Democratic Spain

Prince Juan Carlos in 1971


As Franco aged, the factions that had supported him became more vociferous and began to make plans for who would replace him after his death. His far-right supporters demanded a return to a hardline  leader with absolute power who can make his own constitution and laws. His left-wing wanted a more liberal government.

His first choice of successor was Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, but a new radical separatist group called ETA had formed and used terrorist attacks to bring about the independence of the Basque country from Spain. They selected Blanco as a high profile target to bring attention to their cause, and dug a tunnel beneath the road that he drove down every morning. They filled the tunnel with explosives and detonated it when the admiral’s car was above. The explosion threw the car five stories into the air and over the top of a nearby building. Franco had to re-think his strategy and he turned to the Spanish royal family.

The Caudillo had a choice of royalty to nominate as his successor.  The true heir was Juan de Bourbón the son of the late Alfonso XIII, but Franco distrusted him and thought that his liberal rule would undo much of his work. Alfonso, Duke of Anjou and Cádiz who was an ardent Francoist was considered for a while. In the end, he chose Prince Juan Carlos, Juan de Bourbón’s son.

Juan Carlos’s early life had been marred by a tragedy that has haunted him all his life. When he was 18 he was involved in an accident that killed his 14-year old brother “Don Alfonsito.” They were on holiday together at Estoril in Portugal where the royal family lived in exile during Franco’s dictatorship. Juan Carlos had just returned from military school and was cleaning a revolver which fired, hitting the young boy in forehead, killing him instantly.

Nobody knows what really happened, but the future king said that he felt responsible for the accident.


In 1969 Juan was officially given the title of Prince of Spain, which was a watered down title, not the traditional one of Prince of Asturias usually given to the heir to the throne. He was required to swear loyalty to Franco’s regime, and his succession was ratified by the Spanish Parliament in July 1969. For six years, Juan Carlos accompanied Franco on state events. Outwardly, he supported the ailing dictator, but as Franco’s health deteriorated, Juan Carlos began to have secret meetings with political leaders and exiles who wanted sweeping reforms and the restoration of liberalism in Spain.  He had also been phoning his father in Portugal who was rallying support outside of Spain. Franco never suspected Juan’s duplicity and ignored the warnings from his hard-right advisors.

During 1974 Franco had periods of incapacity due to illness, and Juan Carlos dealt with all affairs of state and public appearances and on 22 of October 1975 he turned over all power to Juan Carlos. Three weeks later Franco died.

Two days after Franco’s death, the Cortes Generales proclaimed Juan Carlos I King of Spain and he immediately began making changes. Some of the Franco hard liners, especially in the military, heatedly objected to his Political Reforms. In 1976 the king dismissed prime minister Carlos Arias Navarro, who had been resisting his attempting to introduce freely democratic elections. He replaced him with Adolfo Suárez, a former leader of the Movimiento Nacional and the more liberal politician began to legalise all parties, including the difficult task of bringing the Communist Party back as a voting option. He led the Union of the Democratic Centre Party (UCD) and won the first general election in Spain since Franco took control 41 years earlier. He was elected as Prime Minister again three years later as part of a coalition under the new constitution. As a further boost to the reforms, Juan de Bourbón the King of Spain, abdicated in favour of his son, making Juan Carlos the legitimate king in order to strengthen his public support.

The Transition 

Adolpho Suárez


The reforms were not popular with many, especially his attempts to legalise the Communist Party. During his first year of office, Suárez faced revolt from the neo-Nazis in Spain who were now effectively outside of the new democratic process and formed into isolated radical groups. On January 24, 1977, a group of members of the Workers’ Commissions trade union (CCOO), and of the still-clandestine Communist Party of Spain (PCE), had gathered to meet in offices near to the Atocha railway station in Madrid.  During the meeting, they were raided by a group calling itself The Apostolic Anticommunist Alliance, abbreviated to AAA. The attackers were closely linked to Blas Piñar's Fuerza Nueva’s far-right party, the Falange-JONS.

They were looking for Joaquín Navarro, head of the CCOO's Transport Syndicate, which had recently called for a strike against the "Franquist transport mafia" which was linked to the Franco Guard, a group of hard-line fascist left over from the Franco regime. The gunmen lined up and shot 17 people, 9 of whom died. The assassins were so confident that they would not be arrested for their crimes that they did not leave Madrid. They were quickly arrested and brought to trial. 10,000 people attended the funerals of the victims, and popular sympathy for those killed, and the lack of any violence during them made it easy for the Communist Party to become an accepted political party. This in turn prompted Admiral Pita da Veiga to take over as Navy minister and form the Superior Council of the Army to combat reforms.


Suárez was a good politician, and his term in office saw many of the dictator’s laws and institutions discarded. But he was beset by opponents, and faced a vote of no-confidence from the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party) in May 1980. Reshuffles in his own party had by October weakened his leadership so much that he decided to resign. The new Spanish government was struggling with 20% unemployment and 16% inflation. The army and police particularly felt that they were being forced into roles that were subservient to the politicians.

The day after Suárez resigned, the far-right newspaper, El-Alcazar, the mouthpiece of the “Bunker” neo-Nazi group that had formed to resist liberalisation, published an openly inflammatory article claiming that the government were too weak to lead the country.

The news that a leading member of ETA had been captured and tortured in the General Security Directorate for 10 days before being murdered led to a general strike in the Basque region and an acrimonious debate in the Congress with several resignations of leading ministers.   

Meanwhile, the King and Queen were booed on a visit to Gurnica by the Basque separatist party. At the end of 1980 at the party conference in Málaga, Suárez’s party chose Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo to replace him as Prime Minister. On 18 February 1981 the Cortes met to introduce the new government that Calvo-Sotelo had formed, but he failed to gain the majority that he needed to become Prime Minister, so he adjourned the vote until the 23rd.  

The Night of the Transistors

 Lieutenant Colonel Tejero on the night of the 23rd of February 1981


It was during this meeting at 6 o’clock in the evening that Lieutenant Colonel Tejero walked into the Congress of Deputies leading 200 armed officers of the Guardia Civil. With a pistol in his hand, he walked to the Speaker’s platform and demanded silence, then told everybody to lie on the floor. The highest ranking military officer in the Cortes was General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, who was also the Deputy Prime Minister. He stood up and approached Tejero, and was joined by Suárez. The general ordered Tejero to put the pistol down, but when he tried to grab Tejero the policeman fired a shot into the air. This was followed by a burst of machine-gun fire from another officer at the upper gallery of the chamber. Gutiérrez was undeterred and remained standing, so Tejero tried to wrestle the 68 year-old general to the ground. Finally all the Deputies returned to their seats and Jesús Muñecas Aguilar stepped onto the speaker’s platform and told everybody to be quiet and await the arrival of competent military authority.

Adolfo Suárez stood up and asked to speak with the commanders of the coup and was met with shouts to sit down. Suárez continued, and one of the police officers pointed his machine-gun at the deputies. Tejero grabbed the Prime Minister and pushed him into a side-room where Suárez demanded that Tejero explain “this madness,” but Tejero simply claimed that it was “all for Spain.”  When Suárez pressed for a better answer, and tried to exert his authority as President of the Government, he was curtly told that he was no longer president of anything. A few moments later, Tejero’s men separated five of the deputies from the rest and kept them in isolation.

The cameras of TVE, Spain’s national television company, had been recording proceedings as normal, and the technicians left the cameras running during the coup. Similarly, the microphones of live radio broadcasts from SER, a private broadcaster, were left open and transmitting. All of Spain listened as the events unfolded before the insurgents switched them off.

Meanwhile in Valencia, the Captain General of the region, Jaime Milans del Bosch, sent the 2,000 men and 50 tanks under his command out into the streets to take control of key objectives like the town hall and courts. By 7 o’clock the general went on air from Valencia to declare a state of emergency, and for the military commanders in other regions of Spain to take control by force. Not all the military was behind the coup, and when the general sent a column of troops to take the airbase at Manises, they were met with the threat of the base’s fighters attacking the rebel tanks with missiles.

At 10 O’clock, the President of the autonomous government of Catalonia, Jordi Pujol, gave a speech on national radio calling for calm and restraint from all parties. King Juan Carlos called a meeting with his advisors, whilst another of the planners of the coup, General Alfonso Armada, arrived at the Zarzuela Palace and asked to speak to the king. He had been a confident of the king in the past, and he was hoping to be able to offer mutually beneficial terms for the king’s support.

Juan Carlos refused to see him, and Amada joined Tejero at the Congress of Deputies around midnight and told Tejero that the king would support them. Tejero did not believe him, and he spat out his disgust at his superior. “I have not assaulted Congress for this!” General Amada then began negotiations with the congress in the hope that he could force them to accept his authority, but before they had gone far, all the televisions in Spain told the country what was happening.  

The king speaks

At 1:14 am on the morning of the 24th, King Juan Carlos of Spain wearing his uniform as Captain General of the Armed Forces, addressed his country on national television. He asked the nation to remain peaceful and that the military must have the approval of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before taking any action.  He said that the “Crown cannot tolerate in any form any act which tries to interfere with the constitution which has been approved by the Spanish people.”

When Tejero saw the special edition of El Pais that morning, he realised that the coup had failed and that Milans del Bosch had been arrested in Valencia. He gave himself up at midday and released the deputies.

The coup has become known as 23F, or 23 February, is now also famous as “The night of the transistors” because the whole of Spain sat listening to the radio through the night.


Tejero was the last of the coup participants to be released from jail on 2 December 1996, having then served 15 years in the military prison at Alcalá de Henares. He now lives in Torre del Mar in the Province of Málaga. 




José María Alfredo Aznar López


ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) had unwittingly aided Spain’s transition to democracy by killing Franco’s chosen successor, who would have certainly continued with fascist rule. But the Basque separatists still had their own agenda, which was to gain socialist self-rule. They continued with terrorist attacks and kidnappings against targets in Spain and France. It was outlawed as a terrorist group by Spain, France, the USA, Great Britain and the member states of the EU. Any activists who were caught were imprisoned, and there are now more than 300 members of ETA in prisons in these countries. During a 42 year period from 1968 to 2010, ETA killed 829 people including 340 civilians. There have been many offshoots of ETA over the years, both political and paramilitary, but most have been outlawed because they had clear links to the illegal, original ETA.

ETA did not achieve its objective of Basque independence from Spain, and popular Spanish opinion is still against it, but the fear of ETA’s belligerence did cause profound changes in Spanish politics. From 1996 José María Alfredo Aznar López was Prime Minister and leader of the PP (Partido Popular). He was elected leader of the opposition in 1989, where he served until his party won the elections in 1996. Significantly, a year before he was elected as Prime Minister, he survived an assassination attempt by ETA. He hated terrorism, and took a hard-line stance in dealing with it, and by the time that he left office in 2004 ETA was on the wane.

After winning his first election, he cut state expenses and privatised many state-owned companies. His liberalisation of the economy permitted Spain to join in the creation of the Eurozone, though unemployment remained high. 




The Atocha train bombings

The scene of the bombing in the Atocha station in madrid. Image: CTV News


During Aznar’s first term of office in 1997, a promising young town councilor who had joined the PP was kidnapped by ETA and held to ransom. 19-year old Miguel Angel Blanco was due to be married that year to his fiancée, but ETA demanded that all the ETA prisoners were to be transferred to Basque prisons or he would be shot. The deadline for his execution passed, and Miguel was found in San Sebastian an hour later shot in the back of the head.

Even supporters of ETA were horrified at the killing of the young man, and people in the Basque country and the rest of Spain went into the streets to demonstrate against ETA. Aznar tried to open negotiations with the terrorists, but they came to nothing, and ETA carried on with their reign of violence. It was against this backdrop that Aznar won his second term in office as leader of the PP and his policies began to take effect as economy grew and unemployment fell. However, it was his foreign policy that brought about his ultimate downfall.

After 9/11 he publicly supported the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq along with Great Britain. 90% of the population of Spain was against the invasion, but Aznar sent 1,300 Spanish troops to fight with coalition forces led by Colin Powell. It was this support for the USA that brought al-Qaeda terrorism to Spain. Aznar was due to step down in the general elections on 14th March 2004 in favour of Mariano Rajoy, the PP’s new leader, but on the 11th a series of bombs were planted on commuter trains which killed 193 and injured a further 2,000

Aznar immediately blamed ETA, but as the evidence was gathered, it became clear that it was an Islamic group that had planted the bombs, and Spain pointed accusing fingers at Aznar’s willingness to back the US invasion of Iraq. The bombers were still at large, and were planning bomb attacks on high speed trains to Seville and Zaragoza, but police were closing in, and finally cornered them in an apartment in Leganés. Before the police could storm the flat, the terrorists committed suicide by detonating a bomb which blew out the walls of the building. When the police put all the evidence together they were appalled at the mix of petty crooks, drug dealers and idealistic students who were responsible for the loss of so many lives. Despite the supposed high security levels to combat ETA, the bombers had bought their Goma 2 explosive quite easily on the black market, and nearly all were known to the police in some way. Only when their identities were known did it show the incompetent bungling by the police and courts that had allowed this horror to happen.

As a final twist to the tragedy, a tape made by the bombers showed them vowing to re-establish the state of al-Andalus that Taric Bin Ziyad had begun when he invaded Iberia in 711.      


Much of this page and the next page is taken from Giles Tremlet’s excellent book on the history and politics of Spain. It’s a fascinating description of the people whose lives shaped the character of modern Spain. Giles traveled in Franco’s Spain and has a Spanish wife. 



The New Spaniards, by John Hooper is a fascinating insight into the post Franco era and the huge social and political changes that have occured as Spain rapidly caught up with the rest of the world to become one of the eading nations in Europe.


Shadow of the wind is a gripping story of a young man growing up in Barcelona during the latter end of Franco’s rule. His father introduces him to a mysterious hidden library called the book cemetery, and he is asked to pick a book. The book he chooses leads him into danger because all the other books of that title have been systematically burned, and he has the only one left. When he tries to find the author, he is drawn into a sinister world of secret love and the secret police.