Spain after Franco and the Role of Monarchy

General Francisco Franco ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in November 1975. General Franco personally appointed his heir to be Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon as both king and chief of state.  Although it was Franco’s intention that King Juan Carlos be a sovereign ruler of the country, King Juan Carlos had other plans. He wanted to create a parliamentary monarchy with a democratically elected parliament. 

Soon after becoming head of state, King Juan Carlos was dissatisfied with and replaced Franco’s last Prime Minister with Adolfo Suarez in July 1976. Suarez promised to hold elections within one year, and his government passed a series of laws that helped liberalize the new regime. In the first six months of 1977, significant reforms were enacted such as the creation of independent trade unions, the right to strike and pardons for political prisoners. In anticipation of the elections, diverse political parties were legalized, including the communist party. 

Throughout the rapid change toward democratization that followed the appointment of Suarez, the collaboration between the king and the prime minister was crucial in calming opposition. Suarez’s political expertise and sensible approach was balanced by King Juan Carlos’s ability to maintain the allegiance of the armed forces to create a peaceful transition to democracy. It is generally accepted that the democratization of the country could not have occurred without the action and support of King Juan Carlos. There was even an attempted military coup on the Cortes in 1981 that was disbanded after many of the military pledged their allegiance to King Juan Carlos, who used his authority to assuage the security forces.

Spain held its first elections to the parliamentary house, known as the Cortes, in June 1977. This was the first democratic election in Spain since the Spanish Civil War! Prime Minister Suarez’s Union of the Democratic Center party, a moderate center-right coalition, won the largest bloc of seats with 34% of the vote. The newly elected parliament set about drafting a democratic constitution that was approved by voters in a national referendum in December 1978. The 1978 constitution established Spain as a parliamentary monarchy, with the prime minister responsible to the Cortes elected every 4 years. 

The 1978 constitution affirmed the role of the King of Spain as the symbol for Spain and its unity and permanence. According to the constitution, the king serves as the head-of-state and commander-in-chief of the Spanish Armed Forces. As Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, the king holds the highest ranking office in the military chain of command, including Captain General of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. The king is the only officer in the military to hold this 5 Star General rank. Although he has no actual authority over the armed forces, the King has maintained close relations with the military, and has used his influence to counteract potential threats to the stability of the democratic regime.

The king is a hereditary and constitutional monarch, who serves as head of state. He formally convenes and dissolves the Cortes, calls for elections and for referenda, and sanctions laws that have been enacted by the other branches of government. He appoints the prime minister after consultation with the Cortes and names the other ministers, upon the recommendation of the prime minister. He also signs decrees made in the Council of Ministers and ratifies civil and military appointments. The king is the chief representative of Spain in international relations and has the duty to indicate the state’s consent to international treaties. With the prior authorization of the Cortes, he has the right to declare war and peace. It is important to note that the king is granted no independent executive powers by the Constitution. Every one of his acts must be countersigned by the prime minister or by one of his ministers.

*Pictures taken from Life magazine online and 


About Alexandra Figueredo

I'm a travel writer, arts entrepreneur and master's student at FIU
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