The second transition
Jun 24th 2004
From The Economist print edition
After 30 years of economic and political success, Spain is entering a new phase of democratic development, says John Grimond (interviewed here)
IT IS difficult not to like Spain, not to enjoy the atmosphere of such a civilised society and not to admire the achievements of its people. In under 30 years—Generalisimo Francisco Franco died in November 1975—Spain has emerged from dictatorship and international isolation, built a successful economy and established an effective democracy. Perhaps no other European country has achieved so much, on so many fronts, so quickly.
Yet Spain is also slightly ill-at-ease, slightly lacking in self-confidence. That was true even before the terrorists' bombs of March 11th that shook Spaniards to their bones, and the ruling People's Party of José María Aznar from the seat of government that it thought it had a lock on for another four years. Things were not altogether composed even then, and they are certainly more complicated now.
Much of what Spain has achieved is real enough. In less than a generation the country has established a democratic system in which parties alternate in government, and governments, on the whole, deliver the goods. Of course, the evolution has had some bumps: an attempted military coup in 1981, for instance, boldly squelched by King Juan Carlos, and a scandal during the Socialist administration of Felipe González in the mid-1990s about the use of death-squads against Basque terrorists. In both episodes the issue at stake was really the rule of law.
Nonetheless, all in all, Spain has developed not just a firm democracy but a system of governments that produce policies and implement them—in other words, they govern. Most notably, they deliver economic growth, which is why Spaniards are today about 75% richer than they were 30 years ago, and have seen their economy grow faster than the European average for nearly ten years.
Not surprisingly, democratic Spain has won the respect of other countries. Some have attributed this to the assertive leadership of Mr Aznar, who loosened Spain's ties with France and Germany, strengthened those with Euro-equivocal Britain and the uncompromising United States of George Bush, and brooked no nonsense from countries such as Morocco when they provoked him. After years on the fringes of international respectability, Spain has certainly started to count in the world. Mr Aznar saw the significance of this, yet the respect given to his country beyond its borders derived not so much from his strutting on the world stage as from the fact that Spain had become a country that worked. It was a place to be reckoned with.
The contrast with Italy is instructive. Italy has been a democracy for about twice as long as Spain. It is richer and its population, at 59m, is nearly half as large again as Spain's, at 40m. Under Silvio Berlusconi, Italy, like Spain, has even aligned itself with Mr Bush's America and sent troops at his behest to Iraq. But how influential is Italy? Mr Berlusconi could hardly match Mr Aznar's 14 meetings with Mr Bush in 2002-04. He was not even invited to join Mr Aznar, Mr Blair and Portugal's José Manuel Durão Barroso at Mr Bush's summit in the Azores before the Iraq war in March 2003. Yet if Italy has been punching below its weight and Spain above it, that is not because Mr Bush found Spain's prime minister ideologically more congenial than Italy's. It is because Spain is a serious country.
Not too serious, fortunately. For those who seek trendy tapas bars, non-stop night life or inventive restaurants, Spain is the place. Good Spanish wine no longer comes only from La Rioja, any more than good Spanish cheese comes only from La Mancha. Spanish athletes excel on the golf course, the football pitch and the tennis court. Spain's singers have long been bringing down the world's opera houses. Now its dancers, such as Tamar Rojo, who performs with Britain's Royal Ballet, are entrancing international audiences, its actresses, such as Elena Anaya, are conquering Hollywood, and its directors, such as Pedro Almodóvar, are beguiling Cannes.
The cultural exuberance is even more conspicuous in architecture, Spanish-commissioned if not all Spanish-designed. The Agbar tower, a huge new skyscraper that has recently broken the Barcelona skyline, is just one of the many striking buildings going up across Spain in this burst of architectural fecundity. The trend was started by the citizens of the old industrial city of Bilbao, who were clever enough in the 1990s to persuade a first-rate American architect, Frank Gehry, to design them their own Guggenheim Museum (a spectacular titanium-clad clipper that now stands on the site of an old shipyard), and to get the Basque government to pay for it. Next they asked Spain's own Santiago Calatrava to design the city's stylish Sondika airport. Then they got Britain's Norman Foster to do their metro—whose stations are now known as fosteritos. Bilbao, once mouldering and mephitic, has never looked back.
Other cities are following suit. Barcelona has taken on Zaha Hadid, the Anglo-Iraqi winner of the 2004 Pritzker architecural prize, to design a Plaza de las Artes. She is also overseeing the development of another swathe of Bilbao, as well as designing a large building in Durango. Córdoba has asked the Netherlands' Rem Koolhas to plan its own urban project. Valencia has signed up Mr Calatrava to create a City of Arts and Sciences. And Madrid, not content with commissioning Britain's Richard Rogers to help finish its expanded Barajas airport, is undertaking five projects costing over €150m ($180m) that will together form a new cultural area to be known as the Salón del Prado.
Spain's cities have, for over a decade, been clever at promoting themselves, and thus the country as a whole, through international fiestas. Barcelona got a huge lift from the Olympics in 1992, and so did Seville from the Expo world fair that same year. Now Barcelona is holding a €326m jamboree called Forum 2004. In 2007 Valencia will hold, on behalf of the landlocked Swiss champions, the contest for sailing's oldest competition, the America's Cup. And Madrid is now running second in the stakes to hold the 2012 Olympics.
All this gives Spain the feeling of a place with a spring in its step. It undoubtedly helps to draw visitors and to make Spaniards feel they live in a modern, culturally vital society. Yet it also helps to show up those parts of Spanish existence that have not quite caught up with the times.
Evidence of such underdevelopment can be found in most areas of Spanish life. Spanish business, for example, is remarkably timid, deferential towards government and, with a few exceptions such as the clothing company Zara and the stainless-steel maker Acerinox, reluctant to venture beyond the Spanish-speaking world, even into Europe. Spain has few big international companies. The main ones are former state-owned giants that have been privatised—and whose boards were then packed by the government. Even companies that have no formal government connection often seek political approval for board appointments. The recent change of government has prompted many changes in corporate Spain.
Such upheavals are not confined to business. All sorts of institutions that in other countries might be independent—think-tanks, the judiciary, the country's main institute for projecting national culture abroad and the media, notably the state broadcasting system—have seen heads roll since the general election on March 14th, just as they have rolled after previous general elections. The practice reflects the relative youth of Spanish democracy: it has not had time to develop the dense undergrowth of independent organisations that enrich older democracies—a non-partisan press, forthright professional associations, self-confident universities, sceptical non-government bodies, outspoken individuals and so on.
Spain also lags in some social areas such as homosexual rights and the role of women. Domestic violence is a big problem—no more so than elsewhere, but perhaps less recognised until recently. The Catholic church still receives much of its income through a share of Spaniards' income tax, albeit only by individual agreement. These and other matters will come up for review, and indeed the new government is already tackling many of them.
Two other problems—immigration and regionalism—are of a different nature: they are not directly connected with the growing pains of an adolescent democracy, but they may prove much harder to deal with. A country of emigrants has rather quickly turned into one of immigrants, some of whom may prove difficult to absorb. And a country that has already devolved more power from its centre than any other in Europe cannot quite understand why many of its citizens are still not satisfied, whereas others think it has already done too much. A large proportion of Spaniards, it seems, want to live in a plural state of several nationalities, whereas another large proportion see their country as a unitary state infested by tiresome regional romantics.
All this adds up to a country more tentative and less self-assured than it appears. Four months ago Spain seemed ready to accept the stern rule of Mr Aznar, with his Atlanticist foreign policy, traditional approach to social issues and unbending attitude towards Basque, Catalan and other nationalists. A moment later the self-same place appeared to be rejoicing at a new government's snubbing of the Americans, its support for left-wing causes and its new spirit of conciliation towards the regions. Could a country capable of such a rapid swing be anything but a bit confused?
In truth, Spain was never quite as self-assured as it seemed, nor quite as in love with Mr Aznar as foreigners imagined—even if some of those who now affect to despise the former tax inspector with great-power pretensions were quite ready to vote for him a few months ago. It is likely, however, that this year's dramatic election will come to be seen not as a by-product of a terrorist attack that happened to lead to a change of government, but as the natural end of the first era of Spain's post-Franco transition to democracy. What follows now is a second era—a transition from a simple democracy to a more complicated, more sophisticated one.
The new government under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero certainly has the opportunity to launch this second transition. It has lost no time in bringing Spain's troops back from Iraq, in proffering an open hand to Spain's traditional partners in Europe and in embarking on a programme of social change, all the while promising to stick to the old certainties of sound financial housekeeping, and dialogue and consensus all round.
Popular as this is at present, it may not be adequate to meet the realities of Spain's new circumstances: a richer country whose citizens must now find higher-earning and more productive jobs than the unskilled ones of the past; a more diverse society which now includes multitudes of North Africans and Latin Americans; and an internally strained society that has to manage the different ambitions of its constituent peoples—Basques, Catalans, Galicians and the rest—within a tolerant, sophisticated democracy. Mr Zapatero has his chance to start shaping the new Spain. What are his prospects of success?
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