The Threat of Authoritarianism to Spanish Democracy

By Samuel Blencoe

For 39 years, from 1939 to 1978, Spaniards lived under a brutal authoritarian regime led by the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. This dictatorship was the result of a three-year-long bloody civil war from which, the Nationalist side emerged victorious. The ensuing Francoist repression saw great suffering and human rights abuses with an estimated 200,000 deaths at the hands of the state between 1939 and 1943. The regime also banned all political parties and trade unions aside from their own governing party; forcing hundreds of thousands into exile; oppressing women, often violently; and homosexuals were sent to concentration camps, with some 5,000 arrested during the dictatorship.

It was only after Franco’s death in 1975 that Spain embarked on a three-year transition to democracy, culminating in the passing of the 1978 Constitution. The transition gradually dismantled Francoist political and legal systems and democratised the country. However, some argue that the transition did not go far enough and allowed facets of authoritarianism to continue unchecked within Spain’s political spheres. This is a point of great contention amongst politicians and scholars alike, but what is clear is that in recent years there has been an alarming increase in acts of authoritarianism and authoritarian politics. Perhaps none more alarming than the events of the past few weeks, which may, if not they’re not quickly quelled, have the potential to threaten the hard-fought-for rights and freedoms Spaniards have enjoyed since the democratisation process.

On the 6th of December, Spain celebrated the Día de la Constitución (Constitution Day) celebrating 42 years since its current constitution was ratified in 1978, marking the end of 39 years of the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

In the same week that people celebrated Spain’s transition to democracy four decades ago, 73 retired Spanish military officers signed a letter to King Felipe VI accusing the country’s ‘social-communist’ government of ‘threatening national unity’. The letter signed by nearly half of the surviving 23rd class of the General Military Academy employed much of the same rhetoric used by the far-right party Vox and claimed that Spain is experiencing a ‘deterioration’ and that ‘national cohesion’ is at ‘great risk’, blaming what they see as a government ‘supported by terrorist sympathisers and independentists’. Significantly, despite being retired, they all signed the letter using their military titles.

A week later, on the actual day of the celebrations, 271 retired military officers signed a manifesto repeating the accusations against the government. In both the letter to the king and in this manifesto they make clear their allegiance to both the monarchy and the constitution, yet one of the principal organisers of the manifesto released on Constitution Day was Juan Chicharro, a retired general and president of the Francisco Franco Foundation, an organisation which seeks to praise Franco and his regime. Another signatory was Ricardo Pardo Zancada, who spent 12 years in prison for his part in the attempted coup d’etat on February 1981. Like the other former officers, he signed the manifesto using military titles and as ‘retired’ despite having been expelled from the military in the aftermath of the failed coup.

The most concerning aspect of the letter and the resulting manifesto is that the signatories all affirmed that, in spite of being retired, they ‘continue’ being soldiers and as such maintain their oath to ‘guarantee the sovereignty and integrity of Spain’. This is especially concerning given that a Whatsapp chat of retired officers is currently being investigated for alleged support for mass executions. One recovered message from the chat said, “there is no option but to start executing 26 million sons-of-bitches”.

Clearly this is a terrible affront to Spanish democracy and ironically, it is the very actions of these retired officers, who profess to love Spain and its constitution so dearly, which reveal the deep divisions within a nation which is still attempting to come to terms with its authoritarian past, and where authoritarianism still seems to find solid support amongst certain sections of the population.

In recent years Spain has been rocked by the fight for Catalan independence, which many still see as a great threat to its reviled constitution. I fear the real threat to Spain’s constitution are the retired military officers, the Vox politicians and those who still support the regime. They seek to capitalise on societal divisions, whether they be over Catalan independence, historical memory or COVID restrictions. They want to damage Spain’s hard-fought-for democratic systems and bring about a return of the authoritarianism that they all seem to so admire. Such a return to authoritarianism would be disastrous for the rights and freedoms of Spaniards, almost all of which they have been afforded by the 1978 Constitution and democracy. Simply, it must be resisted.

Samuel Blencoe (4th Year BA International Relations and Spanish)