Spain: Contemporary Spain

Contemporary Spain

The year 1975 was marked by escalating terrorist activity in the Basque Country on the part of the militant separatist organization ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna), the death of Franco, and the beginning of the reign of King Juan Carlos I. With his prime minister, Adolfo Suárez González, the king ushered in a period of political reform and rapid decentralization. Juan Carlos opened the new bicameral Cortes in 1977. The Falange was dissolved in 1977 as well, and the Communist party was legalized shortly thereafter. A new constitution, which replaced the fundamental laws under which Spain had been governed since 1938, was ratified in 1978, formally establishing a parliamentary monarchy and universal adult suffrage.

Catalonia and the Basque Country were granted limited autonomy in 1977, the Balearic Islands, Castile and León, and Extremadura in 1978, and Andalusia and Galicia in 1980. In 1981 Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo became prime minister following Suárez's resignation. Rightist civil guards seeking greater centralization seized the Spanish parliament in 1981, but the coup was quickly put down. In 1982, a Socialist majority was elected to the Cortes in parliamentary elections and Felipe González Márquez became prime minister. Spain also expanded its international role; it was admitted into NATO in 1982 and became a member of the European Community (now the European Union) in 1986. Spain continued to enjoy economic growth as a result of increased domestic and foreign investment in the 1980s and 90s, but had one of the highest unemployment rates in W Europe. In 1988, a general strike prompted the government to increase workers' unemployment benefits and salaries for civil servants.

Basque separatist violence continued in the 1980s with the ETA committing hundreds of murders, but showed some signs of abating in the 1990s, following arrests of many ETA leaders. The ruling Socialist party suffered losses in the 1993 elections but was able to form a minority government with the cooperation of the Catalonian nationalist coalition. Following the Mar., 1996, elections, a center-right government took office. Popular party (PP) head José María Aznar López became prime minister in coalition with the Catalonian nationalists. Factors in the Socialists' fall included economic problems, corruption scandals, and charges that Socialist officials had endorsed a “dirty war” against Basque separatists in the 1980s.

Aznar introduced a government austerity and privatization program, and the economy experienced significant economic growth. A cease-fire called by the ETA in 1998 resulted in fruitless negotiations with Aznar's government, and in 1999 the ETA ended the cease-fire. With the end of the cease-fire the government took a hard line with the separatists. Also in 1999, Spain became part of the European Union's single currency plan. Benefiting from a prosperous economy, Aznar led the PP to a parliamentary majority in the Mar., 2000, elections.

Following the Sept., 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the Spanish government sought greater international support for its campaign against the ETA and renewed its crackdown the organization. In Aug., 2002, a Spanish judge suspended Batasuna, the Basque separatist party linked to the ETA, accusing it of collaborating with terrorists; the party was permanently banned in Mar., 2003. Despite strong opposition from the Spanish people, Aznar was a strong supporter of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Spain did not, however, commit troops to the invasion force, but it subsequently contributed to the occupation force.

The government's support of the U.S. occupation of Iraq appears to have contributed to multiple bombings of Madrid commuter trains in Mar., 11, 2004, shortly before Spanish national elections. Initially termed likely an ETA attack by Aznar's government, the bombings were soon linked to a largely Moroccan group of Islamic terrorists; 190 people died, and more 1,400 were injured. Although the PP had been expected to win the mid-March parliamentary elections, the opposition Socialists secured a plurality of the seats. Their win seemed due both to continuing popular opposition to sending Spanish forces to Iraq and to the government's strongly asserted, presumptive mischaracterization of those behind the bombings. Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who had called for withdrawing Spain's troops from Iraq, did so after becoming prime minister.

Dependent on the support of Catalonian nationalists, Zapatero agreed to consider increased autonomy for Catalonia. The Catalonian government passed an autonomy plan in 2005, and the Cortes voted to approve increased autonomy for Catalonia in 2006. (A more extreme autonomy plan for the Basque Country, calling for “free association,” failed to win Cortes approval in 2004.) The ETA, the militant Basque independence group that had mounted terror attacks since the 1960s, announced a “permanent” cease-fire in Mar., 2006, and called for negotiations; Zapatero announced in June that his government would open talks with the ETA. Also in June, Catalonian voters approved the autonomy plan; the approval meant that the powers accorded the Catalonian government could also devolve on other Spanish regions. In 2010, however, the constitutional court essentially nullified many of those powers, an action that stoked support for Catalonia's independence.

Negotiations with the ETA were slow to develop, although government representatives did meet with the ETA secretly in December. Progress was slowed in part by acts by each side that the other side regarded as contrary to the spirit of the cease-fire, and a major ETA bombing at the Madrid airport at the end of December led the government to announce it was ending the talks, and it subsequently arrested many ETA members. The ETA asserted the cease-fire continued, despite the bombing, but also threatened further attacks in retaliation for what it regarded as government moves against it, and in June, 2007, it officially ended its cease-fire.

In the Mar., 2008, elections, the Socialists again won a plurality of seats in the Cortes; both the Socialist and Popular parties increased their seats a little at the expense of smaller regional parties. The global financial crisis and resulting economic downturn that began in 2008 hit Spain especially hard, aggravating the collapse of a national housing and construction bubble; beginning in 2010 unemployment was near or above 20% for several years. The weakened economy greatly worsed the government's deficit, forcing the eurozone nation to adopt austerity measures. The ETA announced a new cease-fire in 2010 and an end to its armed campaign in Oct., 2011; the Spanish government continued to call for the group to disarm and disband.

Spain's economic difficulties led to significant losses for the governing Socialists in the May, 2011, local and regional elections, and Mariano Rajoy Brey led the PP to a parliamentary majority in the national elections in November. The new government enacted additional austerity measures as the economy continued to weaken; the PP failed to win the regional assembly elections in Andalusia in Mar., 2012. By mid-2012 increasing financial troubles with a number of Spain's banks had led to a government takeover of the largest savings bank, and also led Spain to seek European Union aid amounting to as much as €100 billion for its banks. At the same time, unemployment exceeded 27% at its peak in 2013 as a result of the ongoing recession, and the nation's budget deficit as a percentage of GDP increased to exceed Greece's in 2012.

The economic situation (which showed some improvement in late 2013) contributed to sentiment for independence in Catalonia, and led to renewed tensions between the region and the central government as Catalonia's government sought to hold a vote on independence. Ultimately held (Nov., 2014) as a nonbinding poll, in which most of those voting favored secession, the vote was later declared unconstitutional. In June, 2014, Juan Carlos abdicated and was succeeded by his son, Felipe (as Philip VI).

In the May, 2015, local and regional elections the PP remained the largest vote-getter but nonetheless suffered significant losses as voters turned to two new parties, one center-right and the other left-wing, in protest against continuing poor economic conditions. The September Catalonia elections gave separatist parties a regional parliamentary majority, which then approved a plan for secession and later sought to proceed with a 2017 independence referendum despite central government challenges in the courts. In December, national elections resulted in a divided parliament. The PP won a plurality, but only slightly more than a third of the seats, and the Socialists and the new left-wing and center-right parties also won significant blocs. Any new government needed the support of three of the four largest parties, making the formation of a new government difficult.

In June, 2016, new elections were held after the parties proved unable to agree on a new government; the result largely mirrored that six months before, though the PP did increase its plurality. A new government again failed to win parliamentary approval, but in October Rajoy was able to form a minority government with the support of the center-right Citizens party and the acquiescence of the Socialists. By the end of 2016, the unemployment rate had fallen from its highs but remained above 18%; it fell further through 2018, to 14.5%.

In Apr., 2017, the ETA, which had announced it would disarm, turned over information on arms stockpiles through intermediaries in France, and the group disbanded in May, 2018. Spain's worst terrorist attack since 2004 occurred in Barcelona in Aug., 2017, when a jihadist drove a van at pedestrians, killing 14 and injuring more than 100. Catalonia held an independence referendum in October despite court challenges and a Spanish police crackdown; 43% of Catalonians voted, 92% in favor. Subsequently, as the Spanish government moved to take control of the region, Catalonia's parliament declared independence before it was dissolved. The declaration was generally rejected internationally, and Spain charged Catalonian officials with rebellion and sedition, but pro-independence parties won the subsequent Catalonian elections.

In June, 2018, Rajoy lost a confidence vote in 2018 after the PP was fined and a former party treasurer was convicted in a major corruption case. Socialist Pedro Sánchez succeeded Rajoy as prime minister and formed a minority government. Sánchez, although opposed to Catalonian independence, took a more moderate approach with respect to its government. Failure to secure passage of a budget in Feb., 2019, led Sánchez to call a snap election for April, when the Socialists won a plurality, but a divided parliament made forming a new government difficult. In October the conviction of 12 Catalonian separatist leaders involved in 2017 referendum on various charges (including sedition in nine cases) sparked days of sometimes violent Catalonian protests. New elections in November again produced a divided parliament, but now with increased support for the far-right Vox party. In Jan., 2020, Sáchez formed a coalition government with the left-wing Podemos-led alliance; the new government was dependent on the acquiescence of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC). Spain was extremely hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

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