The end of the Second World War brought an end to several authoritarian regimes which gave rise to a number of new democracies. German and Austrian Nazism, Italian fascism and Japanese totalitarianism collapsed and those countries embarked upon transition to democracy, often called the second wave of democratisation in reference to the first wave, which was when the first democracies emerged. The defeat of authoritarian regimes in the Second World War seemed to give democracy greater legitimacy, but the truth is that a significant number of countries remained ruled by dictatorships after 1945. While it is natural that Eastern European states were governed by undemocratic regimes given their relationship with the Soviet Union, the existence of such authoritarian governments in Western Europe seems more puzzling.
Especially, Spain and Portugal, two states that had been under dictatorial regimes before the Second World War, remained untouched by the wave of democratisation seen in the post-war period despite being on the Western camp. As such, Spain and Portugal make up a unique example of right-wing dictatorships that survived the collapse of fascism and continued to exist for decades after 1945, which is why they are the subject of this paper’s analysis of the process of transition to democracy. Generally regarded as part of the third wave of democratisation, Spain and Portugal’s transition have nevertheless been distinct one from another. The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast the two processes, which occurred around the same time, in order to find out how different they have been and why it has been so. First, it shall present a brief background of the two countries before the transition to democracy in order to provide an understanding of their political situation at the time. It shall then analyse how the two processes have developed and the reasons behind such developments, while comparing and contrasting them to finally draw a conclusion.
The origins of Spain’s authoritarian rule date back to the late 1930s, when the nationalists led by Francisco Franco emerged victorious from the Spanish Civil War. Before that Spain, in the form of the Second Spanish Republic, had enjoyed a brief period of democracy where significant advances such as freedom of speech and women suffrage had been obtained. However, with the rise of Franco to power and the establishment of the Spanish State in 1939, the country would be ruled by a dictatorship for nearly four decades. Though Franco had restored the Spanish monarchy in 1947, he did not appoint a monarch and the throne remained vacant, with Franco being the regent and playing the role traditionally played by the sovereigns. However, in the late 1960s, Franco appointed Juan Carlos as the Spanish prince and designed him as his eventual successor, though he continued to rule the country until 1973 when he resigned as Spain’s chief of government (Stanley 1987, p591).
In Portugal, a dictatorship had been installed even before Franco’s rise to power in Spain. Following the 1926 coup that overthrew the democratic government, a dictatorial regime called Estado Novo (New State) was created in 1933 with the doctor António Salazar as its leader. Like Franco in Spain, Salazar suppressed political opposition and civil liberties, becoming the sole ruler of the country, although officially he was the prime minister and did not hold the post of head of state as did Franco. Instead, the Portuguese presidency was occupied by Américo Tomás, whose powers were overshadowed by Salazar’s (Maxwell 1995, p22). Relations between Francoist Spain and Salazar’s Portugal were close and often cooperative, as both regimes shared many similarities such as being strongly catholic, conservative, corporatist, authoritarian and anti-communist. Salazar would rule Portugal until the late 1960s when he would leave office, but unlike Franco, did not nominate his successor.
Despite all the historical, cultural, geographical and political similarities between the two Iberian states, Spain and Portugal’s transition to democracy had little in common besides the time in which they took place. As discussed above, both countries had been ruled by dictators for decades and although in 1969 Franco named his successor and Salazar passed away, state control remained tight in both countries by the early 1970s. That make Spain and Portugal two peninsular states long ruled by authoritarian regimes which embarked upon democratisation in the mid-1970s, but that is where their similarities end. Essentially, the very processes of transition each country followed were radically different from each other. While Spain’s transition was evolutionary, Portugal’s was revolutionary. Whereas Spain witnessed a gradual approach, Portugal’s case was marked by an abrupt change (Wiarda 1989, p217).
By the late 1960s, Franco had begun to prepare the ground for his succession, a natural move considering his age. Unsurprisingly, his intentions were to give continuity to the Francoist regime, which is why he chose Juan Carlos over his father Juan of Barcelona, who was the legitimate heir to the Spanish throne. A known liberal, Juan’s relations with Franco had been stormy for decades because of the former’s divergences with the latter’s policies and his claims to the Spanish throne that had been vacant since 1947, when the monarchy was formally restored (Stanley 1987, p371). On the other hand, Franco personally supervised Juan Carlos’ education and believed he would preserve the Francoist State after the dictator’s death. After retiring from the post of prime minister in 1973, Franco’s state functions were limited to those of head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, with Juan Carlos becoming the head of the Spanish government. Although Juan Carlos swore allegiance to the Francoist regime and kept consulting with Franco, he also loosened repression and began meeting with political opponents, a significant departure from Franco’s tenure. In that way, Juan Carlos began creating the necessary environment for an eventual political transition as Franco’s death approached. By the time the dictator passed away on 20 November 1975, Spain was ready for democratisation and Juan Carlos appointed the new prime minister with the mission of holding democratic elections in 1977 (Edles 1998, p68).
Around the same time Franco designated Juan Carlos as his successor in the late 1960s, Salazar suffered a stroke which made him incapable of governing, being succeeded by Marcello Caetano who became the new prime minister. With Caetano’s rise to power, there was widespread hope within the Portuguese society that he would introduce democratic reforms and eventually hold free elections. However, unlike the Spanish case where Juan Carlos held considerable power after Franco stepped down, Caetano’s powers were largely checked by president Américo Tomás who became a central actor in Portuguese politics after remaining a figurehead during the Salazar years (Pinto 1995, p167). Nevertheless, Caetano recognised the need for reforms in order to gain the support of the Portuguese elite, who was pressing for liberalisation, thus finding himself between popular calls for reforms from one side and resistance to such reforms from the ultraconservatives of the regime from the other. The solution was to introduce limited reforms to satisfy the population and at the same time avoid alienating president Tomás, which is precisely what Caetano did by allowing the opposition to take part in the elections but without realistic chances of winning it (Manuel 1994, p56).
Rather predictably, Caetano’s reforms failed to satisfy the Portuguese as they brought no real progress, if they could be called reforms at all. At the same time, these cosmetic reforms were enough to displease the hardliners of the regime who saw them as too liberal, leaving Caetano virtually unable to pursue any sort of democratisation and strengthening Tomas’ position in the government. Moreover, the state of affairs in the overseas colonial wars made matters even more delicate for the Estado Novo, who was facing growing opposition at home and a losing war abroad (Norrie 1997, p197). The tide of the war had turned against Portuguese forces in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique, as the conflicts prolonged much longer than Lisbon had expected, making these wars Portugal’s own Vietnam. Thus by the early 1970s Portugal remained a dictatorship with no signs of democratisation while fighting lengthy, expensive and unpopular wars abroad. The effects of these wars, though, proved to be far-reaching as they became the main force behind the Portuguese democratisation movement. Young military officials who had grown up in these wars organised a military coup that was to overthrow the authoritarian regime, culminating in the events of 25 April 1974, or, the Carnation Revolution as it came to be known (Manuel 1994, p32).
Conversely, in Spain, with the death of Franco in 1975, Juan Carlos assumed the Spanish throne, becoming the first Spanish king since 1931 and thus concentrating the posts of prime minister, president and chief of the armed forces at the same time. As such, he held significant power to lead the country to the direction he wished, though that is not to say he faced no opposition at all. At first, liberals, political opposition and all those who supported a transition to democracy were suspicious of Juan Carlos because of his connection with Franco (Preston 2004, p283). However, once in power, Juan Carlos was quick to begin democratic reforms, though he appointed the conservative Arias Navarro as the president of the Spanish government. Still, Juan Carlos remained the most powerful figure in Spain and could dismiss the prime minister at any time. It was precisely Juan Carlos’ position that enabled him to handle the Spanish transition to democracy more smoothly than that of Portugal, since in the Estado Novo Caetano’s powers were significantly checked by Américo Tomás and the conservatives which rendered him incapable of pursuing liberalisation. In addition, whereas in Spain Juan Carlos had been quietly preparing the ground for democratic reforms during Franco’s last years and after the dictator’s death his position was unchallenged, the same cannot be said about the Portuguese experience. With the death of Salazar, Américo Tomás became the main figure of the regime and, as a hardliner willing to defend the Estado Novo at all costs, he made any significant reform unviable (Maxwell 1995, p44). In fact, it was Tomás who was responsible for appointing the country’s prime minister, which underlines the differences between the Spanish and the Portuguese case.
In Spain, Juan Carlos dismissed Arias just six months after appointing him and replaced him with Adolfo Suárez. Though Suárez, like Arias, was a conservative, Juan Carlos consulted the Spanish population through a referendum whether they supported political reforms. After approving the proposal with 98 per cent of the votes, the Spanish people gave Juan Carlos and Suárez green light to carry out reforms and lead Spain’s transition to democracy (Tusell 2007, p285). It is important to stress Juan Carlos’ individual abilities as a key factor in the success of Spain’s democratisation, since the King proved to be a skilled articulator who led the process successfully (Preston 2004, p378) – which is why he is still widely praised and popular in Spain and much of the world. Free parliamentary elections elected a constituent parliament in 1977, which drafted a constitution in 1978. By 1979, Spain had a democratic constitution and was electing its new parliament through free elections. Thus Spain’s gradual, cautious and secure path to democracy differed greatly from the abrupt transition that was seen in Portugal (Chilcote et al 1990, p12), where the decades-old dictatorial regime was overthrown overnight by a military coup.
Once Caetano, Tomás and other members of the Estado Novo regime were arrested and exiled, General António Spínola took over as the interim president of Portugal. The problem, however, was that contrary to the young military officials who had carried out the Carnation Revolution, Spínola did not envisage profound changes for the country. Though he had not been a great enthusiast of the old dictatorship, Spínola nevertheless saw the revolution simply as a regime change and was reluctant to pursue the reforms expected by the Portuguese people. Moreover, the end of the authoritarian regime and the fragile interim government opened the way for various political forces to compete for power, which created widespread uncertainty and instability within Portuguese society (Calvocoressi 2000, p293). If in Spain Juan Carlos was able to lead the country through transition without much trouble, in Portugal the process was affected by the struggle between different political parties and groups. As a result, Portugal lacked the continuity in government that was seen in Spain. From the Carnation Revolution until the promulgation of the new Portuguese constitution in 1976, Portugal was ruled by nothing less than six different governments, faced both communist and anti-communist coup attempts and came to the brink of a civil war (Manuel 1994, p.123), a far cry from the steady development seen in its neighbour. For those reasons, the Portuguese case is usually seen as a less successful transition than its Spanish counterpart, since those developments affected the very development of Portuguese democracy.
The instability that marked the Portuguese transition to democracy undoubtedly constitutes a major unsuccessful factor in Portugal’s experience, not least because its consequences were lasting and prevented the country from consolidating a solid democracy sooner. The contrary was true in Spain, which was able to conclude its transition to democracy in a generally more successful manner than Portugal, although it also experienced a coup attempt in 1981. However, the situation was nowhere as troublesome as in its neighbour and its political stability was underlined by the fact that it has had only five different cabinets since democratisation. By contrast, Portugal has had thirteen cabinets during the same period (Magone 2004, p.40), excluding the six interim governments that governed the country after the Carnation Revolution. But in analysing these two transitions to democracy, one cannot ignore the chronological factor. It is true that Spain benefitted from having the figure of the King as a unifying symbol which the Portuguese did not have, but it is also true that it owed its success partly due to Portugal’s own experience. After the Carnation Revolution, Spanish Francoists were well aware of what could happen in their country if they were too hard on resisting reforms. There was a deep concern among conservatives that the widespread turmoil seen in Portugal could be replicated in Spain, a concern which played a significant role in the Spanish transition (Wiarda et al 2001, p.68). Without the Portuguese example, it is likely that the strong Francoist elements within Spain would have presented a greater challenge to democratisation, in which case the Spanish transition could have been closer that of Portugal.
In spite of all the similarities between Spain and Portugal, the dictatorial regimes that ruled them and the time in which their transition to democracy took place, the two countries have gone through different paths in establishing their own democratic governments. The essential difference between the Spanish and Portuguese case is the very type of process through which transition occurred, with the former taking an evolutionary and the latter a revolutionary approach. Whereas in Spain King Juan Carlos slowly began relaxing the regime’s repression after Franco stepped down from the post of prime minister, in Portugal Salazar’s sudden retirement from office greatly increased the powers of Tomás. While Juan Carlos became the leading figure in Spanish politics after Franco’s death, in Portugal it was the hard line conservative Tomás who rose as the top man of the regime after Salazar passed away. As a result, Juan Carlos cautiously and gradually carried out reforms while Tomás blocked attempts to implement significant democratic reforms in Portugal which, added to the disastrous colonial wars that the country had been fighting, led to the Carnation Revolution of 25 April 1974.
The revolution, in turn, opened the way for various political groups to compete for power in the country, which further deteriorated the situation and created widespread uncertainty and instability. On the other hand, in Spain, though there were extremist forces that were unwilling to allow democratisation, the King’s qualities as an articulator and negotiator and his position as the central figure of the regime allowed him to lead the process in a relatively stable manner. But while these factors have certainly contributed to making the Spanish case different from the Portuguese one, there was another factor of extreme importance. Would history have been different in Spain had the Carnation Revolution not taken place in Portugal? The Portuguese revolution sent shockwaves across Spain and showed to the Spanish hardliners what could happen in their own country if transition to democracy did not occur peacefully. In that sense, there is an undeniable link between the events of 1974 in Portugal and the lack of major opposition from the right in Spain. To conclude, one may even consider the Portuguese example as an experiment which the Spanish watched with attention and from which they learned a valuable lesson; a lesson which allowed them to learn from the mistake of their neighbours and which contributed to making the Spanish and Portuguese transition to democracy two very different processes.
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