Spain has made a number of experiments with democracy, sham and actual, but only since the mid-1970s has it succeeded in grounding a democratic system. Then 'the very model of the modern elite settlement' (Gunther 1992) generated a peaceful transition from Franco's authoritarian regime to a democratic polity, and established the conditions in which competitive party politics could develop. Those conditions were not neutral. Rather, strenuous efforts were made to ensure that parties would come forward to take charge of Spain's new democracy (Gunther et al. 1988). The result turned out to have two key aspects. Synthetic parties were created, and a parties state was built.
Spanish parties are synthetic in the sense that they are supported more from above than below. It is true that in recent years all parties have attempted, with some success, to extend their social reach. However, they remain chiefly dependent on the state for survival. This reflects the circumstances of the Spanish transition, when memories both of a failed democratic interlude in the Second Republic of the 1930s, which met all the conditions of polarized pluralism (Sartori 1976), and of the one-party authoritarian state that took its place, promoted a culture not simply of consensus but also of commitment to making sure democracy actually worked this time around. Parties, being a key element of democratic experience the world over, were given a privileged position in the state largely for this reason.
Spain is a parties state in the sense that since the transition many core institutions of government have been colonized and are substantially controlled by parties. As democratic procedures were introduced at all levels of the new polity—central (1977), local (1979), and regional (1980-83)—so parties became the institutions through which much political power flowed. The many protections given to parties, and the vast amounts of patronage placed in their hands by the creation of democratic institutions at national, regional, and local levels, ensured that they became central actors in the new state.
In the early stages of the transition the precise configuration of parties that would emerge was unclear. On the right a rather loose coalition of former Francoists was confident it would take the leading role through its Alianza Popular (AP). On the left