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Franco's Political System

The leader of the Nationalist forces, General Franco, headed the authoritarian regime that came to power in the aftermath of the Civil War. Until his death in November 1975, Franco ruled Spain as "Caudillo by the grace of God," as his coins proclaimed. In addition to being generalissimo of the armed forces, he was both chief of state and head of government, the ultimate source of legitimate authority. He retained the power to appoint and to dismiss ministers and other decision makers. Even after he grew older, began to lose his health, and became less actively involved in policy making, Franco still had the final word on every major political decision.

Ideology or political theories were not the primary motivators in Franco's developing of the institutions that came to be identified with his name. Franco had spent his life as a professional soldier, and his conception of society was along military lines. Known for his iron political nerve, Franco saw himself as the one designated to save Spain from the chaos and instability visited upon the country by the evils of parliamentary democracy and political parties, which he blamed for destroying the unity of Spain. His pragmatic goal was to maintain power in order to keep what he termed the "anti-Spain" forces from gaining ascendancy.

The political structures established under Franco's rule represented this pragmatic approach. Because he never formulated a true, comprehensive, constitutional system, Franco had great flexibility in dealing with changing domestic and international situations. Seven fundamental laws decreed during his rule provided the regime with a semblance of constitutionalism, but they were developed after the fact, usually to legitimize an existing situation or distribution of power.

The first of these fundamental laws was the Labor Charter, promulgated on March 9, 1938. It set forth the social policy of the regime, and it stressed the mutual obligations of the state and its citizens: all Spaniards had the duty to work, and the state was to assure them the right to work. Although the decree called for adequate wages, paid vacations, and a limit to working hours, it ensured labor's compliance with the new regime by labeling strikes as treason. Later legislation required Spanish workers to join vertical syndicates in which both owners and employees were supposed to cooperate for the good of the nation.

Another fundamental law, the Constituent Law of the Cortes (1942), provided the trappings of constitutionalism. This Cortes (Spanish Parliament), was purely an advisory body, and it had little in common with democratic legislatures. Most of its members were indirectly elected or appointed, and many were already part of the administration. The Cortes did not have the right to initiate legislation or to vote against the government; it could only approve laws presented by the executive. There was no vestige of power attached to this function because the law permitted Franco to legislate by decree without consulting the Cortes. The Council of Ministers, the members of which were appointed by, and presided over, by Franco, exercised executive authority. Franco had the right to dismiss these ministers.

Following the Allied victories in 1945, Franco sought to impress the world's democratic powers with Spain's "liberal" credentials by issuing a fundamental law that was ostensibly a bill of rights--the Charter of Rights. The rights granted by this charter were more cosmetic than democratic, because the government bestowed them and could suspend them without justification; furthermore, the charter placed more emphasis on the duty of all Spaniards to serve their country and to obey its laws than on their basic rights as citizens. Thus, for example, the charter guaranteed all Spaniards the right to express their opinions freely, but they were not to attack the fundamental principles of the state.

The Law on Referenda, also issued in 1945, was a further attempt by Franco to make his regime appear less arbitrary. It provided that issues of national concern would be submitted for the consideration of Spanish citizens by means of popular referenda. Franco decreed this law without having consulted the Cortes, however, and he retained the sole right to determine whether a referendum would be called. The law stipulated that after 1947, a referendum would have to be called in order to alter any fundamental law; Franco retained the right to decree such laws, however--a right which he exercised in 1958.

Additional measures that were taken in the immediate postwar years to provide the Franco regime with a facade of democracy included pardons and reduced terms for prisoners convicted of civil war crimes and a guarantee that refugees who returned would not be prosecuted if they did not engage in political activities. The regime announced new elections for municipal councils; council members were to be selected indirectly by syndicates and heads of "families." The government retained the right to appoint all mayors directly.

The Law of Succession (1947) was the first of the fundamental laws to be submitted to popular referendum. It proclaimed that Spain would be a "Catholic, social, and representative monarchy" and that Franco would be regent for life (unless incapacitated). Franco had the authority to name the next king when he thought the time was appropriate and also to revoke his choice at a later date if he so desired. The law also provided for a Council of the Realm to assist Franco in the exercise of executive power and for a three-member Regency Council to be in charge of the government during the period of transition to the Caudillo's successor. When the plebiscite was held, over 90 percent of the 15 million voters approved the measures. Although the Law of Succession ostensibly reestablished the monarchy, it actually solidified Franco's rule and legitimized his position as head of state by popular suffrage.

The sixth fundamental law, the Law on the Principles of the National Movement--which Franco decreed unilaterally in 1958-- further defined the institutions of Franco's government. The National Movement--a coalition of right-wing groups referred to as political "families"--termed a "communion" rather than a party, was designated as the sole forum for political participation. The law reaffirmed the nature of Spain as a traditional, Catholic monarchy. All top government officials, as well as all possible future successors to Franco, were required to pledge their loyalty to the principles embodied in this law (which was presented as a synthesis of all previous fundamental laws).

The final fundamental law, the Organic Law of the State, was presented in 1966. It incorporated no major changes, but was designed to codify and to clarify existing practices, while allowing for some degree of reform. It established a separation between the functions of the president of government (prime minister) and the head of state, and it outlined the procedures for the selection of top government officials. It included other measures designed to modernize the Spanish system and to eliminate vestiges of fascist terminology. Although presented as a move toward democratization, it nevertheless retained the basic structure of an authoritarian system.

Franco initially derived his authority from his victory in the Civil War. The armed forces gave his regime security; the Roman Catholic Church and the National Movement gave it legitimacy. The National Movement was the only recognized political organization in Franco's Spain. It was not a political party, and it did not have an overt ideological basis. Its membership included monarchists, Falangists, conservative Catholics, members of the armed forces, as well as business groups with (vested interests in continuity), technocrats, and civil servants. Although there was some overlap among these groups, they had distinct, and often contradictory, interests. The force that fused them together was their common loyalty to Franco. Franco was particularly skillful in manipulating each of these "families," giving each a taste of power, but not allowing any group or individual to create an independent base from which to challenge his authority.

Franco's political system was virtually the antithesis of the final government of the republican era--the Popular Front government. In contrast to the anticlericalism of the Popular Front, the Francoist regime established policies that were highly favorable to the Catholic Church, which was restored to its previous status as the official religion of Spain. In addition to receiving government subsidies, the church regained its dominant position in the education system, and laws conformed to Catholic dogma. Gains in regional autonomy were reversed under Franco, and Spain reverted to being a highly centralized state. The regime abolished regional governmental bodies and enacted measures against the use of the Basque and the Catalan languages. Further contrast between the Popular Front government and the Franco regime was apparent in their bases of support. Whereas the liberal leftists and the working class elements of society had supported the Popular Front, the conservative upper classes were the mainstay of Franco's government.

Above all, Franco endeavored to remove all vestiges of parliamentary democracy, which he perceived to be alien to Spanish political traditions. He outlawed political parties, blaming them for the chaotic conditions that had preceded the Civil War. He eliminated universal suffrage and severely limited the freedoms of expression and association; he viewed criticism of the regime as treason.

In spite of the regime's strong degree of control, Franco did not pursue totalitarian domination of all social, cultural, and religious institutions, or of the economy as a whole. The Franco regime also lacked the ideological impetus characteristic of totalitarian governments. Furthermore, for those willing to work within the system, there was a limited form of pluralism. Thus, Franco's rule has been characterized as authoritarian rather than totalitarian.

Whereas there is generally consensus among analysts in designating the regime as authoritarian, there is less agreement concerning the fascist component of Franco's Spain. In its early period, the Francoist state was considered, outside Spain, to be fascist. The Falangist program of national syndicalism reflected the pattern of fascism prevalent in Europe during those years; nevertheless, core Falangists never played a major role in the new state. Most of the key leaders of the Falange did not survive the Civil War, and Franco moved quickly to subordinate the fascist party, merging it as well as more conservative and traditional political forces into the broader and vaguer National Movement under his direct control. The links between Franco's regime and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the course of international developments, further mitigated the fascist component. Thus, while there was a definite fascist element during the first decade of Franco's rule, most analysts have concluded that early Francoism can more accurately be described as semifascist.

Data as of December 1988


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