Adolfo Suarez. There are a few figures from Spain’s modern history who have made an indelible impression on the country’s collective memory.
A Key Figure in Spain’s Transition to Democracy
There are a few figures from Spain’s modern history who, beyond ideological opinions, political leanings, and historical incidences, have made an indelible impression on the country’s collective memory. The passing of time often modifies memories, smoothing out rough spots and enhancing virtues; the same can be said about Adolfo Suárez. He is considered by the great majority as a key figure in Spain’s quick transition from Francoist dictatorship to the democracy still in place today, a period of dramatic change without serious conflicts. That the period remained peaceful is particularly noteworthy given Spain’s long tradition of solving internal conflicts through armed confrontation.
This politician from Ávila was born in the town of Cebreros. The son of Hipólito and Herminia, he was the oldest of five children. At just 18 years old, he began studying law at the University of Salamanca, finishing his studies five years later. He returned to Ávila for his mandatory military service, where the civil governor set the 24 year old on his political career by assigning him to a position in the local civil government.
Two years later, in 1958, he began to work in the General Secretariat of the National Movement (the political structure modeled on fascism which aimed to be the only mode of participation within the public life of Spain). He had begun a political career that would quickly take him upward through the ranks of the movement.
In 1968 he was named Civil Governor of Segovia and a year later he was appointed as the General Director of Spanish Radio and Television where he remained until 1973. In 75’ he was named General Secretary of the Movement; the last administration of the dictatorship. After the death of dictator Francisco Franco, the Spanish King Juan Carlos was granted power. When the president of the Movement renounced his presidency, the king appointed Suárez to create a new government. The king’s decision to appoint the relatively unknown politician with the critical task was controversial; conservatives considered him too young and inexperienced while the opposition disliked his extensive connection with Franco’s regime.
History would prove however that the king, with the council of his mentor (Torcuato Fernández Miranda, who had once been Prince Juan Carlos’ law teacher) had made a wise decision. The young Suárez knew how to bring together certain politicians of his generation to create the Law of Political Reform, which was approved by the end of 1976 and brought about the end of Franco’s parliament. A referendum on the reform was put before voters who responded with overwhelming support; 94% of those Spaniards voting in the referendum also approved of the law (77% of all voters participated despite the opposition’s insistence that its supporters not vote).
In 1977, Suárez was elected president of the government with the UCD party (Unión de Centro Democrático). The UCD was a mix of parties made up of democratic Christians, liberals, and former members of Franco’s system. It was the first general election held in Spain since 1936. With the support of the people, the UCD formed a government with General Gutiérrez Mellado as Vice President, which in a certain way calmed military discontent. This new administration took on as its first tasks the legalization of the Spanish Communist Party, so that parliament could guarantee a democracy that did not exclude any ideologies, and the drafting of a new constitution based on popular consensus. It was the first time in Spain’s history that a joint effort of this type, which made use of dialogue and negotiation on all levels, had ever been carried out.
The Spanish Constitution was approved by the people on December 6, 1978, and today it continues to help uphold Spain’s democracy.
In 1979, Adolfo Suárez won the general election again, but this time his party won fewer parliament seats. The left earned an increased amount of votes in the local primary elections and party tensions within the UCD began affecting Suárez’s role as a leader. By the end of January 1979, he resigned as president of the government. A few weeks later, during the investiture of his successor Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, an attempted coup shook parliament, an event known today as 23-F. The entire country watched how three people refused to obey the orders of the coup leader: Santiago Carrillo (the leader of Spain’s communist party), the General Lieutenant Gutiérrez Mellado, and Adolfo Suárez who remained impassive in his parliament seat while all other members of the house got down on the ground.
In the next few years, the politician founded a new party (Centro Democrático y Social), but he would never have the success he experienced earlier in his career. In 1991, he announced his retirement from politics.
Adolfo Suárez began to suffer from Alzheimer’s in 2003 and the news was made public in 2005. Ironically, this leading figure in Spain’s modern history could not remember the critical role he played in the creation of the democratic state he lived in.
He died on March 23, 2014 after having received a number of awards and tributes. Perhaps the most important tribute for Adolfo Suárez will be the place of privilege designated for him in the collective memory of Spaniards, a memory robbed from him by a terrible disease.