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The February 1936 parliamentary elections in Spain were the most important national vote in that country’s twentieth-century history. It would prove to be the last Spanish democratic election until June 1977. For the nearly forty years of the Franco regime, apologists for the military rebellion of July 1936 denied that the leftist Popular Front had emerged victorious at the polls. In early 1939, a Nationalist special commission ruled that the rightist Counter-Revolutionary electoral slate had been robbed of victory, and therefore the Republican government was illegitimately constituted. In 1971, a team of historians led by Javier Tusell, making use of all the sources then available, rebutted Francoist claims of Popular Front larceny, concluding that the left did, after all, win a clear victory. Tusell also stressed that the elections were clean, providing a comforting message in the death throes of the Franco regime that Spaniards were capable of organising a democratic system. Yet important questions remained unanswered. Popular Front supporters celebrated victory hours after polls closed on 16 February following encouraging early results in some urban areas. This was premature, the Spanish equivalent of Labour declaring victory in a British general election after the first declarations in its northern heartlands. Nevertheless, it prompted popular demands for an immediate change of government and the release of leftists imprisoned following the Socialist-led insurrection of October 1934. Growing disorder led to the resignation of the caretaker centrist government of Manuel Portela Valladares on 19 February and its replacement by a Popular Front administration led by Manuel Azaña while the count was still going on in many provinces. This was unprecedented; Spanish constitutional practice then demanded that the outgoing government complete the elections before meeting the new Spanish parliament. Thus local authorities newly appointed by the Popular Front government finally finished and verified the count. This irregularity would not have mattered if one of the two main electoral slates was on course for a landslide; yet Tusell’s figures indicated the difference in terms of votes was less than 2 per cent. Given the non-proportional majoritarian nature of the electoral system, this did not translate into a hung parliament but rather a comfortable Popular Front majority of over sixty seats. In other words, could the chaotic nature of the latter part of the counting process have affected the overall outcome? Remarkably, despite the torrent of studies on Republican politics between 1931 and 1936 after Franco’s death in November 1975, Tusell’s study remained the only detailed national survey of the February 1936 election. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. Written by the two leading specialists on Spanish electoral politics, Manuel Álvarez Tardío and Roberto Villa García, the book under review is a monumental study of this critical moment in modern Spanish history. Based on exhaustive research in local, national and international archives, the authors discuss the bitterly contested electoral campaign at national and provincial level before providing a comprehensive account of the critical four days following the end of voting that produced a Popular Front government with a large majority. They then discuss the actual electoral results, and the subsequent verification of the figures by the national electoral board a month later. Some of the arguments put forward by Álvarez Tardío and Villa García echo those that have been made by other historians. They are not alone when they describe President Niceto Alcalá-Zamora’s determination to hold an election in early 1936 as ‘notoriously inopportune’ (p. 518). This decision was motivated by the president’s desire to create, from above, a new ‘centre’ party that would save Spain from the extremes of left and right; instead, as the authors show only too well, Alcalá-Zamora’s snap election served to inflame political passions already raised by the October 1934 revolution. However, their discussion of the zero-sum politics that characterised the run-up to polling day convincingly makes the key point (ignored in many accounts of the election) that the CEDA leader José María Gil-Robles did not envisage a ‘counter-revolutionary’ victory to be a springboard for his party to rule alone; much to the chagrin of extreme rightist figures such as José Calvo Sotelo, Gil-Robles sought for a re-working of the centre-right alliance that had governed Spain since 1933. This can be seen by the fact that the CEDA put forward fewer than 200 candidates for the 473 available seats. But the main thesis of the book is the claim that the abrupt departure of Portela Valladares on 19 February, owing to mainly leftist ‘agitation and violence’, altered the outcome of the election. Azaña took power at a time when the declared results had ‘not at all confirmed a leftist parliamentary majority’ and did not contain the ‘extraordinary wave of violence’ that meant that the count continued ‘in an evident climate of coercion’ which ‘decisively influenced the final distribution of seats, producing a Popular Front victory that the workers’ left had demanded in the streets’ (pp. 522–3). This argument has provoked a great deal of controversy in Spain, with both authors being criticised by some on the left for peddling ‘neo-Francoist revisionism’. These accusations are absurd. Álvarez Tardío and Villa García do not deny that the Popular Front performed extremely well compared with the previous election of November 1933, and got the most votes, although their figures (based on a much wider dataset than that utilised by Tusell) suggest that its advantage over the Counter-Revolutionary slate was tiny (31,570 out of 9.687 million votes cast). But, given the Spanish electoral list system, where victorious slates won a majority of seats in cities and provinces irrespective of the margin of victory, even relatively small-scale irregularities could have a massive impact on the final result. And Álvarez Tardío and Villa García provide compelling evidence that this did indeed occur in a minority of provinces following the resignation of Portela Valladares. They describe in rich and meticulous detail the context of intimidation by Popular Front militants that facilitated electoral fraud at local level. Frequently and erroneously described as ‘celebrations’, sixteen were killed and thirty-nine wounded, and more than fifty churches and seventy conservative political centres were fired or attacked in the thirty-six hours following the sudden change of government. For reasons of space the numerous examples of ballot rigging provided by the authors cannot be listed here, although it is worth citing the result of Alcaudete in Jaén province, where the Popular Front list received all the 599 votes cast despite the fact that the village had voted overwhelmingly for the right in 1933. It is also worth noting that nowhere in this 600-page monograph do Álvarez Tardío and Villa García suggest that the civil war was inevitable. They demonstrate that in the immediate aftermath of the election, CEDA’s leaders called on Azaña to unite the country. Yet the Popular Front-dominated electoral board subsequently annulled the rightist victories in Granada and Cuenca while upholding all of those of the left. As a consequence of all this chicanery, the authors argue that the left obtained between twenty-nine and thirty-three seats, meaning that ‘somewhat more than 10% of the seats in the new Cortés, over fifty’ were not allocated fairly (p. 524). This is a startling conclusion, as it suggests that the Popular Front may not have won a majority in 1936. But the sheer quality and range of evidence provided by Álvarez Tardío and Villa García makes it a plausible one. The February 1936 election has finally received a study that its significance warrants. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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