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Bulldogz Briefing : 42 years of Spanish Democracy

Spain celebrates the signing of the constitution on December the 6th. The much lauded transition instigated much change, but what are the challenges causing strain on the post Dictatorship consensus?

Today’s free society has been largely shaped by huge seismic shifts in the socio-political landscape of the 20th century, the aftershocks of which still shape policy and perspective. There is a place for the past in the present, times of great suffering and sacrifice provide valuable lessons for the generations that follow. This in part, is at the heart of the November Remembrance day commemorations that take place across Europe and which are characterized in Britain by the phrase ‘Lest we forget.’

On the 6th December 2020, Spain celebrates 42 years since the signing of the democratic constitution, 42 years of democracy, democracy that has changed the face of the country, shaping a free modern society. When the Socialists rose to power in the 1982 elections, Deputy Prime Minister, Alfonso Guerra said “We’re going to change Spain so much she’ll be completely unrecognizable.” So, beyond gaining an extra day to indulge in some pre-Christmas capitalism, what are the milestones of 40 years of Spanish democracy?

First, we must look back

The Civil War had ruined the Spanish economy with GDP down by 36% between 1935 and 1938, Spain had also been excluded from the 1948 Marshall Plan, the US aid programme designed to rebuild 16 non-communist economies in post-war Europe. The biggest problem was food supplies, the 1940s were known as the ‘years of hunger’ with rationing introduced in 1939 and not ending until 1952.

Between 1960 and 1973, a move towards liberalization under the Stabilization Plan, created a middle class boom with 33% of the population entering the ranks of ‘middle class’ in 1970 compared with 14% in 1950. This brought with it, the driving force of any modern economy, a consumer society. A mass internal migration ensued during the 1960’s, flowing from the villages to towns and cities with more than three million people or 10% of the population leaving the agricultural countryside for city life.

Meanwhile, education was being revised. Primary school enrollment rates more than doubled to 88% between 1960 and 1970 and the rate of illiteracy dropped from 13.7% to 8.8%. People were living for longer, with an average life expectancy increasing from 50 years at the end of the Civil War to 74 years by 1975.

The status of women in society was drastically changing, accounting for 30% of the workforce in 1974, more than double the figures in 1950. In 1966 the press was also allowed more freedom via legislation that removed prior censorship by the state and replaced it with self-censorship.

The move towards a more liberated society had been germinating but democracy itself would be an incremental rather than engineered break with the regime. Following the death of Franco in 1975 with the exception of those at either end of the political extremes, there was no desire to open up the divisions caused by the Civil War. Any transition, in the words of sociologist Victor Pérez-Díaz, ‘required Francoists to pretend they had never been Francoists, and left-wing compromisers to pretend they were still committed to leftist principles. This can be seen in the ‘pacto de olvido’ which literally means, a ‘pact of forgetting’, an unwritten agreement among political elites to let bygones be bygones and look to the future in order to create a blank slate upon which to build democracy.

And so, on 6th December 1978 the constitution was unveiled and Spain made a gradual transition towards democracy. This improved relations with the rest of Europe, opening up dialogue and trade agreements, membership to the EEC and other European concessions. Women were now welcomed into higher education and the job market. The cities were joined together by much needed infrastructure. Although it was said that Spain was years behind the rest of Europe, for a country emerging from decades of dictatorial isolation, it was ready for change. Changes came, but there was still a lot of work to be done.

What comes next?

The most pressing issue in democratic Spain is the ageing of the population and the pressure this is already exerting on the sustainability of the healthcare and state pension system. In 2050 35% of the population will be over the age of 67 compared with 16.5% today. Within a decade, unless there is a significant demographic change, only around 400,000 people will be entering the labour market every year whereas between 700,000 and 800,000 will be retiring. Either policy is introduced to increase the very low fertility rate of 1.33 children or Spain will need an even greater influx of immigrants.

Unemployment peaked at 27% in 2013, but at around 15% in 2018 was still absurdly high. While countries such as the UK, Germany and the US have virtual full employment, albeit with millions of precarious jobs, Spain’s jobless rate will remain in double figures for years. Lowering the rate to below 10% requires profound structural labour market and educational reforms and a reconsidered growth pattern.

Drop-out rates at the secondary school and tertiary levels remain high and there is a mismatch between education supply and labour demand, with limited vocational training.

Universities have been slow to adapt to the changing economic environment; more is required to link research to the needs of the economy and improve the quality of training. Employers have exploited to the full and abused temporary contracts for new recruits, which provide no incentives for on-the-job training and hence enhanced productivity. The establishment of a single contract for all workers, in place of the plethora of existing contracts and their complexities, could help to address this issue.

Royal complication

A series of developing scandals surrounding the Emeritus King Juan Carlos have tested constitutional strengths in recent months. The former Head of State had been regarded well after his deft management of the handover and even his key intervention in the attempted coup in 1981. A long running series of probes into his financial affairs have decimated his legacy and such investigations have been issued to the Supreme Court as the only body in Spain with the legal authority to pass judgement on the former King.

The democratic deficit of 2020

The year of COVID has placed a further strain on the challenges of the democratic era in Spain. The economic pressure of the lockdown has broken all records and unemployment has already escalated once more with much of the post 2008 slow recovery swept away. The decline in Spanish GDP during the Civil War equated to a quarterly decline of approximately 6.7%. The final annual decline for 2020 is estimated to be at 12.8%, an unprecedented collapse. General unemployment rates are expected to be around 16.8% and maintain such levels through most of 2021. It is clear to most that the challenges facing the Spanish economy and the resultant long term effects on the fabric of politics and society are to be far reaching.

The Constitution itself has come under scrutiny after a year in which we have spent most of our time under emergency powers. The second State of Alarm was enshrined by the legislature for a six month period despite the constitutional requirement for such powers to be reviewed and voted upon by the legislature every two weeks.

It is an unescapable irony that the country is given a day of national holiday to celebrate the signing of the constitution, a document that is heralded as the symbol of the freedoms and liberty of the Spanish people, when freedom of movement, assembly and business are the unimaginable new normal all served up to us thanks to a flexible adherence to that very same constitution.

With uncertain long term impacts on political and social life yet to be calculated, it also remains unclear what damage the constitution may have received during this unprecedented period of change.

Viva La Libertad!

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