Spain's moment for reflection

Observations on democracy

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. If the "Catalan question" directly influenced Mena's ill-advised speech, the Tejero coup was provoked in part by ETA terrorism. The three previous years had been ETA's bloodiest ever, claiming 234 victims: a toll used by the coup plotters as evidence of the "chaos" from which Spain needed to be delivered.

To these two related incidents, add a third: the political fallout from the 11 March 2004 train bombings in Madrid. With Spain marking the second anniversary of the attacks, it is clearer than ever that the then government of Jose MarIa Aznar played down the Islamist role and talked up ETA involvement in the bombings. The issue has led to soul-searching among Spanish journalists. To a Catalan TV producer, the media manipulation by the Aznar government "shows just how shaky Spanish democracy still is". Others disagree. "It was both good and bad," one said. "After all, Aznar was then punished in the elections."

Perhaps this latter comment best reflects the nature of Spain's democracy. Back in 1981, at the time of the Tejero coup attempt, one solidly democratic institution turned out to be the newspaper El PaIs. Even as Tejero was holding MPs hostage, it ran an emergency edition under the headline: "El PaIs, with the constitution!"

The Spanish people also acted with inspiring solidarity in March 2004. Right-wing commentators, appalled by Aznar's defeat, portrayed Spain as running scared before terrorism. They failed to remember how more than 11 million people had marched against terrorism following the bombings - and how, two days later, 77 per cent of voters had flocked to the polls. Not a show of fear, but democracy in action.

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