On February 23, 1981, the vast majority of Spanish society was afraid and hopeless. Some senior military commanders staged a coup that could have ended the incipient Spanish democracy after almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship.
The Assault on Congress: Freeze everyone!
The coup failed, but the rebel military managed to take control of the Congress of Deputies, the seat of Spanish popular sovereignty, and retain the deputies for hours on the day on which the investiture of the candidate for Prime Minister was to be voted on. Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, from the Unión de Centro Democrático, who was to succeed Adolfo Suárez, who had resigned on January 29, as head of the Executive.
Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, accompanied by a group of civil guards, burst into the hemicycle at 6:23 pm, when the deputies were voting at the investiture, shouting ‘Quieto everyone’ and ordered his honorable Members to throw themselves into the ground. Tejero and his companions even shot into the air with pistols and submachine guns.
Valencia is occupied with tanks, but Operation Turia fails
Lieutenant General Jaime Milans del Bosch, the only military high command from which Tejero obeyed orders, rose up in Valencia and deployed 2,000 soldiers and 50 tanks in the streets.
Operation Turia should be key for the rest of the military regions to join the coup. Milans del Bosch tried throughout the afternoon and night to convince the rest of the lieutenant generals to put an end to Spanish democracy and reinstate a military government, but he did not succeed (although some remained awaiting events).
In fact, he did not even manage to take full control of Valencia. Yes in the military bases of Bétera and Paterna, but not the air base of Manises, where a commander refused to join the coup and warned Milans del Bosch that he had two surface-to-air missile fighters ready to destroy his tanks.
Alfonso Armada’s ‘soft’ coup
At the same time that Milans del Bosch and Tejero, with their armed uprising, were trying to promote a hard dictatorship, General Alfonso Armada, very close to King Juan Carlos I, was hatching an intermediate solution, a soft or limited dictatorship. It would be a matter of agreeing a concentration government with him as president and Felipe González (PSOE) and Manuel Fraga (Popular Alliance) as vice presidents.
In fact, the Navy itself went to the Congress of Deputies and presented Tejero with its government plan, which was discarded by the Lieutenant General of the Civil Guard, since it did not have the support of Milans del Bosch. The Armada plan did not have the support of King Juan Carlos I.
What led the military to carry out a coup? Background
In 1975 Francisco Franco died and, after almost 40 years of dictatorship, Spain was beginning an unstable transition towards democracy. In November of that year Juan Carlos I was proclaimed King of Spain.
The king promoted Adolfo Suárez, in 1976, as Prime Minister to lead this process of democratic transition. Suárez had held various positions in Francoist governments and, although he was unknown to the public, a priori he should not be frowned upon by the most Francoist sectors of the Army, suspicious of the process that would put an end to the dictatorship.
In 1977 the first democratic elections were held and the Spaniards, for the most part, opted for moderate formations, center-right and center-left.
Electoral victory of Adolfo Suárez in 1977
The winning party was the Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD) led by Adolfo Suárez, with 165 seats and 34.4% of the votes. Suárez took advantage of the projection that gave him starting with the image of stability that he was already given by being the president of the transitional government. A year later the Spanish Constitution was approved.
The PSOE leads the left and displaces the legalized Communist Party
The second party was the PSOE, with Felipe González at the helm, who won 118 seats with 29.3% of the votes. The PSOE surprised and swept the Communist Party in the fight for hegemony of the left, led by the historic Santiago Carrillo. Precisely the legalization of the Communist Party, one of the great enemies of the Franco regime, caused unrest in sectors of the army.
Strong presence of Catalan and Basque nationalists
Two nationalist parties that have been key in Spanish democracy, Pacte Democràtic per Catalunya (PDPC) by Jordi Pujol, which won 9 seats in the Congress of Deputies and was the germ of the subsequent CiU, also broke into the Spanish Cortes with force. the party that has governed the longest in Catalonia.
And the PNV, which won 8 seats, a party that has won all the regional elections in Euskadi except in 1986, when the PSE-PSOE won. Both parties, CiU and the PNV, also prevailed in the regional elections of 1980 in Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Discomfort of sectors of the Army before autonomism
The nationalist representation and the position of the UCD de Suárez and the PSOE of Felipe González to move towards an autonomous state, compared to the centralist state of the Franco regime, was also another of the issues that caused a strong unrest among sectors of the Army, since they considered that the territorial unity of Spain was threatened.
ETA terrorist attacks
In addition to the outrage caused in sectors of the Spanish Army by the power that the nationalist parties were taking in their CCAA as well as the decentralization promoted from the central government in favor of an autonomous state, there was also a problem that especially bothered high military commanders: ETA terrorism.
Only that year, until 23-F, the terrorist gang had killed 5 people in two attacks (a second lieutenant of the National Police Corps, 2 businessmen, an engineer from the Lemóniz Nuclear Power Plant and also an ETA member murdered by his own colleagues for spending the money obtained by the gang in a robbery for personal purposes).
A year earlier, ETA had murdered 93 people, including numerous civil guards, national police, and several high-ranking military officials.
The King’s message to the nation, decisive to abort the coup
King Juan Carlos I’s speech took place at one fourteen minutes in the morning of February 24. Dressed in his uniform as captain general of the Army, Sea and Air, the monarch ordered the authorities to take any measure to maintain constitutional order.
The King addressed the nation to take a direct position against the military coup leaders and to order the Army to defend the 1978 Constitution. From his speech, the coup was declared a failure.
This was the full speech with which the emeritus monarch addressed the Spanish at 1:14 a.m. on February 24, 1981:
“In addressing all Spaniards, briefly and concisely, in the extraordinary circumstances that we are currently experiencing, I ask everyone for the greatest serenity and confidence and I let them know that I have attended the General Captains of the Military Regions, Maritime Zones and Air Regions the following order:
I have ordered the Civil Authorities and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take all the necessary measures to maintain the constitutional order within the current legislation.
Given the situation created by the events that took place in the Palace of Congress and to avoid any possible confusion, I confirm that I have ordered the Civil Authorities and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take all necessary measures to maintain constitutional order within the current legality.
Any measure of a military nature that, if applicable, should be taken must have the approval of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Crown, symbol of the permanence and unity of the homeland, cannot tolerate in any way actions or attitudes of people who try to interrupt by force the democratic process that the Constitution voted by the Spanish people determined in its day through referendum ” .
Condemned coup plotters
The courts convicted 30 soldiers and civil guards for the coup. The harshest penalties were for the main leaders: Milans del Bosch (30 years), Alfonso Armada (30 years) and Antonio Tejero (30 years). The rest of the charges were sentenced to lesser penalties.