Spain will on Tuesday mark the 40th anniversary of an attempted right-wing coup which for hours left the country in a state of political chaos.
This is how the coup that threatened Spain’s fragile democracy unfolded, less than six years after dictator general Francisco Franco died in 1975:
– The assault –
On the evening of February 23, 1981 about 200 Civil Guard officers stormed the lower house of parliament, firing assault rifles in the air as MPs debated the investiture of a new centrist government.
The group was led by lieutenant-colonel Antonio Tejero, who ordered everyone to lie on the floor.
Only three people did not dive for cover, outgoing prime minister Adolfo Suarez, his deputy general Gutierrez Mellado and the leader of the newly legalised Communist party, Santiago Carrillo.
While the roughly 350 MPs were taken hostage in Madrid, general Jaime Milans del Bosch — a hardline army officer from the Franco regime — ordered tanks and troops onto the streets of Valencia, eastern Spain, to back the revolt.
In Madrid, rebels took over the studios of Spain’s public TV and radio for about 90 minutes before they were dispersed by riot police.
Inhabitants of the Spanish capital locked themselves at home and some packed their bags, preparing to flee.
– King’s counterstrike –
King Juan Carlos immediately sought to shut down the coup. From the Zarzuela Palace near Madrid he called generals across the country and ordered them to respect the new government.
In 1978, Spain had adopted a constitution that was overwhelmingly supported in a referendum and which established a parliamentary monarchy.
During the night that followed the coup attempt, the monarch took action against its political leader Alfonso Armada, a general who had been the king’s military instructor and later his secretary.
Juan Carlos barred Armada from the Zarzuela Palace and rejected his proposal to form a new government.
Just after 1:00 am, the king went on television in his uniform as Captain General of the Armed Forces to say he had ordered all measures be taken to maintain the constitutional order.
“The Crown, … will not tolerate, in any degree whatsoever, the actions or behaviour of anyone attempting, through use of force, to interrupt the democratic process of the Constitution,” he said.
The rebels who stormed parliament surrendered at noon on February 24, less than a day after launching their attempted coup.
– The context –
The coup attempt came amid widespread disenchantment with Suarez, who had been appointed prime minister by Juan Carlos in 1976.
By February 1981, the king had fallen out with Suarez, a centrist who faced fierce opposition from the Socialists and pressure from military officials angered by the Communist Party’s legalisation.
The military was also upset by the government’s failure to end the Basque separatist group ETA’s long-running campaign of violence.
Suarez presented his surprise resignation on January 29, 1981 following a meeting with military leaders at the Zarzuela Palace.
Armada immediately tried to take advantage of his influence over the king to be appointed as Suarez’s replacement.
When that failed, Armada pushed ahead with preparations for the coup with Tejero and Milans del Bosch.
A military court sentenced all three men to 30 years in jail.
Armada received a pardon in 1988 while Milans del Bosch was released in 1990 and Tejero in 1996.