The autonomous communities

T he death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 ended his 36 year dictatorship. The current now former King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, had been restored to the Bourbon throne during the general’s last days. In his coronation speech before Las Cortes Generales (Generals Court) the King broke ranks with many in the military and advocated for a constitutional monarchy, as his father Juan de Borbón had done in exile, a year after World War II had finished.


Equestrian statue of Generalissimo Franco in the City Hall Plaza of Santander. It was taken down in late 2008. (wikipedia)

The goal was noble – the task, unenviable. During his reign Franco had often been brutal in his promotion of a unified Spain: one flag, one language, one hymn. This was particularly true in areas with a strong sense of local identity, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, who also happened to be two of the more prosperous region, providing the industry and commerce for the rest of Europe and South America.

Following Spain’s first post-Franco elections in 1977, seven men were tasked with representing the various national interests at the negotiating table: “Los Padres de la Constitución” (The Fathers of the Constitution). Phalangist numbers were big enough for Francoists to get a say along with the military who supported them. They were joined by representatives for republicans, anarchists and nationalists. They distrusted a king that had been restored to power, by a dictator whose soldiers had executed their brothers, fathers, cousins. Former communists and socialist union leaders had to sit next to the landed gentry and business titans. All the while, ETA had upped the violence in search of Basque independence.

Los Padres de la Constitución in 2012 (source: Manuel Robles)

Los Padres de la Constitución in 2012 (source: Manuel Robles)

The idea of a constitution was not novel to these Spanish framers, even if the situation they faced was unique. The first Spanish Constitution was signed in Cádiz in 1812. Since then there had been seven others, each a historic marker of Spain’s eternal struggle between uniformity and plurality. The last of these constitutions, before the present one, had been during the brief Second Republic, that fell after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War.

The constitution that “Los Padres de la Constitución” finally decided on, and the one the Spanish people ratified the same year, didn’t outline a federation or a confederation. Modern Spain was to be unitary state with a parliamentary system, that consisted on an upper and lower houses of government and a judiciary. Unlike the UK or France, many powers would be devolved to what would be known as autonomies. The name avoided the tricky words, “region” (which implies part of the same homogeneous country) and, “state” (which can mean “independent nation”).  Instead the name refereed to “Statutes of Autonomy,” a process of devolution that had begun prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936.


Map of the autonomies based on their flags

The territorial boundaries were based on historical and linguistic factors. Not all autonomies were, or are, equal, in their relationship to the central authority in Madrid. The Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia have more devolution, each in their unique way, due to being part of the constitution’s “Historical Nationalities of Spain.” Andalusia was also granted special recognition. The other autonomies can achieve further powers through a statute process, which is reviewed by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Their decisions are often a source of contention, provoking periods of internal tension between the hodgepodge of nationalities, languages and peoples, with a long, rich and complex history, like its food.




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