Bring on the crooners

Sebastian Balfour

  • Juan Carlos of Spain: Self-Made Monarch by Charles Powell
    Macmillan, 253 pp, £13.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 333 64929 X
  • The Government and Politics of Spain by Paul Heywood
    Macmillan, 331 pp, £42.50, November 1995, ISBN 0 333 52058 0

The history of Spain in the 20th century is marked by a succession of collective amnesias. At the end of the last century, forgetting that Spain was no longer a world power, Spaniards went to war with the United States and lost the remnants of their overseas empire. After the Civil War of 1936-9, the millions of Spaniards who had supported the Second Republic were compelled to bury the memory of their former allegiance in order to survive Franco’s vengeful regime. When the dictator died 36 years later, the price of a peaceful transition to democracy was to forget the barbarities of his regime. And now, in the aftermath of a less solemn occasion, the Spanish people are being invited to forget the political divisions of the last three years as the new centre-right Popular Party begins its period of office after striking a deal with the regionalist parties of Catalonia and the Basque Country, its erstwhile political opponents.

The man who has called for this ‘therapy of oblivion’ knows a lot about the advantages of a short historical memory. Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the elder statesman of the Popular Party and President of the Galician regional government, was for many years a prominent minister in the Franco regime, which suppressed regional identities as anti-Spanish. For those who have followed the history of Spain since Franco’s death in 1975, this sort of paradox will come as no surprise. As the prospect of parliamentary democracy grew, the old shibboleths of ‘right’ and ‘left’ were quite simply cast out. The moderation of the new government indicates how far the conservative Right has travelled since the dictatorship. Its disparate tendencies have been brought under one roof, marshalled as much by the prospect of power as by the pragmatism of a new generation of leaders. During the campaign leading up to the 3 March elections, the ruling Socialists had played on the fear that victory for the Popular Party would allow an unreconstructed Right to get back into power. The Popular Party meanwhile, mindful of the need to appeal to the political centre, had stressed its democratic vocation and kept its old Francoists discreetly in the background. As its spokespeople repeatedly asserted, their leader and now Spain’s premier, José María Aznar, an ex-tax inspector, was an ordinary man (‘an extraordinarily ordinary’ man, as one of them claimed) who wanted nothing better man to roll his sleeves up and get down to the job of cleaning up the mess the Socialist Government was alleged to have made. This downbeat populism was based on the not unreasonable calculation that Spanish voters were fed up with political rhetoric and flamboyant personalities

Observers of the political scene in Spain have been rewarded for putting up with a vacuous electoral campaign by a result rich in ironies and historical resonance. Thanks to the opinion polls the Popular Party had taken for granted that they would achieve a majority of at least 176 seats, allowing them to control Congress. Their campaign had begun almost straight after the elections of 1993, which the Socialists won by a margin similar to that of the Popular Party last month, forcing them – like the new government – to seek the support of the Catalan Convergència i Unió Party. At the time Popular Party spokespeople and their supporters in the press launched a sustained onslaught on the government and its partner.

There was much to criticise in the Socialist Administration. Its Minister of the Interior was under investigation for abetting, if not masterminding, the dirty war against ETA (unabashed, the Socialists included him on their electoral lists for the 3 March elections in order to give him Parliamentary immunity). The Administration was accused of irregularities in the funding of the Party and of influence-peddling and corruption; some appointees – the governor of the Central Bank and the head of the Civil Guard, for example – were under investigation for insider dealing, though the scandals also implicated politicians and bankers from other parties, including the Catalan regionalists.

In the 19th century, clientelism, bribery and vote-rigging were the only means whereby a weak state had been able to maintain its hegemony over a largely unmodernised society. Today sleaze takes more subtle forms, but it is still part of the country’s political culture. The spoils system connects the political system to civil society. It is part of the Spanish way of life; at its most innocent, it is a means of advancing the interests of the extended family or an expression of good neighbourliness.

This background of corruption provided the only colour in an electoral campaign filled with venomous slogans. The differences in political programme between the two major parties did not appear to be that great because the programmes themselves were vague in the extreme. The contest was between images. The Socialists recruited avant-garde artists, progressive rock stars and intellectuals (much more valued in Latin than in Anglo-Saxon societies) for their electoral jamborees; the Popular Party brought on the crooners, flamenco singers and moralists (and Plácido Domingo). Antonio Banderas v. Julio Iglesias. It was a shock to observe the sea of young faces at Popular Party rallies, especially when one remembers the overwhelming support the Socialists elicited among the young in 1982.

The results of the 3 March elections confounded all expectations. In a large turn-out, the Popular Party won only 156 seats, 20 short of an absolute majority. While the Socialists won 141 seats, the difference in the number of voters favouring each of the two parties was little over 1 per cent (the disparity in the number of seats can be explained by Spain’s peculiar system of proportional representation which the Popular Party utilised to great effect by mopping up small regional conservative parties in the run-up to the elections). The attempt of the United Left coalition to overtake the Socialists and become the main party of the left failed when it garnered only 10.5 percent of the vote, the same as the Communists had won, to their bitter disappointment in the first post-Franco elections of 1977. Indeed, one of the remarkable features of contemporary Spanish democracy is the consistency of voting patterns. The relative success of the Popular Party was not the result of a significant shift to the right among electors but a consequence of its ability to absorb the small conservative parties and of the disappearance of centre parties whose voters might have split equally in favour of the two major parties.

Given all this, it is surprising that the results should have been greeted with alarm. Spanish newspapers warned of the ‘Italianisation’ of Spanish politics, and the normally judicious Guardian correspondent, John Hooper, wrote darkly of the re-emergence of the two Spains that had so savagely fought each other in the Civil War. A government based on policy agreements between several parties is of course less stable than one based on a single party with an overall majority in Congress. Yet it seems that Spanish electors prefer the first, and in that respect, as in others, appear to have got what they wanted: the Socialists have gone into opposition to purge and renew themselves; the Popular Party has formed a government but only in alliance with other, mainly regional parties. This will mean that it has to maintain not only the centrist policies which it claimed to espouse during the campaign but also those which recognise the multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic reality of Spain.

Without Convergència’s i Unió’s 16 seats, the Popular Party could not realistically form a government. But for the two Parties to reach an agreement was not easy. The Popular Party had to swallow its previous criticism of both Parliamentary pacts and regional nationalisms. Its spokes people began opportunistically to praise Jordi Pujol, Convergència’s leader and the president of the Catalan regional government, as a prominent opponent of the Franco regime, and to talk of Catalonia’s rich contribution to Spain’s progress. Convergència, on the other hand, had to show its rank and file that it had bargained fiercely with the centralist enemy and won new concessions for Catalan autonomy in order to get backing for a deal with a party that had hitherto opposed any further devolution. Had it refused such a deal, Convergència would have thrown away a new and unexpected opportunity for influencing national politics. Besides, it was under pressure to reach an agreement with the Popular Party from its most powerful internal lobby, the Catalan employers, anxious to implement the new government’s business-oriented policies. For those with a long historical memory, the situation recalled the ambiguities of the Catalan party of the early 20th century, the Lliga Regionalista.

The deal that was finally reached devolved a range of competencies from the state to the regions (in particular to Catalonia), the most important of which had the effect of doubling the amount of tax revenue the regions collect and retain (from 15 to 30 per cent). Since there is already a wide disparity between rich regions and poor regions, the concession will almost certainly increase the wealth gap, despite Aznar’s assurance that it will not undermine the principle of inter-regional solidarity enshrined in the Constitution. In this respect the task the new government faces is almost impossible. The deal struck by Convergència will cost a lot of money to implement while at the same time Aznar will be under pressure from poorer regional governments to maintain existing levels of subsidy. Similarly, he is already committed to fulfilling the stringent conditions for convergence with the European Monetary Union, for which purpose wholesale privatisations and massive cuts in public expenditure will be necessary, yet he has indicated that he will not cut back on the welfare state. So far, the Government has earned some respect from public opinion. It has not turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its search for consensus has induced an unusual climate of sweetness in a previously acrimonious Congress. This is a very new Spanish conservatism.

Another indication of the progress of democracy in Spain is that the King played little more than a formal role in the government changeover. Fifteen years ago, Juan Carlos was instrumental in cutting short a military coup that threatened to crush Spain’s newly won democracy; and by this act alone, overcame the suspicions of many Spaniards that, as Franco’s anointed successor, he was a lukewarm democrat. Since then, he has been an immensely popular figure among a people who long ago lost any instinctive respect for monarchy.

Charles Powell’s new portrait of Juan Carlos as a self-made monarch is generous in the degree of clairvoyance and sense of purpose he claims for a young man who had been feeling his way towards a parliamentary monarchy through the labyrinthine politics of latter-day Francoism; and his account of the King’s difficult childhood and adolescence errs on the side of hagiography. More seriously, there is little sense of any evolution in Juan Carlos’s ideas or indeed any sense of what these were or have become.

Powell’s analysis of the last years of the dictatorship, on the other hand, skilfully deconstructs the politics of Franco’s court on the eve of the dictator’s death: certainly he has a grasp of the plots and tensions dividing those Francoists who saw the need for a more or less democratic sequel to the dictatorship and those who clung to the old regime. His account of the transition to democracy between 1975 and 1977, however, lacks context. There is only fleeting reference to the sweeping socio-economic and cultural changes of the Sixties and early Seventies that are crucial to an understanding of contemporary Spain. His analysis reinforces the widespread view that democracy was achieved in Spain as a result of negotiations – or of engineering – by élites on both sides of the divide, rather than as a consequence of popular agitation. In a further bout of amnesia, it has largely been forgotten in Spain that the conditions for democracy were created from below not manufactured from above. The strength of the movement for democracy was that it was diffuse and multiform, free from the control of political parties. That was also its weakness, in that it was not organised to influence political life in the new democracy.

This new democracy is the subject of Paul Heywood’s book, The Government and Politics of Spain. For all its constitutional imprecision and democratic deficits, Spain’s new political system is a triumph of consensus and creative ambiguity, as Heywood explains with great clarity. But the Spanish model of the transition to democracy cannot easily be transferred elsewhere, to Eastern Europe, for example, or Latin America, as some have argued wishfully. The social base for the continuation of Francoism beyond the dictator’s death had shrunk to pockets of the faithful in the Army and the bureaucracy and a handful of blue-shirted fascists. By 1976, Spain had long outgrown its political institutions. Modernisation had smoothed away the conflicts which had given rise to the Civil War. The causes that once polarised Spaniards, such as regional nationalism, are now reconcilable within the framework of the new democracy. Land reform is no longer a burning issue, not just because Spain became a predominately industrial and service economy in the Sixties and Seventies but also because Brussels provides the funds that keep the agricultural South alive. And Spain’s incorporation into the Western European Union has helped to professionalise the Armed Forces that had threatened the new democracy. Indeed the profound changes which have taken place in Spain might not have been possible without its increasing involvement in Europe.