Spanish Politics
Remembering Adolfo Suárez

Adolfo Suárez. Spanish President.

Photograph taken of former Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, during his visit to Argentina in September 1981, at the Club Deportivo Español in Buenos Aires, accompanied by his friend, businessman Esteban Romero Martín, from Villafranca de la Sierra (Ávila, Spain).

© Creative Commons Licence; family album of C3PO.

If you have ever flown to Madrid, you surely landed on the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas airport, in the outskirts of the capital of Spain. Traditionally known only as Madrid-Barajas, the name Adolfo Suárez was added just a few days after this politician’s passing on March 23, 2014. This was a testament to the importance of Adolfo Suárez in contemporary Spain. Now, ten years later, his legacy is still felt in the country.

Adolfo Suárez was the first democratically elected Prime Minister in Spain after the death of dictator Francisco Franco. Suárez was first appointed as Prime Minister by King Juan Carlos in July 1976, who tasked him to form a government in his name in a period of great uncertainty and civil strife. Suárez, leading the Union of the Democratic Center (UCD), went on to win the 1977 elections with more than a third of the votes cast. Spaniards largely backed the 44-year-old Suárez, who until a few years prior had been a relative unknown among the wider public.

Suárez was born in the small town of Cebreros in Álava, a predominantly rural province far from the centres of economic and political power in Francoist Spain. However, he quickly rose through the ranks of the regime and in 1969 he was appointed Director General of the state’s Radio and TV public organism. An ambitious and charismatic politician, Suárez soon befriended King Juan Carlos. This relationship proved decisive for the future of Spain, as Juan Carlos had been appointed by Franco as the future King of Spain after the dictator’s passing. 

Herein lied Suárez’s complicated task once he became Spain’s prime minister: he had to steer the country into the democratic path which large swathes of society demanded, while at the same time avoiding falling out with the political elites from which he himself had emerged – the elites which had a vested interest in the continuation of the Francoist regime. Most importantly, while Suárez ensured the democratic support of Spaniards after winning the historic 1977 vote, he still had to report to the Head of State, King Juan Carlos, himself named by Franco.

In the late 1970s, Spain was besieged by terror attacks from Basque nationalist group ETA and far right militias; by an acute economic crisis; and by stark social divisions between the supporters of Francoism and their opponents. A mantle of uncertainty covered the country, with the dark memory of the horrific Civil War fought between 1936 and 1939 looming large. The task facing Suárez was monumental. For all of us born afterwards, it is all too easy to romanticise the era. The reality is that what we now call the Spanish Transition was one of the most delicate moments in modern Spain. 

While the Transition did end with Spain becoming a liberal democracy, there were several instances in which the country could just as well reversed course, which is what most of the military yearned for – as two failed coup d’états in 1978  and in 1981 show. Adolfo Suárez successfully navigated the turmoil of the Transition and, by the time he left office in February 1981, liberal democracy was all but consolidated in Spain. 

In his five years of mandate, Suárez’s government enacted laws and approved reforms which, albeit divisive at the time, pushed Spain towards the path of liberalism. And again, while we must be mindful not to idealise political figures of the past, it is undeniable that modern Spain has been in no small part shaped by the Suárez years. 

In November 1976, he convinced the Francoist Parliament (or Cortes, whose members were appointed by the dictator instead of popularly elected) to self-dissolve. This was a remarkable feat achieved by Suárez’s persuasiveness, and a necessary step before calling for the elections which, in 1977, would replace the Francoist Cortes with a democratic assembly, reflecting the will of the citizens and not the whims of a dictator. 

After ensuring popular support, Suárez felt strong enough to proceed with the controversial legalisation of the Communist Party in April 1977. This was a move which shocked the conservative political elite, which realised that Suárez was not a tamed yes-man at the service of the Francoist right. Manuel Fraga, head of the hard-right Popular Alliance (AP), labelled the legalisation a “coup d’état”. There were yet other liberal reforms backed by Suárez and his UCD party, such as the law allowing divorce (approved a few months after his resignation); the repealing of a 1933 law which had criminalised homosexuality and drug consumption; and the gradual decentralisation of Spain, which allowed all its regions to establish self-governing institutions. Finally, during his tenure, a group of scholars and experts drafted the Spanish Constitution, which was approved via referendum by an overwhelming 88% of the population in December 1978.

The political democratisation of Spain also led to a progressive liberalisation of its economy, as the autarkic, clientelist model particular to most dictatorships (including Franco’s) slowly gave way to a more competitive and open economic system. 

A remarkable trait about Suárez is that, for all his administration’s achievements, he was not an ideology-driven man, but rather a pragmatist who knew which measures were more conducive to build the democratic country which the majority of the population clamoured for. Indeed, Suárez’s career had thrived during the Franco regime, which understandably undercut his credibility to lead a democratic transition. However, it was precisely his deep understanding of the intricacies of Francoist Spain what made him aware that the only realistic way to ensure the collapse of the regime was to do it from within. If not ideological purity, it was his pragmatism and flexibility that signalled the liberal disposition of Suárez. 

Many critics point out that the Transition did not go far enough in its break with Francoism, and that several features of the old regime remained. This is a valid point. The Transition was not perfect; no democratic transition is. Remnants of the Francoist era are present today in the judiciary and in the political arena, as well as in the symbolic realm. Granted, perhaps a more idealistic and militant politician could have pushed further the boundaries of what was possible in the 1970s and 1980s. But in hindsight, the intuition and the opportunistic streak of Suárez, cloaked by his comprehensive idea of liberalism (as opposed to a more narrow-minded and dogmatic understanding) was the only realistic route out of the conundrum. Indeed, in times of great uncertainty and entrenched ideological rifts, perhaps a pragmatic position grounded in achieving policies emphasising political and personal freedoms, regardless of the political dogma underpinning them, is the best way forward. 

Besides, one only has to read the conservative press of the day to realise that Suárez was seen as an obstacle to the continuation of the authoritarian system which Franco had presided until his death. Throughout his mandate, the prime minister was subjected to vicious attacks precisely by the hard-right Popular Alliance, mostly made up of Franco apologetics who feared that the young prime minister would eventually do away with the old regime – a fear which proved well-founded, much to the benefit of Spaniards. 

It was precisely Suárez’s liberal disposition which ultimately proved his undoing. The Spanish political arena has proved to be a challenging ground for centrist alternatives, and the UCD was rapidly eaten away by the emergent Socialist and Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the Popular Alliance. Increasingly marginalised within his own party and vilified as an ineffective leader who had lost control of the country, Suárez announced his resignation in January 1981. A year later he launched a liberal party, the Social Democratic Center (CDS), which never achieved more than 20 seats in Congress, and which by the 1990s had become residual. 

In 1989, having long been distanced from Spanish politics, Suárez was elected leader of Liberal International, a recognition of his work in defence of liberal values during times in which their flourishing seemed impossible. 

As Spaniards usually say, no one is a prophet in their own land. Adolfo Suárez sadly embodied this saying as the Spanish political elite ostracised him for years shortly after his tenure, but he and his ideas have been posthumously vindicated: a 2017 poll showed that Suárez was the preferred former prime minister in the country. Now, in the tenth anniversary of his passing, amid profound polarisation and heightened political stridency, it seems a good moment to remember and defend, not uncritically, the political life and legacy of Suárez and his liberalism.