A Comparison of the Democratization & Evolution of Post-Democratization Spain & Portugal

Spain & Portugal, in addition to their close proximity, have undergone similar political experiences over the centuries. In the early 16th, Spain and Portugal were two of the largest colonial empires in the world, exemplified by the Treaty of Tordesillas between the two states, in which they agreed to share the New World along a north-to-south line of demarcation around 555 kilometers west of the Cape Verde islands. As the years and centuries progressed, the two nations “lived like Siamese twins joined at the back,” in the words of Spanish reporter Ignacio Carron (Carron). In more modern history, both states were under the control of right-wing autocratic dictatorships for a large portion of the 20th century: in Portugal, António Oliveira de Salazar ruled from 1932 to 1968 and in Spain, General Francisco Franco ruled from 1939 to 1975. Finally, Portugal and Spain were two of the most important states to democratize in the 1970s, which, along with the democratization of Greece, precipitated the beginning of the 3rd wave of democratization, according to political author Samuel Huttington. While Portugal and Spain’s democratic transitions occurred at nearly the same time, the transitions themselves and their initial aftermaths of were mostly different.

Spain’s Transition to Democracy

The democratic evolution of Spain is often regarded as the most emblematic transition of the 3rd wave democratizations, marked by a steady shift in political ideals from General Franco’s authoritarian, repressive regime to a new democratic monarchical system under, surprisingly, Franco’s successor Juan Carlos I. Under Franco’s regime, there no was political pluralism, political democracy, freedom of expression, regional autonomy or right to strike, as well as the frequent execution of political prisoners. Furthermore, there was no constitution, but a law of succession which stated that Franco was “Caudillo,” or “chief,” for life, and upon his death, the position would be inherited by a new individual of Franco’s choosing. In 1969, Franco formally appointed Juan Carlos, grandson of Alfonso XIII, the last king of Spain, as his successor. 6 years later, in 1975, Franco died, and Juan Carlos was promptly appointed King of Spain, under the title Juan Carlos I. At the time of appointment, it was unsure if Carlos would continue the repressive authoritarian policies of the former regime or implement new, more liberal reforms. Early in his reign, it became apparent that Carlos was opting for the latter, quickly enacting a series of liberal reforms, angering right-wing Francoists who expected him to preserve the authoritarian system.

Carlos’s next major act was to remove Francoist prime minister Carlos Arias Navarro from power and appoint Adolfo Suarez, a younger, relatively unknown politician at the time, but one who still had ties to Francoist ideals and the conservative right. However, in despite these ties, and in a surprise to most in Spain, Suarez, alongside Juan Carlos, quickly jumped into action, enacting a series of sweeping reforms to help relieve the wounds Francoism had left on the state, including releasing political prisoners. Perhaps the most important reform was the aptly named “Law for a Political Reform” which allowed universal suffrage, as well as the implementation of a new two chamber parliament, which was passed via a referendum with 94.2% support.

Suarez then went on to become the first democratically elected prime minister in 1977, and subsequently formed a constituent legislature responsible for the preparation of the restoration of a constitutional order and the writing of a new constitution, which, in its first article, establishes Spain as a “social and democratic state, subject to the rule of law” (Spain: From Dictatorship to Democracy and Poverty to Prosperity). The 1978 constitution also was responsible for the creation of a Constitutional Court as well as constitutional review. A crucial problem in the aftermath of Franco’s death was preventing the country from splitting into many different autonomous regions, especially due to the importance of regional movements in the resistance to Francoism. Furthermore, the constitution provided a lasting solution to the problem of strong feelings of regional autonomy in the state. The constitution solved this problem in Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, which states, “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all,” and “Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All Spanish people have a duty to know it and the right to use it. 2. The other Spanish languages are also official in the respective self-government in accordance with their statutes. 3. The richness of different linguistic modalities of Spain is a cultural heritage which shall be specially respected and protected.” All in all, Spain’s democratic transition was remarkably seamless, thanks in large part to the flexibility and dedication of Spain’s political leaders, which resulted in the transition being viewed today as the standard for what a democratic transition should look like (Bailey).

Portugal’s Transition to Democracy

Unfortunately, their Iberian neighbors’ democratic transition was nowhere near as smooth. The democratization of Portugal was marked by years of instability and chaos; numerous coups and revolutions after the overthrow of Salazar’s Estado Novo replaced the willingness to compromise and to solve issues politically that marked Spain’s transition. In 1928, Antonio De Oliveira Salazar was appointed Minister of Finance and after stabilizing Portugal’s financial crisis at the time, was appointed Prime Minister. He then quickly instituted his new regime, which he referred to as the Estado Novo, or “New State.” This regime, marked primarily by repression, authoritarianism, corporatism, and general hostility to liberalism, governed in Portugal from the time Salazar took power until the mid-1970s. In 1968, Salazar suddenly had a stroke, fell into a coma, and died the following year. Via a constitutional clause, an advisory committee chose Marcello Caetano to replace Salazar, but his time in power only served to increase tensions in the state. 6 years later, a coup, now known as the Carnation Revolution, was staged and Caetano was toppled from power.

While the Carnation Revolution had many root causes, one of the most important was the unhappiness of the military as well as the general public with the cost and relevance of wars that were raging in Portuguese African colonies. In the 1950s and 1960s, nationalist movements began in various African colonies such as Mozambique, Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, & Guinea Bissau. In order to attempt to quell these movements and reestablish order in their colonies, Salazar began increasing Portuguese military presence in the colonies, diverting much of the country’s budget to its colonial administration and military expenditure (Lobo). In 1961, tensions reached their breaking point and war broke out between the colonies and Portugal. This conflict is commonly referred to simply as the Portuguese Colonial War – a single war – rather than individual wars in each colony due to the fact that in addition to the fact that the colonies assisted each other during the war, they were also supported by the same global powers, as well as the United Nations (Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council Security Council). This war lasted from 1961 from 1974, involved 200,000 Portguese soldiers, and absorbed 40 percent of Portgual’s budget for 10 years. When Salazar died, many hoped that the new leader would put an end to the wars, usher in a new era of peace, and attempt to fix the state’s budgetary problems. This did not happen. Caetano continued the Colonial War, stoking feelings of doubt within the youth of Portugal as well as members of the army fighting the war. In the early 1970s, the Captains Movement began, made up of captains within the Portguese army unhappy with the protracted wars in the colonies. This movement became what is known today as the AFM, or Armed Forces Movement, dedicated to the end of Salazar’s Estado Novo dictatorship in Portugal, the completion of the colonial war in Africa, and the development of Portugal’s economy, which had been drained by the war. These goals became an important rallying cry for the movement, becoming known as the Three Ds: democratization, decolonization, and development.

On March 16, 1974, the fully developed AFM attempted a coup to overthrow Caetano’s government, which ended in failure, but served as a dress rehearsal for the true revolution, which occurred about a month later on April 25, 1974. In the early hours of the day, Lisbon was completely surrounded by AFM forces. Immediately, the revolution gained immense popular support as the military insurgents were joined by thousands of jubilant Portuguese citizens eager to see the outdated and repressive Salazar regime being overthrown. A major gathering point for the revolution was in a flower market, full of in-season carnations, which gave the revolution its name. A key figure behind the revolution was General Antonio de Spinola, a high-ranking military official who served in the Colonial War, whose revolutionary minded book titled Portugal and the Future blindsided members of the Portguese government and laid out a blueprint for a potential recovery plan that eventually became a large part of the AFM strategy. After Caetano was found by AFM forces and forced to flee to Brazil, Spinola became the first interim president of the new Portguese government. However, it quickly became apparent that Spinola was out of touch with the prevailing political sentiment in the country and within the AFM itself, specifically when it came to what would happen with Portuguese colonies (Spinola wanted to delay decolonization while the AFM wanted to immediately decolonize). He resigned the position on September 30th of the same year.

Spinola’s short term as president was just the beginning for the instability in the post-democratization Portugal, however. Immediately after the resignation of Spinola, the AFM recognized Guinea-Bissau as independent, closely followed by Mozambique, Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe, & Angola. This period was marked by an increase of left-leaning politics, which then prompted a right-leaning counter revolution in March of 1975, in which Spinola was involved. The coup failed and Spinola was exiled to Brazil before returning 10 years later. In the aftermath, the Constituent Assembly held elections to determine the drafting of a new constitution, in which the more moderate, democratic parties committed to pluralistic democracy won, rather than the more radical left or right. This demonstrated the growing gap between the AFM, which was struggling to hold even its own supporters, and the people. In response, a leftist coup was attempted in November of 1975, led by Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, which, similarly to the right-leaning coup of earlier that year, did not succeed. This marked a death knell for the AFM, and at the end of 1975, a compromise was negotiated that allowed the Constituent Assemble to draw up a new constitution. This new constitution established various liberal civil institutions such as an elected single assembly, universal suffrage, an elected President of the Republic, and a cabinet accountable to both the president and the assembly. This constitution is often viewed as the final step in Portgual’s transition to democracy (Chislett). All in all, in the period from 1974 to 1976, there were 2 presidents, 4 prime ministers, and 6 provisional governments before a true form of democracy was reached.

While Spain and Portugal transitioned to democracy around the same time, the transitions themselves were very different. One important difference between the two transitions was the role of the military. In Spain, Juan Carlos and other politicians united the military behind their new form of government, which allowed them to focus solely on working to make the transition to democracy as smooth as possible. Meanwhile, in Portugal, the AFM and other factions within the military were too busy competing between themselves to ensure a smooth transition of power.  In Spain, compromise and continuity in government, alongside flexible and dedicated politicians, allowed for a smooth, seamless transition from General Franco’s autocratic repressive regime to a new monarchical democracy under King Juan Carlos I. Meanwhile, the discontinuity in the Portguese government led to chaotic political instability and multiple attempted coups and revolutions in the effort to try and transition away from Salazar’s autocratic regime.


Bailey, Chris. The Transition to Democracy in Spain and Portugal – e-Ir.info. https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/159.

Carrión, Ignacio. “Portugal-España: Siameses Unidos Por La Espalda.” El País, 4 Jan. 2002, https://elpais.com/diario/2002/01/06/domingo/1010292756_850215.html.

Chislett, William. “Spain and Portugal: From Distant Neighbours to Uneasy Associates.” Elcano Royal Institute, 22 Nov. 2021, https://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/en/work-document/spain-and-portugal-from-distant-neighbours-to-uneasy-associates/.

Lobo, Marina Costa. “Portuguese Democratisation 40 Years on: Its Meaning and Enduring Legacies.” Taylor & Francis, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13608746.2016.1153490.

“Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council Security Council.” United Nations, United Nations, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/repertoire/structure.

Spain: From Dictatorship to Democracy and Poverty to Prosperity. 2010, https://effectivestates.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Spain-From-Dictatorship-to-Democracy-and-Poverty-to-Prosperity.pdf.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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