Spain has held ten free elections resulting in four different prime ministers since its return to democracy. Given the fact the country had to wrench itself out of four decades of far-right dictatorship, the process has been surprisingly smooth and varied.
The first elections in contemporary times took place in 1977 and it was a middle-of-the road party, known as the Central Democratic Union, that carried the day. More than a party, it was a coalition of some twenty other minor parties which banded together to form a considerable political force made up mainly by moderate Francoists and other central right-wingers, but also counted on the support of some center-left groups too. The UCD did not get enough votes to take the absolute majority in parliament, so its power was conceded to it by the other parties in hopes of getting things started. The legislature under Spain’s first modern democratically-elected Prime Minister, Adolfo Suarez, lasted roughly two years before the next election in 1979.
The UCD won again but were barely hanging on as fissures in the federation became greater. They bad thing about trying to stick to the center is that no one else seems to be entirely satisfied with what you do. Suarez, feeling that his power was slipping away from him, and realizing that he was no longer able to lead the country effectively, resigned; when his successor Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo was being voted in, the Civil Guard paramilitary group decided to try and take over the government. They were hoping to bring the country back under the rule of the far-right. It would seem that was all they knew how to do. It was how they handled it in 1936. Luckily, though, it failed.
A year later, the Socialist Party won by an overwhelming margin. The UCD showed clear signs of disintegration by losing 155 seats in parliament. That is what I call a devastating loss.
The socialist leader was a man named Felipe Gonzalez, who ran the government for nearly 15 years. Spain, as is the case in many other European countries, still does not have a law limiting the number of years a prime minister can be in power. Gonzalez, by far the party’s most charismatic leader, had very few internal rivals. But 15 years is a long time by anyone’s standards. The Socialist Party won the next three general elections before bowing in 1996 to the Popular Party (sometimes translated as the People’s Party), which was the rising center-right conservative force in Spain. In a sense this election was vital to the democratic process because it showed that the country was comfortable with letting a right-wing party return to power. It was an almost necessary step. Its leader, José María Aznar, took over. He won again in 2000, this time with the absolute majority. Aznar took Spain through a period of general prosperity but stumbled with his support of the United States in the Iraq War. This decision was immensely unpopular in Spain and cost his party dearly.
Aznar vowed from the beginning that he would never seek a third term and stuck to his word. His successor, Mariano Rajoy, still the Popular Party’s leader today, ran in his place and competed against the Socialist leader, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The race was close, but as late as a week before the election, it seemed Rajoy would hold onto his lead and win. Then, suddenly, something extraordinary happened…