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The failed 1981 coup: the foundational myth of Spain’s democracy, increasingly under scrutiny

Forty years on, with the Franco dictatorship still fresh on the memory, a failed coup attempt served to strengthen the democratization process

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23 February 2021 03:26 PM

by

Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

On February 23, 1981, armed paramilitary men stormed the Spanish congress led by Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, who took to the chamber’s podium, fired a series of warning shots, and shouted at an audience of lawmakers and government members: "¡Quieto todo el mundo! ¡Al suelo! ¡Se sienten coño!” (Nobody moves! On the ground! Sit the fuck down!)

Forty years on, the moment remains ingrained in Spain’s collective memory, even for those who were yet to be born, and has come to symbolize the turning point when the transition to democracy trembled, but ultimately prevailed.

"It’s the foundational myth of the Spanish democracy," said Javier Cercas in a recent interview, author of Anatomy of a moment, one of the most comprehensive accounts of the failed coup d’état, popularly known as 23-F. 

Dictator Francisco Franco had died only six years before, his authoritative 39-year rule was still fresh on the memory, and the democratization process was uncertain.

  • "We thought we were already European, and suddenly, a man with a mustache and the tricorn breaks into Parliament firing his gun. Like a García Lorca character bringing back our history of civil wars"

    Javier Cercas · Author

"We thought we were already European, and suddenly, a man with a mustache and the tricorn [hat used by Spain’s Guardia Civil police] breaks into Parliament firing his gun. Like a García Lorca character bringing back our history of civil wars," said Cercas.   

While Tejero was not alone in planning the coup, he has become the face of the military operation to stop the transition to democracy. Similarly, a series of figures have emerged as instrumental in resisting the coup attempt.

On the one hand, there are the three men who refused to hit the floor when officials broke into the chamber: the president of the Spanish government, Adolfo Suárez; the deputy prime minister for defence, General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado; and the communist party leader, Santiago Carrillo, who continued smoking from his seat.

On the other, there’s king Juan Carlos I, who had been appointed by Franco himself to lead Spain after his death, but rebuked the actions of those who wanted "to interrupt the democratic process by force" in a televised address. Tejero and his allies eventually gave up and, as the popular narrative has it, Spain’s democracy emerged stronger.

A narrative under scrutiny

But such a narrative is increasingly coming under scrutiny, and with it the role played by Juan Carlos, who resigned the throne to his son Felipe in 2014 and last year left Spain for the United Arab Emirates while mired in corruption scandals.

In a joint press conference on Tuesday, a group of seven pro-independence and regional parties from Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country, including Catalonia’s ERC, JxCat, and CUP, boycotted the official anniversary: "Beyond the official narrative, there are hints that the 23F was not planned by four unhappy military officials, but rather that it was a state operation to save the régimen del 78," a pejorative expression referring to the 1978 constitution which laid the foundation for contemporary Spain. 

The parties, which include some key allies of the left-wing government led by the Socialist president Pedro Sánchez, believe that the failed coup served to "establish the so-called transition to democracy, with the king and the army as their main bulwarks." 

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  • Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero at the Spanish congress (by Diario Región-Agencia EFE)

  • Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero at the Spanish congress (by Diario Región-Agencia EFE)

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