Europe, Globe, United Kingdom

Lessons from a democratic dream

In a world where the business of war is so seductive, some people have even welcomed the conflict in Ukraine. But in the face of this wave of abandonment of pacifism, there is also a rejection of the use of arms. History tells us, for example, of the time when people wanted to turn a country into a modern, democratic territory.


Juanjo Andres Cuervo


Declaration of the Segunda Republica in the plaza de San Jaime de Barcelona. Photo by Josep Maria Sagarra. Creative Commons License.

In January 2020, in Spain, two left-wing parties, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, formed the first coalition government in Spain since the Popular Front of 1936.

Spanish verses echoed the political song of the Second Republic, which was overthrown some months later by force as the right-wing reaction did not accept the democratically elected left-wing coalition.

Although the PSOE had rejected an alliance with the party led by Pablo Iglesias after the elections of 2015, 2016 and 2019, finally its leader Pedro Sanchez was forced to capitulate.

This was in part due to the spectacular rise of Vox, the far-right Spanish Party, who won 52 deputies in November 2019 elections and became the third most represented Political Party in Parliament.

Even before the Government was officially established in the Parliament in January 2020, the right-wing opposition started to employ an incendiary rhetoric to undermine the left-wing coalition. The use of pejorative phrases such as “illegitimate Government” or “criminal” have been heard inside the walls of the Spanish Parliament in the last years.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, declared that the Government formed by PSOE and Unidas Podemos was the “worst Government in 80 years”.

The date is not taken by chance: 80 years before, Franco had just started to consolidate its bloody dictatorship, murdering those called as “reds” for decades and forcing hundreds of thousands into exile.

The rise of Vox and his recent introduction in the regional Government of Castilla-Leon represents a frightening world-wide symptom.

Since 1990, the far-right parties in Europe have tripled their vote, and their use of a rhetoric based on xenophobia, blaming on foreigners, attacking feminism or LGBTQ+ communities it is becoming a worldwide trend.

We should not be so naïve to think that our democracies are safeguarded against those discourses.

Last year attack on the United States Capitol, the continuous bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia with weapons provided by Western countries, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the apartheid imposed by Israel in Palestine show how the ideal of freedom and equality is shattering.

But history shows us that there are times when countries choose peace and democracy. This is what happened in Spain.

Spanish democracy vs. Fascism

On the 14th of April of 1931, the Second Republic was proclaimed in Spain. This ended the reign of Alphonso XIII, who was forced to exile after having supported the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, which had ruled the country from 1923.

As one of the most backward countries in Western Europe, dominated by landowners, following the designs of a deeply conservative Catholic Church, and with levels of illiteracy over 40% in 1930, the implementation of a democratic system in Spain meant significant steps forwards for the country.

The Second Republic introduced new rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association and votes for women, legalised divorce and removed the special legal status of the nobility and the Church.

Enmeshed within the context of the Interwar years in Europe, it would never be easy to democratise the country. Especially considering the geographical proximity of the authoritarian far-right governments which spread across the continent.

Italy had been governed by the Fascist Party since 1925, Portugal was under a dictatorship since 1926, and Hitler was on the verge of becoming the leader of Germany, having obtained the 18% of the votes in the 1930 elections.

Within this geopolitical framework, the forces of reaction in Spain provoked an uprising. The Republic only lasted for 5 years, and the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent Franco’s dictatorship drove Spain into its darkest period.

The transition from Monarchy to Republic

After the end of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship in 1930, on the 12th of April of 1931 local elections were held in Spain for the first time in years. The result was a landslide victory for republicans and left-wing parties. In the most industrialised areas such as Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid and Valencia, the monarchy never passed the barrier of 25% of vote.

Two days later the king, Alfonso XIII, the great grandfather of the current king, Felipe VI, was forced to flee into exile.

Then, it started a period of hope for the Spanish society. The Republic wanted to modernise the country, and this clashed drastically against the conservative old order of the rural Spanish.

In those areas, Spain’s landed elites and Church hierarchy remained politically and economically strong. They oppressed family farmers, who despite being around a third of the electorate, were politically under-represented.

It seemed certain the attempt to introduce reforms in a territory dominated by a semi-feudal regime would have important consequences for the democratic experiment during the Second Republic. The landed elites were far from willing to lose their privileges.

The Second Republic against the reactionary backlash

The progressive measures implemented by the Republic such as the land reform, the transition from a religious to a lay state, the gradual emancipation of women and the advance measures in education were bold attempts to push forward one of the most backwards and conservative countries in Western Europe.

To reduce the astonishing levels of illiteracy in Spain, a new approach towards education was needed.

In that sense, the Spanish Constitution included the creation of a lay and unified school system, the obligation of the public powers to teach, and perhaps most important, a free primary education.

Reading the Spanish Constitution of the Second Republic, published on the 9th of December of 1931, one can find many similarities with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France in 1789.

The Article Two declares that “all the Spanish are legally equal”, Article Three exposed that “the Spanish state has not an official religion”, and Article Six mentions that “Spain renounces to the war as a tool of national politic”. The Republican ideals of the Enlightenment based on equality and freedom were conveyed in the new Carta Magna.

For all these reasons, Franco’s coup d’etat in 1936 was not just the consequence of living surrounded by undemocratic and fascist countries, but it also represented a response by the Spanish elites, a refusal to live under a regime which advocated for the redistribution of wealth and the implementation of rights to the people.

A Third Republic in Spain?

The idea of a Third Republic is in a substantial part of people’s minds in Spain, and people’s support for the monarchy has faded in the last decades. For instance, the scandals of former king Juan Carlos I forced him to abdicate the throne in 2014.

In the last couple of years, the Platform for Independent Media has made two surveys to ask the population about their preference between a Monarchy and a Republic. In the last one published in 2021, 39% of people showed their support for the Republic, whereas 31% expressed its commitment to the Monarchy.

In a world in which the business of war is so seductive that as countries had recently pointed to an increase in weapon expenditure to favour the oligopolies, some people have even welcomed the conflict in Ukraine.

As a counterpoint of these wave of excitement against the war and the neglection of pacifism, it is important to remember the Constitution of the Spanish Republic and its rejection of the use of weapons. It was a document to merge pacifism and feminism as a continuation of the current which originated from the years before World War I, when women organisations, alongside some socialists and Marxists groups opposed the global conflict.

Despite that almost a century has passed since the Second Republic, its egalitarian and emancipatory approach are lessons to be drawn for today’s uncertain world.

(Photos: Pixabayy)

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