At the time of the outbreak of the First World War constitutional and liberal political systems were dominant in most countries in Europe. None of them could be described as a real democracy. Elections, parliaments and other liberal trappings were widely used to conceal the fact that the privileged governing elites preserved their political hegemony through patronage, social subservience, prestige and tradition.
Spain followed that pattern. Since 1875 the country had been ruled by a constitutional monarchy. The architect of the new ruling order was the shrewd politician Antonio Cánovas del Castillo. His main objective was to reach a political settlement which would put an end to the years of civil strife, military coups and general instability which had characterized the earlier part of the century. He was to be largely successful. The restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in the person of Alfonso XII and the constitution of 1876 were his achievements. The new political system seemed to be modern and democratic. It conceded freedom of expression and association, political parties and trade unions were allowed to exist, and, in 1890, universal male suffrage was introduced.
In fact, the Restoration settlement was far from democratic. All the constitutional paraphernalia actually served to conceal the monopoly of power enjoyed by a governing elite. For the following four decades two monarchist or ‘dynastic’ parties rotated in office: the Conservatives, headed by Cánovas himself, and the Liberals, led by Práxedes Mateo Sagasta. The succession in government of these two groups was so systematic that the Canovite order was known as Turno Pacífico (Peaceful Rotation).
The governing class was formed by the representatives of the dominant landowning oligarchies of Castilian wheat growers and Andalusian wine and olive oil producers. As the years went by, the group also included large financial interests such as banks, state companies and big concerns like railways. 1
Thus liberal democracy in Spain, as in most European countries at the time, was a sham and a way to disguise the supremacy of these privileged groups in society. It perpetuated the co-existence of modern liberal institutions with a semi-feudal socio-economic order.