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Forty years of democratic Spain

Spaniards are celebrating with some fanfare the 40th anniversary of their democratic constitution that was approved overwhelmingly in a referendum on 6 December 1978, sealing the end of the 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the victor of the country’s civil war.

Whichever way one looks at it, Spain has been transformed profoundly since then. Be it economically with, for example, the creation of significant number of multinationals (more than Italy) or the world’s second-largest tourism industry in terms of visitors (81.8 million in 2017), politically with a vibrant democracy that ranks high in international classifications, socially with the greatly improved status of women (11 of the 17 ministers in the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez are female, the highest proportion in the world) or in foreign policy–where Spain has reclaimed its place on the international stage–the recent past seems like an unrecognisable foreign country.

Per capita income at purchasing power parity has increased fivefold to $38,285 and average life expectancy at birth by almost 10 years, to 83 years, one of the highest in the world (above that of the United States and the United Kingdom). Change has been deep too in the private sphere. The Franco regime lumped “pimps, villains and homosexuals” into one criminal group. This year’s LGBT Pride parade in Madrid was led by Fernando Grande-Marlaska, the gay Interior Minister.

The face of Spain has changed enormously in the last 40 years and is no longer ethnically homogeneous. When Franco died in 1975 there were only 165,000 foreigners officially registered in the country. That number rose to 800,000 in 1990 (2.1% of the population) and peaked at 5.7 million in 2012 (12.1%). To Spain’s great credit, the huge influx of immigrants has not produced any significant xenophobic, far-right movements or parties, making the country in this respect an exception to the norm in many other EU countries, such as the UK, France and Germany. Spain’s far-right Vox won a mere 0.2% of the vote in the June 2016 general election, but it obtained 12 seats (11% of the vote) in the regional election in Andalucía this month. There are no French-style banlieues or US-style ghettos in Spain.

Spanish flag
Image credit: “Spain Flag Flutter Spanish Cabrera” by Efraimstochter. CC0 via Pixabay.

Few countries have telescoped so much change into such a short period. Alfonso Guerra, the Deputy Prime Minister (1982-91) put it colourfully when he said: “We’re going to change Spain so much that not even the mother who gave her birth will recognise her.” So much for Franco believing he had left his regime and its institutions, as he famously put it, “tied up, and well tied up.”

The transition to democracy, guided by King Juan Carlos I, Franco’s heir as head of state after he restored the Bourbon monarchy (the king’s grandfather went into exile in 1931), was achieved in the face of considerable adversity. It was not guaranteed from the outset to be successful: the Basque terrorist group ETA killed an average of 50 people a year in the first decade of democracy (and mounted assassination attempts in 1995 on both the king and Prime Minister José María Aznar), and Francoist officers staged a coup in 1981.

Today’s problems, such as the very high jobless rate (15%), particularly among young adults, acute income inequality, increased social exclusion, the push for independence in Catalonia and corruption in the political class do not detract from the fact that Spain has enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity and stability over the past 40 years. The constitution has given Spain institutional stability. There have been seven prime ministers since 1978 (Italy has had 25, one of whom served three times); during Spain’s Second Republic, between the spring of 1931 and the summer of 1936, before the civil war, the country had seven Prime Ministers and three Presidents of the Republic.

Spaniards can be proud of what has been achieved, but the next 40 years will be very different. The challenges ahead will test the largely cohesive society that has been created over the last four decades. The most visible one is the rapid ageing of the population and the pressure this is already exerting on the sustainability of the healthcare system and the viability of the state pension system. In 2050 35% of the population is forecast to 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 up to 800,000 will be retiring annually. Such a change will put a heavy burden on public finances and weaken Spain’s economic growth.

Featured image credit: Toleda Spain Landscape by Steven Yu. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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