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date: 26 November 2022

Spain: The Long Road from an Interventionist Army to Democratic and Modern Armed Forceslocked

Spain: The Long Road from an Interventionist Army to Democratic and Modern Armed Forceslocked

  • Rafa MartínezRafa MartínezDepartment of Political Science, University of Barcelona
  •  and Fernando J. Padilla AnguloFernando J. Padilla AnguloDepartment of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University of Bristol

Summary

During the transition from ancien régime to liberalism that took place in Spain during the first third of the 19th century, the military became a prominent political actor. Many soldiers were members of the country’s first liberal parliament, which in 1812 passed one of the world’s oldest liberal charters, the so-called Constitution of Cádiz. Furthermore, the armed forces fought against the Napoleonic Army’s occupation and, once the Bourbon monarchy was restored, often took arms against the established power.

Nineteenth-century Spain was prey to instability due to the struggle between conservative, progressive, liberal, monarchical, and republican factions. It was also a century full of missed opportunities by governments, constitutions, and political regimes, in which the military always played an active role, often a paramount one. Army and navy officers became ministers and heads of government during the central decades of the 19th century, often after a coup. This changed with the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy based on a bipartisan system known as the Restoration (1874–1923). The armed forces were kept away from politics. They focused on their professional activities, thus developing a corporate attitude and an ideological cohesion around a predominantly conservative political stance.

Ruling the empire gave the armed forces a huge sphere of influence. Only chief officers were appointed as governors of the Spanish territories in America, Africa, and Asia throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This went unchanged until 1976, when Spain withdrew from Western Sahara, deemed the country’s last colony. The power accumulated in the overseas territories was often used by the governors to build a political career in metropolitan Spain.

Following the end of the Restoration in 1923, the armed forces engaged with the political struggle in full again. After a military-led dictatorship, a frustrated republic, and a fratricidal civil war, a dictatorship was established in 1939 that lasted for almost 40 years: the Francoist regime. Francisco Franco leaned on the military as a repressive force and a legitimacy source for a regime established as a result of a war.

After the dictator passed away in 1975, Spain underwent a transition to democracy which was accepted by the armed forces somehow reluctantly, as the coup attempt of 1981 made clear. At that time, the military was the institution that Spanish society trusted the least. It was considered a poorly trained and equipped force. Even its troops’ volume and budget were regarded as excessive.

However, the armed forces have undergone an intense process of modernization since the end of 1980s. They have become fully professional, their budget and numbers have been reduced, and they have successfully taken part in European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and United Nations (UN)-led international missions. In the early 21st century, the armed forces are Spain’s second-best valued institution.

Far from its formerly interventionist role throughout the 19th century and a good deal of the 20th, Spain’s armed forces in the 21st century have become a state tool and a public administration controlled by democratically elected governments.

Subjects

  • Governance/Political Change
  • History and Politics
  • Political Institutions

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