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A second coup in democratic Spain?

October 25, 2017

Cries of a 'coup d'etat' have echoed from both sides of the Catalan independence debate. But a government overthrow takes the crisis a bit too far in a country that still remembers 200 gunmen storming parliament.

Antonio Tejero holds a gun inside the Spanish parliament during the 1981 coup
Tejero and 200 armed followers kept lawmakers hostage in the Spanish parliament while attempting to institute military ruleImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb/epa/M. P. Barriopedro

Carles Puigdemont will not appear in the Spanish Senate on Thursday as the country's lawmakers prepare to implement Article 155, a spokesperson said on Wednesday. Some expected the Catalan president to respond to what Gabriel Rufian of the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia party called "an institutional coup d'etat" carried out by Spain's major political parties to deny Catalan independence. Similar accusations have also come from Madrid with Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis saying "a coup d'etat is what Mr. Puigdemont and his government have done."

Such language, said Sebastian Balfour, is being used for ideological purposes in a country that has a historical benchmark for a coup d'etat: the 1981 attempted military takeover of the then-three-year-old democracy. Even if the present crisis is as critical as the attempted government takeover 36 years ago, the contexts are very different, according to the emeritus professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics.

When gunmen stormed the Spanish parliament

Spain's Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez rushes to aid his deputy prime minister during the 1981 coup
Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez defends his deputy prime minister during a confrontation with the Civil GuardImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb/epa/M. Hernandez De Leon

When the lower house of Spain's parliament began a roll-call vote for a new prime minister on February 23, 1981, 200 gun-wielding members of the Civil Guard military police burst into the chamber. The Franco loyalists fired shots into the air and took the deputies hostage. They hoped to install a military government "all for Spain," as coup leader Antonio Tejero said (pictured above). After backstage phone calls from then-King Juan Carlos I to advisers and military leaders, he made a nationally televised broadcast at 1:15 a.m., calling for the defense of Spain's constitution through all legal measures necessary. The coup collapsed, and its leaders were arrested that day.

For many, the coup's failure showed that Spain had firmly transitioned away from Franco's authoritarian system as the putsch had been "an attempted coup at democracy as a whole," Balfour said.

A constitutional challenge

Thirty-six years later, the current independence movement seeks to extend democracy, Balfour said. It is a "challenge to the constitutional framework" that has been in place in Spain since the post-Franco transition. According to Balfour, today's crisis stems from the fixed nature of the Spanish constitution.

"It can't reflect changing identities and allegiances," he said, pointing out that many of Spain's current regional identities emerged in the decades following 1978 thanks to the constitution's enshrinement of "café para todos" or "coffee for all," which granted varying degrees of autonomy to all of Spain's regions.

Read more: In Catalonia, language and identity go hand in hand

In Catalonia, the drive for independence intensified when the region's redefined Statue of Autonomy was struck down by a national court in 2010. Part of the problem was the preamble's use of the word "nation" to describe Catalonia.

"Autonomy is one thing," Balfour said. "It is another thing when an autonomy like Catalonia is claiming to be more than just nationality."

Fear of autonomy?

Balfour said the wording has been a historically "uncomfortable formulation for the right." One often-speculated reason for the 1981 coup was that the hardline right-wing military officers feared the establishment of autonomous regions would cause the dissolution of the Spanish state. Catalonia received its first post-Franco statue of autonomy two years before the coup.

Conservative unease over the state of national unity plays out today within Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party (PP), which occupies a swath of the political right and has a strong sense of Spain's indivisibility, Balfour said. The fact that Spain's other major party, the Socialists, backs Rajoy one hundred percent is more unexpected, as it had previously advocated for reforms to the constitution to make Spain into a federal state.

The king to the rescue?

Unlike in 1981, no one should expect King Felipe VI to de-escalate the crisis, Balfour said. The king has unequivocally criticized Catalan leaders for their independence drive in all of his speeches and given his approval to the implementation of Article 155.

"[Felipe] is wedded to the constitution as it is now, and under it no right of self-determination is possible," Balfour said.

King Juan Carlos reads a message on television during the 1981
King Juan Carlos was praised for undermining the coup, the current king was criticized for not condemning violence in CataloniaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/epa/TVE/Spanish Household

Whereas Juan Carlos received praise for his poised address to the Spanish nation in 1981, Felipe was criticized for failing in his televised October 3 speech to mention the violence that Civil Guard members used against Catalans during the contested October 1 independence referendum. Puigdemont said such violence had not been seen since Franco's rule, when the dictator used the force to carry out violent political repression across all of Spain, including in Catalonia, where citizens faced cultural and linguistic repression as well.

Read more: Catalan mayor feels Spain coming 'closer and closer' to dictatorship

The Civil Guard's role in the 1981 coup also didn't help the corps shake off its Francoist legacy at Spain's democratic advent. But Balfour said the narrative used by Catalan secessionists defining the Civil Guard's actions as an "extension" of Francoism is not legitimate as the Civil Guard deployment was an example of "Madrid using legality and law and order rather than politics" to tackle the Catalan crisis.

It all comes down to the constitution

"The problem is the constitution itself and its interpretation in terms of policy by the Spanish government," Balfour said, adding that any short-term de-escalation would require Catalan dropping its independence bid, which he said was unlikely. 

Sebastian Balfour
Sebastian Balfour is a staff member of LSE's Canada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish StudiesImage: Privat

A long-term settlement, however, is another matter. Balfour said he thinks, some 36 years after Spain survived an attempted military coup, it is time to revisit the nation's constitutional settlement.

"Societies change. Constitutions can't forever mirror the ideological, political and cultural balance within society," he said. An amendment to the 1978 constitution granting the right to self-determination — approved by all Spaniards — may resolve the issue. Currently, many in Spain support the right to vote on independence but do not advocate independence itself. What is necessary, Balfour said, is that such questions enter public discourse, which "has been narrowed down to a rebellion on one side and a repression on the other."

DW author Cristina Burack.
Cristina Burack Editor and reporter focusing on culture, politics and history