Thinking Aloud: Adolfo Suarez, 1932-2014

Apr. 1, 2014 by Darius 

Adolfo Suarez, the first democratically elected prime minister of Spain following the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, died this week.  One could argue that Suarez was a a make-or-break figure for Spanish democracy.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain turned once again to its monarchy.  Spain was deeply divided and, while the young king Juan Carlos was a unifying figure, he couldn’t run the government.

So Juan Carlos turned to Suarez.  Suarez’s role was to knit Spain back together.  His personal background qualified him for the job.  He had been a minor part of Franco’s government, which earned him the acceptance of the powerful right wing.  But he was young enough not to have been involved in the Spanish Civil War or the worst excesses of the dictatorship, which made him acceptable to the left wing.  Additionally, Suarez himself had little ideology to speak of.  He was a pragmatist.

Perhaps Suarez’s biggest policy achievement was overseeing the legalization of the Spanish Communist Party, which had been brutally repressed during the Franco years.  (Not surprising given that the Spanish civil war had been in many ways a proxy war between the Nazis – on the side of Franco, the landholders, the church, and other conservative elements in Spanish society – and the USSR – on the side of the Communists, the democrats, the peasants, the separatists, and other liberal elements of Spanish society – with Franco on the winning side and the Communists on the losing side.)  The legalization of the Communist Party brought the Spanish left back into national politics.  When Suarez resigned six years later, in 1981, he had survived an attempted coup by the military and established the supremacy of democracy.

Adolfo Suarez was not a “great” figure in the traditional sense:  he did not galvanize a nation or change the world.  But he had a simple job: mending Spain and supervising its transition to democracy.  And he did his job very well.  For that, he deserves to be remembered.

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