Can Spain Find a Path to Political Stability?
What Comes After Rajoy's Ouster
Nearly three decades have passed since the 1991 publication of the political scientist Samuel Huntington’s The Third Wave, the most important scholarly take on the global democratic transformation that took place in the late twentieth century. The book traced democratic openings around the world, beginning with the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal, which ended the West’s longest dictatorship, and concluding with the democratization of eastern Europe following the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Between those two landmark events, nearly 30 new democracies emerged.
According to Huntington, this was the third time such a wave had washed over the world; the first arrived in the nineteenth century, with the advent of mass democracy in the United Kingdom and the United States, and the second came in the immediate aftermath of World War II, ushered in by the democratization of West Germany and Japan. He attributed the third wave to a number of factors, including the economic expansion of the postwar years, the liberalizing reforms undertaken by the Vatican, the embrace of democracy promotion as a foreign policy tool by the United States and European countries, and the phenomenon of “snowballing,” or countries copying one another’s democratic transitions. Huntington also emphasized the important role that domestic elites played in democratization. “Democracies are created not by causes but by causers,” he wrote, and although grassroots movements often catalyzed change, democracy could consolidate only when elites embraced it.
But in the years since Huntington observed the third wave, the tide has turned. Many young democracies have witnessed what political scientists call “democratic backsliding”: a reversion to the illiberalism of an earlier era and the deterioration of democratic norms, practices, and institutions. In some cases, most notably Hungary and Poland, once promising democracies are now breaking down. Others, such as Russia, have long since passed that point and have settled into authoritarianism. And the phenomenon is not exclusive to the postcommunist world. Across Latin America, backsliding has taken a heavy toll on countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela.
One third-wave country that has notably avoided such backsliding is Spain, which began to transition to democracy in 1975 with the passing of Francisco Franco, the dictator who had ruled since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Surveys by organizations such as Freedom House and The Economist regularly reveal that Spaniards enjoy among the best protections of civil, political, and human rights in the world. And in some respects, Spain has led the way in expanding rights, freedoms, and citizenship. The country legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, years before France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States did so. Spain has also distinguished itself with its relatively enlightened treatment of its Roma population and by being one of the most welcoming countries in all of western Europe to immigrants from many parts of the world—not only from former Spanish colonial outposts in Latin America and Asia but also from North Africa and central and eastern Europe.
And yet, in at least one way, Spain is arguably less of an exemplar than a cautionary tale. For all its success at consolidating democracy, the country has often been held back by the staggering corruption of its political class. This affliction is exhaustively detailed in the eminent historian Paul Preston’s latest book, A People Betrayed, which offers an unvarnished indictment of Spanish elites, including those who have shaped the current democratic regime. “Starting with the monarchy and moving on to the Church,” Preston approvingly quotes the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, “no national authority has thought of anything but itself.”
For all its success, Spain has been held back by the staggering corruption of its political class.
Anyone versed in Spanish politics will find this to be a familiar argument. But despite the mountain of evidence that supports his thesis, Preston overreaches in assessing the political damage that corruption has caused in Spain. Still, the book should give pause to those mindful of Huntington’s parting thoughts about the future of the third wave. He pointedly warned leaders in new democracies to avoid even the perception of being “arrogant, incompetent, or corrupt, or some combination of all three.”
For Huntington and other scholars, democracy hinges not only on expert political craftsmanship at the time of the democratic transition but also on the capacity of the political class to generate trust in the system. As the political scientist Robert Putnam has argued, public trust greases the wheels of democracy, and almost nothing is more harmful to that trust than corruption. In recent years, the erosion of trust in Spanish political institutions has made it harder for the country to govern itself and to confront the challenges it currently faces, from separatism to the COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly, just because corruption has not hobbled democracy in Spain, as Preston implies, that does not mean it has not exacted a high price on the country. Nor does it mean that in the years to come, corruption will not lead to much-dreaded democratic backsliding, as pressure mounts on the system and on an increasingly discredited establishment.
A People Betrayed opens in the late nineteenth century, which witnessed Spain’s collapse as a global power after its defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898. “The disaster of ’98,” as Spaniards call it, was followed by decades of rot in the country’s politics, as bribes, malfeasance, nepotism, and unspeakable greed pervaded the establishment. Preston plows through this sad story with the aplomb of a first-rate historian and wisely keeps the narrative alive by reminding the reader of the absurd, almost comical quality of much of the corruption that has flourished in Spain. A case in point is Juan March, who became the country’s wealthiest businessman during the run-up to World War I by smuggling tobacco and who later helped fund the 1936 military coup led by Franco, which set off the civil war. “So successful was March’s smuggling operation,” Preston writes, “that government revenue from tobacco duty was plummeting to such an extent that it was decided to grant him the official monopoly for a fee.”
Preston expertly demonstrates how in recent years, corruption in Spain has steadily grown bigger, more brazen, and ever closer to the centers of political power. Nothing illustrates that better than the so-called Gürtel case, a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme that operated between 1999 and 2005 and led to the conviction of 29 people in 2018. Many of those convicted were leaders in the conservative (and then ruling) Popular Party (PP), including the party’s treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, who was sentenced to 29 years in prison. The scandal also ended the political career of Mariano Rajoy, who in 2017 earned the distinction of becoming the first sitting Spanish prime minister to ever testify in a criminal trial. He was ousted the following year after opposition parties passed a motion of no confidence in his government.
Preston also delves into the corruption scandals of Spain’s royal family, which was once one of the most trusted institutions in the country. Ironically, that trust grew out of a famous act of betrayal. In 1976, King Juan Carlos I helped usher in democracy by boldly violating a commitment he had made to a dying Franco to uphold the authoritarian regime, or “Francoism without Franco.” In breaking that promise, Juan Carlos ensured a role for the monarchy in the new democratic system. He also stood up to military rebels who attempted a coup in 1981, disavowing the plotters in a late-night broadcast to the nation and effectively ending the crisis. But in 2020, this hero of Spanish democracy was laid low, as Spain’s Supreme Court investigated whether he had received improper payments relating to a construction project in Saudi Arabia. With scandal swirling around him, the 82-year-old former monarch went missing, unleashing a guessing game in the Spanish media regarding his whereabouts. Ultimately, the royal household confirmed that Juan Carlos had fled the country and gone to the United Arab Emirates. His disgraceful exit underscored Preston’s point that the king “had exhausted the enormous political capital he had built up between 1975 and 1982.”
Given Spain’s long history of illiberal rule, Preston’s tales of corruption and incompetence should hardly come as a surprise. Prior to enacting its current constitution, in 1978, the country’s only significant experience with democracy was the short-lived Second Republic, which lasted from 1931 until its tragic demise in 1939. With that brief exception, until 1978, Spain’s history since the late nineteenth century was a catalog of virtually every form of authoritarian rule imaginable, including an absolutist monarchy from 1886 to 1931 (a period that also incorporated a fascist regime between 1923 and 1930), a virtual theocracy during the early Franco period (1939–59), and a technocratic dictatorship during the late Franco period (1959–75). Spain also endured the bloodiest of the many civil wars that erupted in interwar Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards—perhaps as many as one million—lost their lives during the fighting and its aftermath, and 500,000 were forced into exile. Mass starvation, political repression, and international isolation persisted through the 1950s.
For this reason, the grip of corruption on Spanish life is far less surprising than the emergence and survival of democracy—a phenomenon on which Preston’s book sheds hardly any light. Indeed, in his zeal to condemn the country’s elites, Preston ignores or minimizes significant moments in Spanish history that seriously upset his narrative, especially the success of the late phase of the Franco dictatorship in promoting economic growth and lifting living standards, the skillful transition from authoritarianism to democracy, and the vigorous prosecution of corruption in recent years.
The Franco regime’s second phase, which immediately preceded Spain’s democratic awakening, was in fact shaped by remarkable bureaucratic competence, and that competence is critical to understanding the transformation that followed Franco. After a disastrous experiment with autarky from 1939 to 1959 that nearly brought about the end of Franco’s rule, the regime was rescued by a group of talented and pragmatic economists, some of them affiliated with the Catholic organization Opus Dei. They persuaded a skeptical Franco that the only way to rescue the economy and prevent the collapse of his regime was to open Spain up to foreign tourism and investment, to seek help from the International Monetary Fund, and to ease up on the repression of dissidence and criticism.
Within a decade, this technocratic approach had produced the so-called Spanish miracle, which made Spain one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Between 1963 and 1971, per capita income more than doubled. By 1975, when Franco died—peacefully, in his bed—Spain had become a prosperous middle-class country in possession of a viable civil society and a relatively well-developed welfare state. By pushing relentlessly for social and economic modernization, the late Franco regime unintentionally paved the way for the advent of democracy, the outcome that Franco had feared the most.
After Franco’s death, Adolfo Suárez, the former head of the National Movement (the closest thing to a political party in Franco’s Spain) and the first prime minister of the democratic era, engineered a democratic transition that political scientists hold as a masterpiece of political craftsmanship. Never before had an authoritarian regime peacefully reinvented itself as a democracy by employing the authoritarian state’s institutions. But that is precisely what Suárez accomplished in Spain, in response to pressure from the public and with the support of the king. After the Francoist parliament voted itself out of existence in 1976, political parties and trade unions were legalized, democratic elections were held, and one of western Europe’s most liberal constitutions was drafted and approved by means of a national referendum. All of this was accomplished in less than two years.
Preston’s implication that corruption goes ignored by Spain’s government and citizens is also belied by the fact that few other countries have been as zealous in prosecuting graft. As a Politico report noted in 2017, Spain has tried and convicted “top business people, ministers, regional presidents, mayors and even Princess Cristina.” The report added that between July 2015 and the end of 2016, almost 1,500 people in Spain faced trial for corruption and that around 70 percent of them were found guilty, including Iñaki Urdangarin (Cristina’s husband and King Felipe VI’s brother-in-law) and Rodrigo Rato, a former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. These prosecutions were prodded by the Indignados (Indignant Ones), a massive anticorruption movement that rocked Spanish politics in 2011. Indeed, viewed through a comparative perspective, which Preston eschews, corruption in Spain is nowhere near as bad as one would imagine from just reading his book. In 2019, Spain scored 62 out of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index—well behind the least corrupt countries, such as Denmark and New Zealand, but in the vicinity of France and the United States and well ahead of Italy, Greece, and Hungary.
For all its flaws, Preston’s book represents a major contribution to the field. It is a peerless account of the many ways, both big and small, that politicians have failed and disappointed the Spanish people. And although it is not the case that corruption and incompetence have hobbled Spanish democracy, as Preston implies, this is not to say that there is nothing wrong with the country—far from it. The impact of the erosion of trust in political institutions brought about by corruption is undeniable, far-reaching, and very worrisome.
One need look no further than the state of Spain’s two leading political parties, the PP and the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), both of which have been battered by corruption scandals in recent years. A 2019 poll cited by the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia reported that Spaniards rank the political parties last in terms of their trustworthiness—behind the universities, the army, the media, judges, the police, and the trade unions. As a result of their cratering appeal, the PP and the PSOE have splintered into at least five parties in recent years—a major factor in the political gridlock that has paralyzed Spanish politics in the past decade. Between 2015 and 2019, no single party was able to garner and sustain a clear parliamentary majority, forcing Spain to hold four general elections.
The erosion of trust in Spanish political institutions has made it harder for the country to govern itself.
Prominent among the new political parties is Vox, the first viable far-right party of the post-Franco era. Vox stormed into parliament in 2019, winning the third-highest number of seats on a starkly conservative, Euroskeptical, anti-immigrant platform and ending Spain’s status as one of the handful of Western democracies without a right-wing populist party in its legislature. Vox has fanned the flames of Spanish nationalism, posing a significant obstacle to solving the constitutional crisis unleashed when the region of Catalonia attempted to break away from Spain in 2017.
The erosion of trust in established political institutions has presented a major challenge to the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the PSOE, as it battles the pandemic, which so far has claimed the lives of some 35,000 Spaniards. But it is worth remembering that this is not the first time that Spain’s young democracy has been severely tested. Since the transition to democracy, Spain has experienced the attempted coup in 1981; terrorist violence, including the al Qaeda bombings in Madrid in 2004, just three days before a general election, which killed 193 people (the deadliest terrorist attack carried out on European soil since World War II); a severe economic downturn after the 2008 global financial crisis that left nearly a quarter of the working-age population jobless; and separatist conflicts in Catalonia and the Basque region.
Nevertheless, Spanish democracy has persisted, becoming a beacon of hope for other young democracies and an example for more mature ones. Despite its corruption and incompetence, the Spanish political class has often met the challenges of the day and delivered for the people. One must hope that continues to be the case—not just for Spain’s sake but also for the sake of democracy everywhere.