Spain’s democracy man
Adolfo Suárez, first prime minister of a democratic Spain, died on March 23rd, aged 81
THE fact that Spain is now a pluralist democracy, and no longer a dictatorship, can be credited to several men. One is King Juan Carlos, who knew how to bide his time during Francoism’s death throes, when to emerge, and what sort of Spain he wanted. Another is Felipe González, the country’s first Socialist prime minister, who demonstrated that the left’s long period of wounded resentment after the civil war could be transmuted into a successful run in government. Yet another was Torcuato Fernández-Miranda, the king’s political mentor, who in 1975 pushed forward the name of an apparently mediocre provincial, Adolfo Suárez. And then, decidedly not least, Mr Suárez himself, who took on the task of thrusting Spain into democracy and did so at dizzying speed.
Within a year of his appointment as Spain’s then-youngest prime minister, in July 1976 when he was 43, Mr Suárez had passed a law establishing a two-chamber Cortes and universal suffrage; had legalised the left-wing parties, including, most vitally, the communists; had declared an amnesty for political prisoners, legalised trade unions and dismantled most of Franco’s four-decade-old political machinery; had got his reforms heartily approved by public referendum, as well as by parliament; had called free elections, formed the Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD) to fight them, won, and was on his way to drafting a new constitution. He had only one agenda, democracy. He went for it with all the impatience of a man whose chin sometimes showed that he only spent three minutes shaving, and who never read any book all the way through.
Very few thought him ideal for the job when he started. Many did not rate him at all: a procurador’s son from Ávila, in the harshest part of Castile, who, though his parents were Republican, had worked his way up through Franco’s Movimiento Nacional as far as general secretary, with no particular credentials or connections. (His title of Duke of Suárez was a later present from Juan Carlos, the highest in the king’s gift; the fact that he looked like a nobleman, his imperious face and bearing enhanced with padded-shoulder suits and platform shoes, was incidental, though also helpful.) What people underestimated was his talent for political intrigue: for sniffing out the ambitions and weaknesses of colleagues, for cutting deals, for apparently taking people into his confidence with a ready laugh and a slap on the back, and for making even enemies feel—as he charmed them with the offer of a cigarette and a light—that they were intimates, and could do business with him.
For all the speed of change, it was not smooth sailing. Much of the left distrusted him; unions went on strike. He had been Franco’s man, after all. Some of the 40-somethings he had gathered round him to effect the transition were dismissed as azules, blues, after the colour of Falangist shirts. Nonetheless he reached out swiftly to the Socialists and, a bit less swiftly, to Santiago Carrillo’s Communists; and in 1980 he even pushed for a new divorce law, though complaining that Opus Dei, to which he had been close, were “all over” him. His mantra was to get Spanish politics back to normal, out of the long and bloody shadow of the civil war he himself had never known; to take the drama out of it, and set Spain in the modern world.
The lone wolf
Two things in particular hobbled him. One was the terrorists, Basque, Maoist and neo-fascist, who could neither be conciliated nor legalised. The other, consistently dangerous and furious, was the army. Most of the generals hated everything he did, especially the legalisation of the Communist Party. There were rumours of coups; he countered them by courting more liberal officers, especially Gutierrez Mellado, and sacking hardliners, but never made many friends in the barracks. In February 1981, when armed rogue commanders took over the Cortes for 22 hours, only Mellado, Carrillo and Mr Suárez stayed bravely, or recklessly, in their seats: right, left and centre openly defying the golpistas to protect the freedoms he had won.
By then, however, he had resigned as prime minister in the midst of sharp recriminations. Though he formed a new party, it lost the next elections to the Socialists. Having achieved democracy, Mr Suárez had no more policies in his quiver, except to prolong his time in office. He was not so much power-hungry—though his enemies said he was—as addicted to the practice of politics, a passion that left room for little else save, occasionally, family and football. He had always been a lone wolf rather than a party man, and a networker between left and right rather than an ideologue. His unparalleled political instincts had brought Spain liberty and pluralism in an astonishingly short time, but he ended up sending mixed signals as to which side he was on.
In the last decade of his life, clouded by Alzheimer’s, he gradually forgot that he had ever been prime minister, or what he had done for his country while he was. A poignant photograph, soon famous all over Spain, showed him in 2008 with Juan Carlos, the burly king with his arm round the shoulder of his diminutive first prime minister, in shirtsleeves. The two men were walking away from the camera as if to say, job done. As indeed it was.
From the print edition: Obituary