Spain Political Interest Groups

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Spain - Political Interest Groups


Military intervention in politics has been a recurring theme in Spain since the end of the Napoleonic wars. From 1814 to 1936, Spain experienced no fewer than fifty-four attempts by the army or by groups of officers to intervene against the civilian authority. Twelve of these succeeded in overthrowing the existing regime or in abrogating its constitution. The form each of these interventions took was that of a pronunciamiento (pl., pronunciamientos), whereby a group of rebelling officers would "pronounce" what it wanted the civilian leaders to do.

The support of the armed forces was an essential factor in maintaining Franco's forty-year dictatorship. Franco was always aware of the importance of this support, and he managed to foster the belief that the army's interests would be served best by the continuation of his rule. Franco restored to the army its role of guarantor of the nation's values. At the same time, Franco was aware of the dangers of a politicized army. He retained firm control of the military establishment and prevented any individual officer from gaining a power base. If a military leader became too popular or began to question Franco's policies, he was quickly removed from any position of influence.

Following the death of Franco, King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Suarez were able to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy by proceeding with extreme caution and consulting with the military leadership throughout the process. Thus, the military leaders retained the belief that they had the right to be consulted on matters of national importance. The democratic leftists were also aware of the ever-present possibility that reformist measures could alienate the military and could provoke a coup attempt, which led them to accept many compromises throughout the transition period.

The role of King Juan Carlos was vital in gaining the army's acceptance of the new democratic regime. He had been trained in military academies, and he understood the viewpoint of the officer corps. He made a point of establishing close ties with the armed forces after Franco's death in order to gain their loyalty to him as Franco's chosen successor. At the same time, he was able to keep the government informed as to how far it could go in the reform process without provoking a military reaction.

Although many officers did not care for the political reform program set forth by Suarez, the military leaders did not express open opposition to the democratization process until the legalization of the PCE in the spring of 1977. They felt betrayed by Suarez, who had promised not to take such a step, and although there was no coup, they protested vehemently.

The independence with which the army leaders had expressed their revulsion at the government's decision highlighted the possibility that a powerful military organization could limit popular sovereignty. Subsequently, measures were taken to affirm the supremacy of civilian control. At the same time, the government took steps to assuage military opinion by allocating funds for the modernization of military equipment and for raising military salaries. Efforts also were made to rationalize the military career structure and to eliminate bottlenecks in the promotion process.

In succeeding months, the armed forces and the civilian government coexisted uneasily. Intermittent rumblings were heard from reactionary army leaders, who retained an antidemocratic mentality and who could not come to terms with their new position in society. The armed forces seethed with plots for military takeovers, and the government's leniency toward conspirators, rather than mollifying the military leaders, encouraged the plotters to more daring acts. This unstable situation was exacerbated by the escalation of terrorist violence. Army dissidents perceived the government as allowing the country to descend into anarchy, and military unrest culminated in the dramatic coup attempt of February 23, 1981. This attempted takeover was thwarted by the decisive intervention of King Juan Carlos, but conspiracies continued to be uncovered.

When the Socialists came to power in 1982, the deterrent power of the armed forces was still a factor to be considered. The PSOE government continued to be cautious in dealing with issues affecting the military, although it took a firmer stance than did its predecessors. As rumors of impending coups quieted, and as extreme right-wing parties failed to gain popular support, the government undertook stronger legal measures to bring the armed forces under the political control of the prime minister as well as to modernize and to streamline the military organization.

A significant aspect of the military reorganization was the emphasis on the armed forces' role in defending the state from external, not internal, enemies. This was reinforced by Spain's entrance into NATO. This new outward focus, combined with the general stability and conservatism of the government, helped to make military intervention in the political realm both impractical and unlikely.

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Political interest groups

The revitalized pluralism that accompanied liberalization in Spain after Franco gave rise to new forms of popular participation in the country's political process. At the same time, it redefined the existing political forces, such as the army and the Roman Catholic Church. Article 9 of the 1978 Constitution calls on public authorities to facilitate the participation of all citizens in the political, the economic, the cultural, and the social life of the country. After forty years of depoliticization, Spanish citizens began to play an increasingly active role in the nation's development, through involvement in the various interest groups that were established or reactivated along with the political parties.


The labor movement, which had been a major component of support for the Republican forces in the Civil War, was brutally suppressed after the Nationalists came to power. Vertical syndicates replaced trade unions, and strikes were outlawed. Nevertheless, mounting strike activity in the 1960s and the 1970s, which persisted in spite of severe reprisals, testified to the strength of the labor movement, which was a key factor in propelling Spain toward a democratic form of government.

The political changes that swept through Spain in the wake of liberalization were not accompanied by commensurate changes in social and economic conditions. One of the reasons for this was the labor movement's reluctance to voice strong criticisms of the governing UCD for fear of provoking a military coup. Because of the army's apparent ambivalence toward the nascent democratic system, the parties on the left and the labor movement, which normally would have been expected to agitate for a significant restructuring of the economy and of society, adopted an attitude of cooperation and consensus with the government. Although this stance contributed to the success of the transition process, it nevertheless had the effect of postponing necessary societal reforms. The consequences of this delay were a salient factor in the labor unrest that reached crisis proportions in the late 1980s.

Decree laws in March and in April 1977 legalized trade unions and introduced the rights to strike and to engage in collective bargaining. The 1978 Constitution delineates the rights of unions to defend their interests. It grants to all citizens, except members of the armed forces and the judiciary, the right to join a union. It also guarantees them the right not to join one. The first major labor legislation enacted under the 1978 Constitution, the Workers' Statute that came into force in 1980, further elaborated the rights of workers. It included guarantees pertaining to a minimum wage and to social security, and it stipulated that labor relations were to be worked out between unions and management, with no direct government involvement. The statute outlined the format for collective bargaining, recognizing the right of the elected representatives of the workers to negotiate on their behalf.

The basic freedoms and rights of unions were given more detailed treatment in the Organic Law on Trade Union Freedom, which went into effect in August 1985. This law spelled out the negotiating role to which larger unions were entitled, and it prohibited any form of discrimination on the part of employers. An earlier government labor statute called for syndical elections to be held every two years, and these provided an indication of the national strength of the labor unions.

The two principal unions were the UGT and the CCOO. The UGT, which was founded in 1888 and which had a long tradition of close ties with the PSOE, was a composite of autonomous local unions, each of which consisted of workers engaged in the same type of activity, who were organized on a provincial or regional basis. The UGT favored the idea of increased power at the local level, and allowed local unions to call work stoppages independently. In the 1982 union elections, the UGT gained a greater share of the vote than the CCOO, which had dominated previous syndical elections.

The CCOO has a shorter history than the UGT, having developed out of locally organized groups of workers that functioned both legally and clandestinely during the Franco dictatorship. Reforms enacted in the late 1950s allowed for the election of factory committees that rapidly evolved into permanent bodies representing the interests of the workers. Although the founding members of this new labor movement were independent socialists and leftist Roman Catholics as well as communists, it was the PCE that emerged as the dominant force within the movement; the majority of leadership positions were held by PCE members.

As these workers' organizations, called commissions, grew in strength and began to proliferate, the Francoist authorities cracked down, outlawing them in 1967. This did not stop their activities. By the time of Franco's death, the CCOO was the dominant force in the labor movement. It subsequently declined in strength, in part because of the PCE's decreased electoral support and the concomitant ascendancy of the PSOE.

Like the UGT, the CCOO was organized into federations of workers, based on the type of work they performed. These groups were in turn linked together as confederations in territorial congresses. A national congress met every other year. The structure of the CCOO was more centralized than that of the UGT; decisions made at the top were expected to be carried out throughout the lower echelons of the union.

The CCOO claimed to be politically independent, but the union had strong historical links with the PCE, and its important leaders were also prominent communists. Communist ideology prevailed, although the union began assuming a tactical distance from the PCE in the 1980s, as the party became weakened by internal divisions and lost support at the polls.

The UGT made no effort to de-emphasize its links with the PSOE. Both union and party frequently reiterated their common aspirations, although there were disagreements between them as well as within their respective organizations. The political ties of both the UGT and the CCOO were salient factors in the rivalry that existed between the two unions.

In addition to these two major unions, other labor organizations remained active and influential in Spain in the late 1980s. The Workers' Syndical Union (Union Sindical Obrera-- USO) was among those that developed in opposition to the Franco regime. Many of its founding members had been involved in the Catholic workers' organizations, and they were strongly anticommunist. At the same time, they sought to replace capitalism with control of production by the workers. Militant in its early days, the USO had evolved into the most politically conservative of the major federations by the 1980s.

A more radical trade union, the anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Labor (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo--CNT), was the second oldest labor organization in Spain; it had been a major political force during the Second Republic. Failing to reestablish its working-class base after the Franco period, it found its principal support among white-collar workers. It boycotted syndical elections as elements of bourgeois democracy and preferred direct action strategies.

Two smaller unions that developed as splinter groups from the CCOO were the extreme left Confederation of United Workers' Unions (Confederacion de Sindicatos Unitarios de Trabajadores-- CSUT) and the United Syndicate (Sindicato Unitario--SU). Both were linked to Maoist political parties; their aim was to present a distinctly radical alternative to the moderation of the major federations. Although they gained some support in the 1978 union elections, their influence has steadily declined.

In addition, there were regional unions, two of which gained sufficient support to qualify for a formal place in negotiating procedures. These were the Basque Workers' Solidarity (Eusko Langilleen Alkartasuna-Solidaridad de Trabajadores Vascos--ELASTV ), which was closely linked to the PNV, and the National Galician Workers' Union (Intersindical Nacional de Trabajadores Gallegos--INTG).

Although trade unions were highly visible and influential in the political process, they all, with the exception of the ELASTV , suffered from small memberships. While studies indicated that less than 20 percent of the wage-earning population was affiliated with a union, even fewer of these workers maintained their dues payments, leaving the trade unions in a financially weak position.

Nevertheless, labor unions continued to maintain a high profile in the political arena. Throughout 1987 and 1988, periodic strikes plagued the PSOE government and disrupted the day-to-day functioning of the country. These strikes had the backing of the UGT. Discontent within the labor movement was dramatized when the UGT leader, Redondo, formerly close to Gonzalez, resigned his seat in parliament in protest against government policies. He gave voice to the widespread feeling that the PSOE's economic policies were benefiting business at the expense of the working class. In October 1987, the UGT and the CCOO agreed to stage joint demonstrations against the government's pay and pension policies, and in December 1988 they staged a general strike.

Opus Dei

The most influential Catholic lay group during the Franco period was the controversial Opus Dei (Work of God). This group did not fit conveniently into any political category. Although it denied any political aims, its members played pivotal roles in the modernization of the economy under Franco and in the subsequent liberalization of politics and government. At the same time, they were theologically conservative, and their desire for modernization was far from radical. They believed that economic reforms would improve society to the extent that thoroughgoing political reforms would be unnecessary.

Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by an Aragonese priest, Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer y Albas, and it was subsequently recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as its first secular religious institution. Although attention has been drawn primarily to its activities in Spain, it is an international body with members and associates throughout the world. Members take a vow to dedicate their professional talents to the service of God and to seek to win converts through their missionary zeal. The organization in Spain has emphasized professional excellence, and it has expected its members to serve in important government positions.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, Opus Dei members came to control the economic ministries, and they occupied other important cabinet posts as well. This was in keeping with the organization's aim of influencing the development of society indirectly. Opus Dei recruited its members from among the brightest students, which encouraged a sense of elitism and clannishness. Because of this clannishness and the secrecy that surrounded the organization, some critics termed it the "Holy Mafia."

The Opus Dei technocrats were largely responsible for devising, introducing, and later administering the economic stabilization program that formed the basis of Spain's economic development. They encouraged competition as a means of achieving rapid economic growth, and they favored economic integration with Europe. Although these policies implied eventual political as well as economic liberalization, this was not Opus Dei's avowed goal; the group remained socially conservative, stressing personal piety and orthodox theology.

With the advent of democracy, Opus Dei lost much of its influence, and it was condemned by the more progressive forces in both the Catholic hierarchy and Spanish society for having propped up a repressive regime. Its stature was somewhat restored under Pope John Paul II, who viewed the orthodox Catholicism of the organization with favor. Opus Dei remained influential in the area of education as well as in certain sectors of the financial community.


Throughout the Franco years, a relatively small financial elite of businessmen and bankers exercised a considerable amount of power through personal influence and connections rather than through support from organized interest groups. Moreover, the interests of the business community were generally compatible with those of the Franco dictatorship: both wanted stability and economic prosperity. In the later years of the regime, business leaders, influenced by their contacts with Western Europe, came to favor more economically liberal policies; many of these leaders became vigorous proponents of economic and political modernization.

Many members of the financial elite under Franco continued to hold positions of authority after his death. Constitutional and statutory provisions enacted under the new democratic regime provided more formalized structures to represent their interests and those of the wider business community. In the early days of democratic government, a large number of employers' organizations came into being. Some of these were based on regions; a larger number were organized according to the type of business activity involved. In 1977 these diverse organizations were brought together in the Spanish Confederation of Employers' Organizations (Confederacion Espanola de Organizaciones Empresariales--CEOE). This group subsequently became one of the strongest supporters of the AP. A separate confederation, the Spanish Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Firms (Confederacion Espanola de Pequenas y Medianas Empresas--CEPYME), was incorporated into the CEOE in 1980. It maintained a special status within the larger confederation, and when agreements were reached with the government and the unions, the CEPYME was a separate signatory.

The CEOE was a highly consolidated organization, representing almost all of Spain's companies, other than those that were owned or controlled by the government. Two other national associations endeavored, with little success, to become the representatives of smaller-scale businesses: the General Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Firms of Spain (Confederacion General de las Pequenas y Medianas Empresas del Estado Espanol--COPYME) and the Union of Small and Medium-Sized Firms (Union de la Pequena y Mediana Empresa--UNIPYME).

In addition to employers' organizations, chambers of commerce endeavored to further the economic interests of their members by providing a variety of services to the firms and the individuals they represented. They had an international role as well, and they assisted in export promotion and trade missions.

The greatest degree of political influence within Spain's business community was exercised by the country's large private banks. During the Franco regime, the banking sector provided crucial financial support for Franco, and he in turn enacted measures that were to its benefit. For example, he prohibited the founding of new banks from 1936 to 1962, thereby further concentrating the power of the larger banks. These banks controlled large sectors of industry, directly and indirectly, and they collaborated with government institutions in directing Spain's economic expansion.

The traditionally powerful position of the banks was eroded somewhat during the economic recession of the 1970s and by increased government intervention in banking under the democratic regime. The inability of the leaders of the largest banks to transcend their mutual rivalries also attenuated the influence of this potentially formidable interest group. Nevertheless, they remained the single largest grouping of economic and financial interests in Spain, with close links to the government. Banks gained additional leverage by providing financial assistance to the frequently short-funded political parties.

Roman Catholic Church

Church and state have been closely linked in Spain for centuries. With the reinstitution of the Inquisition in Spain in the fifteenth century, the state employed draconian measures to enforce religious unity in an effort to ensure political unity. Strong measures to separate church and state were enacted under the short-lived Second Republic, but they were nullified by the victorious Nationalists. In the early years of the Franco regime, church and state had a close and mutually beneficial association. The loyalty of the Roman Catholic Church to the Francoist state lent legitimacy to the dictatorship, which in turn restored and enhanced the church's traditional privileges.

After the Second Vatican Council in 1965 set forth the church's stand on human rights, the church in Spain moved from a position of unswerving support for Franco's rule to one of guarded criticism. During the final years of the dictatorship, the church withdrew its support from the regime and became one of its harshest critics. This evolution in the church's position divided Spanish Catholics. Within the institution, right-wing sentiment, opposed to any form of democratic change, was typified by the Brotherhood of Spanish Priests, the members of which published vitriolic attacks on church reformers. Opposition took a more violent form in such groups as the rightist Catholic terrorist organization known as the Warriors of Christ the King, which assaulted progressive priests and their churches.

Whereas this reactionary faction was vociferous in its resistance to any change within the church, other Spanish Catholics were frustrated at the slow pace of reform in the church and in society, and they became involved in various leftist organizations. In between these extreme positions, a small, but influential, group of Catholics--who had been involved in lay Catholic organizations such as Catholic Action--favored liberalization in both the church and the regime, but they did not enter the opposition forces. They formed a study group called Tacito, which urged a gradual transition to a democratic monarchy. The group's members published articles advocating a Christian democratic Spain.

The church continued to be in opposition to the Franco regime throughout the dictatorship's final years. The Joint Assembly of Bishops and Priests held in 1971 marked a significant phase in the distancing of the church from the Spanish state. This group affirmed the progressive spirit of the Second Vatican Council and adopted a resolution asking the pardon of the Spanish people for the hierarchy's partisanship in the Civil War.

At the Episcopal Conference convened in 1973, the bishops demanded the separation of church and state, and they called for a revision of the 1953 Concordat. Subsequent negotiations for such a revision broke down because Franco refused to relinquish the power to veto Vatican appointments. Until his death, Franco never understood the opposition of the church. No other Spanish ruler had enacted measures so favorable to the church as Franco, and he complained bitterly about what he considered to be its ingratitude.

Because the church had already begun its transformation into a modern institution a decade before the advent of democracy to Spain, it was able to assume an influential role during the transition period that followed Franco's death. Furthermore, although disagreements over church-state relations and over political issues of particular interest to the Roman Catholic Church remained, these questions could be dealt with in a less adversarial manner under the more liberal atmosphere of the constitutional monarchy.

A revision of the Concordat was approved in July 1976 by the newly formed Suarez government. Negotiations soon followed that resulted in bilateral agreements, delineating the relationship between the Vatican and the new democratic state. The 1978 Constitution confirms the separation of church and state while recognizing the role of the Roman Catholic faith in Spanish society.

Within this basic framework for the new relationship between the church and the government, divisive issues remained to be resolved in the late 1980s. The church traditionally had exercised considerable influence in the area of education, and it joined conservative opposition parties in mounting a vigorous protest against the education reforms that impinged on its control of the schools. Even more acrimonious debate ensued over the emotionally charged issues of divorce and abortion. The church mobilized its considerable influence in support of a powerful lobbying effort against proposed legislation that was contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine governing these subjects. The passage of a law in 1981 legalizing civil divorce struck a telling blow against the influence of the church in Spanish society. A law legalizing abortion under certain circumstances was passed in August 1985 and further liberalized in November 1986, over the fierce opposition of the church.

Another manifestation of the redefined role of the church was contained in measures aimed at reducing, and ultimately eliminating, direct government subsidies to the church. As part of the agreements reached in 1979, the church concurred with plans for its financial independence, to be achieved during a rather lengthy transitional period. At the end of 1987, the government announced that, after a three-year trial period, the church would receive no further direct state aid but would be dependent on what citizens chose to provide, either through donations or by designating a portion of their income tax for the church. Although the church's exempt status constituted an indirect subsidy, the effect of this new financial status on the church's ability to wield political influence remained to be seen.

Although church-state relations involved potentially polarizing issues, the church played a basically cooperative and supportive role in the emergence of plural democracy in Spain. Although it no longer had a privileged position in society, its very independence from politics and its visibility made it an influential force.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

Spain | Comparative Interest Group Survey - Spain - Political Interest Groups | Spanish
Mapping the Interest Groups Participation in the Spanish
Interest groups in Spain | Joaquim M. Molins | Research
Interest Groups in Spain: Participation in the

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