Spain’s political leaders responded to political violence and labor unrest of the mid-1970s by using authoritarian powers to implement democratic reform. The regime had been destabilized and discredited by its previous repressive approach to such strikes and violence (particularly under Franco who died in 1975). Constitutional reform unfolded amidst continued popular demands for regional autonomy (for the Basque region) and economic and military integration with Europe. On April 28, 1976 the prime minister announced that a referendum on constitutional reform would be held in October. Shortly thereafter, government proposals for a reform package were revealed but were rejected by opposition leaders as inadequate. In the next few months, new legislation was passed to allow opposition groups to organize and hold meetings, and after a change in leadership in early July, opposition leaders were brought into a several-month discussion to produce a reform package. This package was presented by the prime minister in September, approved by the existing (single-party) legislature on November 18th, and put to a national referendum on December 15, 1976. Although some opposition leaders tried to organize a boycott of the referendum (alleging the bill was inadequate), the reform plan was endorsed by 94% of those voting.
The legislation set out specific procedures for drafting the new constitution, including rules for the formation of subcommittees. It called for the creation of a bicameral legislature, with 350 members in the lower house (all elected), and an upper house of 207 elected members. An absolute majority vote in this body would be required for the adoption of the new constitution, after which would be held an (optional) national referendum. The monarch, meanwhile, retained considerable power over this process by appointing 41 additional members to the upper house (as stipulated, up to 1/5 of its total membership), and by controlling the nomination of the prime minister and the calling of new elections. Following further reforms by the prime minister, including the elaboration of an electoral law and the legalization of political parties, a free election was held on June 15, 1977. A brief (three-week) campaign resulted in the ascendance of five major parties, (out of the nearly 200 that had emerged) each of which was represented in the roundtable discussions to produce rules for drafting the constitution. The resulting subcommittee of 7 members (with one member from each party and 3 from the dominant party, UCD) began working in secrecy in October, and after 7 months presented a first draft of the Constitution on April 10, 1978. After a brief (one and a half month) review by the 36-member Congressional Committee, an amended version was passed on to the Congress of Deputies in July 1978, where it was overwhelmingly approved. Amendments in the Senate produced a separate version of the draft, and differences between the two versions were reconciled by an 11-member Joint Constitutional Committee (with representatives from both houses) that met intensively for a period of 2 weeks. The resulting text was overwhelmingly approved in the Congress (325 to 6 with 14 abstentions), and Senate (226 to 5 with 8 abstentions) on October 31, 1978. The draft constitution was then translated into all 6 of Spain’s official languages, distributed nationwide, and put to a national referendum on December 6, 1978. Despite efforts by Basque leaders to organize a boycott of the referendum, over 67% of eligible voters participated, with 87% voting in favor, and 8% voting against the proposed constitution. The bill was signed into law by the King on December 27 and entered into force on December 29, 1978.
The process entailed a sizeable civic education program, but did not require direct consultation with members of the public. There was large scale rioting during parts of the process, and the key initial stages were held in secret in an effort to avoid divisive public debates. Although the centrist party had a plurality, they were required to negotiate, and many attribute the ultimate success of the process to the informal negotiations and efforts at coalition-building that characterized Spain’s subsequent political processes. Violence, however, continued and has since resulted in the state granting further autonomy to the Basque region.