Democracy: Spain's Moment for Reflection
Purcell, Julius, New Statesman (1996)
Many MPs didn't notice the Civil Guards entering the parliament chamber that February day in Madrid, 25 years ago. The TV cameraman did. To the consternation of millions of Spaniards watching the event live, he zoomed on the moustachioed figure of Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, entering with his band of armed rebels. "Everyone down, for fuck's sake," Tejero screamed, firing bullets into the ceiling. About 350 MPs hit the floor, and the camera shook. Almost half an hour later, a Civil Guard approached the cameraman: "Unplug the camera," he said in a matter-of-fact way, "or I will kill you."
This was a little after 6.30pm on 23 February 1981. For nearly seven long hours, until King Juan Carlos appeared on television to declare the coup illegal, newly democratic Spain lived through its worst post-Franco nightmare.
A quarter of a century on from "23-F", the experience is still fresh in many memories: from the millions who sat at home vainly searching for news, to those in the chamber itself. A young Socialist MP, Jose Bono, who in photos of the event is visible near the gun-wielding Tejero, awaited what most assumed would follow: executions of the Socialist opposition.
Today, Bono is Spain's defence minister. He was a key figure in an event this past January that highlights how prone the country still is to serious upsets in its democratic institutions. When, on 6 January, Lieutenant General Jose Mena hinted that it was the duty of the army to take action should the Catalans be successful in their attempts to secure more autonomy, the news spread well beyond Spain's borders. Bono acted swiftly, sacking the general. But the damage to Spain's image was significant.
One theme linking the two events is Spain's old bugbear, Basque and Catalan separatism. …