December 29, 1978, Spain officially became a constitutional monarchy. Spain’s one-party state, which gave only lip service to human rights, was replaced with a modern democracy with full respect for all human rights. When the Constitution of 1978 went into effect, Spain completed the transition to democracy that began with Franco’s death in 1975.

Until Spain was free of Franco’s dictatorship, the vast majority of the Spanish people could not express their political convictions. Anyone who did not accept the basic tenets of Francoism was considered to be a bad Spaniard, not another patriotic Spaniard with a different point of view. The dawn of democracy in Spain brought a new era of tolerance for divergent views. No one wanted to repeat the errors of the 1930’s, when political intolerance by both Republicans and Nationalists led to violence and eventually to civil war. Negotiation and compromise that seemed to be sorely lacking in the politics of Spain’s past were crucial to the successful transition to democracy.

The average person relished the opportunity to exercise the freedoms long denied under the dictatorship. Tension was reduced in public and private life when, for example, the obstacles to freedom of expression in religion and politics were lifted. The average Spaniard also felt a real sense of empowerment in exercising the freedom to join a trade union and in knowing that it was not illegal to strike, as it had been under Franco. The ability of the individual citizen to participate and shape the destiny of the nation through participation in the elections and referenda was also an experience of empowerment.

Under the dictatorship of Franco, many Spaniards felt ashamed that Spain was not enjoying a democratic and representative system of government as were most of the other countries of Western Europe. They also felt justly proud to see Spain take its rightful place among the other democratic countries of the world in 1978. They were especially grateful to their king, Juan Carlos, who, at critical times in the transition period, reaffirmed his aspiration to be the king of all, and not just some, of the Spanish people. Spain;government

Further Reading

  • Arango, E. Ramón. Spain: From Repression to Renewal. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. Summary of the entire history of Spain through 1975. Detailed treatment of the transition to democracy with description and excerpts from the Constitution of 1978. Covers party politics through the 1982 elections. Insightful commentary on culture, economy, and society. Includes index and bibliography.
  • Carr, Raymond, and Juan Pablo Fusi Aizpurúa. Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1979. A thorough overview of Spain’s history from 1939 to 1978: the philosophy and institutions of Francoism; changes in the economy, society, and culture during the Franco period; the crisis of the last years of the regime; and the transition to democracy. Includes an index, chronological table of events, glossary of political terms, and list of main actors.
  • Clark, Robert P., and Michael H. Haltzel, eds. Spain in the 1980’s: The Democratic Transition and a New International Role. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1987. Collection of articles by prominent historians of Spain. Covers various aspects of the transition to democracy: the role of party politics, the armed forces, labor, and the press. Essay by Felipe González on Spain’s new role in the international community. Includes index.
  • Coverdale, John F. The Political Transformation of Spain After Franco. New York: Praeger, 1979. Narrates transition to democracy in detail from Franco’s death through the adoption of the Constitution of 1978. Focuses exclusively on politics. Includes an index.
  • Gilmour, David. The Transformation of Spain. London: Quartet Books, 1985. Deals mainly with the transition to democracy in Spain but opens with a very useful introduction to the nature of Francoism and the structure of the dictatorship. Includes bibliography, index, and glossary of political and other organizations in Spain.
  • Gunther, Richard, Giacomo Sani, and Goldie Shabad. Spain After Franco: The Making of a Competitive Party System. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Analyzes data on political and social attitudes and affiliations compiled in surveys made in the late 1970’s and in 1982, during and after the transition to democracy. Attempts to correlate politics with religion, social class, and regional loyalties. Includes index and bibliography.
  • Lancaster, Thomas D., and Gary Prevost, eds. Politics and Change in Spain. New York: Praeger, 1985. Contributions by political scientists on the transition to democracy. Topics covered include preparation of the constitution, regional tensions, armed forces, labor unions, and religion in the politics of democratic Spain. Articles are followed by notes and/or bibliography. Includes an index.
  • Palomares, Cristina. The Quest for Survival After Franco: Moderate Francoism and the Slow Journey to the Polls, 1964-1977. Portland, Oreg.: Sussex Academic Press, 2004. Examines the emergence and development of moderate Francoism from 1964 until the first democratic elections of 1977.

Spanish Art Thrives After Years of Suppression

Death of Franco

Basques Are Granted Home Rule but Continue to Fight for Independence

Center-Right Government Takes Over in Spain