Mission: 'Regenerate [Spanish] Democracy'

Carla Gutiérrez Ramos| 7 May 2024

Political History | History of Democracy | European History | Spain

On 29 April, the Spanish president Pedro Sánchez confirmed he would remain in office to work towards the ‘regeneration’ of Spanish democracy. The decision followed a 5-day reflection on whether to resign after a Madrid court opened an investigation on his wife, Begoña Gómez, for allegedly using her influence as wife of the President to secure sponsors for a university master’s degree she ran. The investigation followed a criminal complaint filed on 16 April by the pressure group Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), with links to the far-right.[1] The evidence presented? Media reports, which Manos Limpias has since admitted could be untrue.[2] In the letter he released on 24 April to cancel his agenda, Sánchez questioned whether ‘[it] was worth’ continuing in his presidential role despite the ‘harassment’, ‘bullying’, and ‘mudslinging’ that dominates much of current Spanish politics. The politics of ‘anything is fair play’ which has been dominating the Spanish political landscape particularly since 2014.

That year was a turning point in Spanish politics. The leftwing Podemos, the liberal Ciudadanos, and the far-right Vox political parties emerged in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, ending the predominant bipartidism with vastly different rates of electoral success.[3] Back then, Podemos constituted the main political threat to the continuity of the Social democrat PSOE and the conservative Popular Party (PP) dichotomy. To some extent, although not exclusively, the party’s change of fortune links to the multiple criminal complaints made by a plethora of far-right organisations including Manos Limpias for alleged corruption (including tax fraud and illegal funding). Although they were later dismissed,  the media coverage these received at the time was shocking, being reported on in the same category as the Gürtel case trial, ‘Spain’s Watergate’.[4] With events still unfolding, this blog aims to contextualise them for the reader unfamiliar with Spanish politics and history, presenting both the far-right and conservative lawfaring strategy and Sánchez’s response as the latest episodes of what can be defined as a long-running cultural war seeking to define not just Spanish democracy, but Spain’s very national essence.

Filing complaints based on unevidenced news to cast public doubt on the honourability and trustworthiness of its left-wing political opponents has proved to be a fruitful strategy for the Spanish far-right. Vox is today the third political force in the country, sharing government responsibilities with the PP at the regional level – a level of government the far-right party claims to want to eliminate. However, ‘mudslinging’ through lawfaring has deeply affected the health of Spanish democracy. The disillusionment and mistrust of Spanish and European political institutions and parties that accompanied the economic recession and the corruption claims around multiple political parties, has arguably turned into distrust.[5] Given the centrality of trust to the democratic process, collaborative by nature, it is worrisome to note such a steep erosion among the Spanish people.[6]

Deeply contributing to this political wear and tear, much of the political debate in the past decade has framed ideologically opposing views as ‘antidemocratic’ and ‘anti-patriotic’. Over time, this has elevated the political tension and contributed to the current high levels of ‘affective polarisation’ – a term used by political scientists to speak of the extent to which the different political camps abhors each other.[7] While leaders emerging from the 15-M movement may be seen to have mobilised this framework first in their struggle for a more equitable and fair system– taking inspiration from the ‘patriotic dissent’ of US social movements, the far-right has since co-opted this rhetoric to wage its legal war against legitimate events, progressive policies and agreements it disagrees with framing them as threats to democracy and the nation.[8] This is dangerous and divisive in most contexts – the aftermath of the last US general election shows us this – but perhaps even more so in Spain, where the phantom of the Civil War (1936-9) is omnipresent. In fact, the contemporary frameworks mobilised by Spanish political parties speak to the country’s most traumatising historical events, its ‘past that will not pass’: the war and the dictatorship, but also how these were dealt with during la Transición (the political transition to democracy, 1975-c.1982). As we say in Spain, ‘from that dust, this mud’. The intensity of the feelings provoked by these frameworks can only be understood keeping in mind that they are a continuation of the country’s longer-term battle to define not just Spanish democracy, but Spanishness more generally.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, la Transición achieved a mythical status at home and abroad. Social scientists labelled it a ‘model’, emphasising the leading role of the political elite between 1975-8 – namely the appointed president of the government Adolfo Suárez – in engineering a broad political ‘consensus’ allowing the country to peacefully (un-revolutionarily?) move towards democratisation.[9] Gunther noted how the extensive negotiation process culminating in the 1978 Constitution, whereby parties either unconditionally agreed to participate in the process of reform or were overall excluded, induced political actors from across the spectrum to accept the new regime’s legitimacy. Nevertheless, the democratisation process has often been under review both in the academic and public contexts, especially from the early 2000s. Historians have since highlighted the agency of grassroots organisations and ‘ordinary’ citizens in facilitating the political process.[10] 

In the public sphere, the issue at stake has consistently been the ‘pact of oblivion’ – the political decision to ‘forget’ the repression and violence perpetrated against the losers in the aftermath of the Civil War, ingrained in the 1977 Amnesty Law.[11] Critics argue that this generated ‘trust and reconciliation’ issues, weakening the foundation of the new democracy, while supporters altogether refuse to reopen this conversation, branding it ‘destabilizing’. Over time, this ‘historical memory’ of the civil war, the dictatorship and the Transición has turned into something of a culture war permeating present-day politics.

Back in 2014, Podemos recovered and updated the discursive framework used by the radical Spanish left during the Transition, calling for a second transition that would ‘open the padlock of ‘78’ and truly break up with the previous regime.[12] Its electoral programme for the elections to the European Parliament that year included proposals like a revision of the Constitution (and a new referendum) and the recognition of the right to self-determination for Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. In turn, Vox wilfully and wrongfully ignores and distorts the past, whitewashing the dictatorial regime, referring to the current government as la dictadura progre (the progre[ssive] dictatorship) and branding the former PSOE-Podemos coalition government as ‘the worst government in the last 80 years’.[13] Whereas Vox has consistently avoided a public condemnation of the Franco regime, it has often criminalised the progressive II Republic (1931-9), Spain’s immediate democratic precedent. The party is also ambivalent towards the democratisation process – criticising its decentralised territorial model but sacralising its treatment of the ‘historical memory’ as a model of concord. The two main parties, PSOE and PP also fully participate in this debate. The former has passed the two ‘historical memory’ laws while in government; the latter has consistently opposed them.

The ‘historical memory’ legislation in Spain intends to bring justice and reparation to the victims of the Civil War and the dictatorship. The 2007 law mandated local governments to fund efforts to unearth the mass graves from the civil war, ordered the removal of all Franco-era symbols from streets and public buildings and declared illegitimate all the summary trials that led to the execution and imprisonment of Franco’s opponents. Building on this, the 2023 legislation – very tellingly rebranded ‘democratic’ memory – takes this further, encouraging the ‘creation of a census and a national DNA bank to help locate and identify the remains of the tens of thousands of people who still lie in unmarked graves, a ban on groups that glorify the Franco regime, and a “redefinition” of the Valley of the Fallen, the giant basilica and memorial where Franco lay for 44 years until his exhumation in 2019’.[14] 

In 2007 the PP argued that the law would ‘reopen closed wounds’ and between 2011-9, while in government, it defunded the initiatives. Currently, the conservatives have teamed up with Vox, proposing regional ‘concord’ or ‘harmony laws’, initiatives which only two days ago were rejected by three UN experts who warned they could contravene international human rights standards.[15] Among its many points, the UN report noted these regional projects could lead to assimilating the human rights violations committed during Franco's dictatorship and the Civil War ‘to a heterogeneous group of crimes or violations committed by different actors, state and non-state, throughout the 20th century in Spain’. This refers to conservative and far-right attempts to equalise the systematic, large-scale violence exerted by the Francoist state to violent instances occurring in the II Republic or to the violence exerted by the Basque separatist armed organisation ETA. Although the band announced its dissolution in 2018, having renounced violence in 2011, the conservative and far-right parties insist on keeping its memory alive, particularly since the Historical Democratic Law was passed by Congress and under a minority government indebted to the support of regional nationalist parties.

In this manner, the reckless public misinterpretation and misuse of the past by the Spanish conservative and far-right parties has become their main weapon in the cultural battle against more economically progressive and socially inclusive democratic projects. And it is not only politicians involved in this cultural battle that so clearly cuts through the left-right political divide, but the media too. On 1 May, the newspaper El Español – the most read online -  published a column titled ‘Pedro Sánchez is a Real Threat to Freedom in Spain’ where the author asserted ‘Sánchez and his radical executive are adopting all these extremist measures, while the country is in a very serious economic, political and social crisis with an increasingly violent political atmosphere with clear civil war overtones that do not contribute at all to the stability of Spain and confronts it. If Sánchez does not back down and give in to his authoritarianism, there could be a major social explosion and Sánchez will certainly not end well.’ In turn, this past Friday, World Press Freedom Day, Alberto Feijóo, the PP national leader emphasised the role of the media in ‘regenerating democracy’ keeping politicians accountable in a statement he published on four conservative newspapers.[16] This previously commonly upheld tenet, however, has been challenged by ‘fake news’. 

In an age where hoaxes and misinformation spread faster than they can be countered, as some media outlets engage in the national culture war to narrowly redefine citizenship and democracy, the role of historians and of History as a discipline seems to matter more than ever. True, we need to find ways to meaningfully engage the public in a two-way knowledge exchange more generally. But where the past is being abused to curtail rights, then we also need to take a more active role in disseminating knowledge. Maybe we should seek more partnerships with honest journalistic media outlets, offer more often to contextualise controversial debates for wider audiences and be more technologically savvy. As historians, we don’t own the past. But we should guard it.

Dr Carla Gutiérrez Ramos is a  comparativist historian of twentieth century western Europe with a focus on post-war democracy, social movements and national and class identities specifically in Spain and the UK. She is currently Teaching Associate in Twentieth-Century History at the University of Sheffield.


[1] The organisation was created in 1995 as a self-styled ‘independent trade union’ by lawyer and former secretary general of the far-right party National Front (Frente Nacional) Miguel Bernard.

[2] Although this hasn’t stopped the group from expanding on its complaint, only 2 days ago to implicate Sánchez as an accomplice.

[3] Podemos achieved 20,68 per cent of the vote in the 2015 general election, a stark contrast with Vox, which achieved a 0,23 per cent. Meanwhile, Ciudadanos – now irrelevant – attained 13,9 per cent of the vote.

[4] The multiple internal disagreements which led to the emergence of multiple splinter parties, extensively covered by the Spanish media, also took their toll.

[5] es3424marmt_a (cis.es). M. Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Cambridge, 2012); D. della Porta, ‘ Mobilizing Against the Crisis, Mobilizing for “Another Democracy”: Comparing Two Global Waves of Protest, Interface: A Journal for and about the Social Movements, 41.1 (2012), pp. 274-7; M. Flesher Fominaya, ‘European Anti-Austerity and Pro-Democracy Protests in The Wake of The Global Financial Crisis. Social Movement Studies’, 16.1 (2017), pp. 1-20.

[6] P.T. Lenard, ‘Trust Your Compatriots, but Count Your Change: The Roles of Trust, Mistrust and Distrust in Democracy’. El 90% de los españoles recela de los partidos y el 78% “desconfía” del Congreso, según el Eurobarómetro | España | EL PAÍS (elpais.com).

[7] Recent studies suggest that the levels of affective polarisation in Spain are worse even than those in the US.

[8] As seen in the right’s crusade against decentralisation.

[9] R. Gunther, ‘Spain: The Very Model of the Modern Elite Settlement’ in Richard Gunther and John Highley, Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 38-80. For an interesting consideration of the further implications of using Spain as a positive example in the comparative field of democratization studies see, P. B. Radcliff, ‘The Transition: A Global Model’? in N. Townson, Is Spain Different? A Comparative Look at the 19th and 20th Centuries (2015), pp. 216-49.

[10] Building on the historiography centred political dissent under the dictatorship, the seminal study being J.M. Maravall, Dictatorship and Political Dissent: Workers and Students in Franco’s Spain (London, 1978). Other works include C. Molinero and P. Ysàs, Productores Disciplinados y Minorías Subversivas: Clase Obrera y Conflictividad Laboral en la España Franquista (Madrid, 1998); X. Domenèch, Clase obrera, antifranquismo y

cambio político: pequeños grandes cambios, 1956–1969 (Madrid, 2008); P. B. Radcliff, Making Democratic Citizens in Spain: Civil Society and the Popular Origins of the Transition, 1960-78 (Basingstoke, 2011) [available as e-book].

[11] Which concurrently pardoned political prisoners held captive in the Francoist jails and exempted anyone involved with the regime from future criminal liability.

[12] J. C. Rueda Laffond, ‘The Padlock of ‘78: Podemos and the Memory of Democratic Rupture’, Historia Contemporánea 53 (2016), pp. 725-51. A publication linked to a wider

[13] J. López Felipe, ‘“El Peor Gobierno en 80 años”. Vox, Franquismo y Memoria Histórica’, Saitabi. Revista de la Facultat de Geografía i Història, 72 (2022), pp. 111-123.

[14] As reported by Sam Jones, ‘UN alarm over rightwing laws that could ‘whitewash’ Franco era in Spain’, The Guardian, 3 May 2024.

[15] The Spanish government had already lodged appeals to the Constitutional Court and has resulted in the overturn of at least one of them.

[16] It may interest the reader to know that in his previous post as Galicia’s regional president he famously stifled the freedom of the Galician public TV station. Presenters on that medium have been protesting against the manipulation of the information since May 2018 by presenting the news on Friday wearing black.