The takeover of the Spanish parliament building by a group of rebellious Civil Guardsmen and the holding hostage of the nation's Cabinet and legislature is without precedent in modern Western Europe; but with a history of 25 coups in the past 150 years, Spain is in a class by itself.
At the center of the dramatic test of Spain's democratic system is this tradition of military involvement in politics and the historic figure of the Spanish officer who feels impelled to "save Spain."
"There are people who live in another age," Socialist Deputy Carmen Garcia Bloise said of her kidnapers shortly after her release today.
The leader of the Civil Guard attack on the Congress of Deputies, Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero Molina, is a throwback to the 19th century Spanish military officers who alternately created and deposed governments. The word "junta" was coined by the Spaniards during that period, and the military man meddling in politics, the "man on horseback," became an enduring Spanish export to Latin America.
Tejero, who is widely known for his extreme right-wing views, acted out a traditional role. In 1874 a tough, no-nonsense officer, Gen. Pavia, toppled a chaotic republican experiment by bursting into the same Cortes building that Tejero attacked and dismissing the terrified deputies. Ever since then "Pavia's horse" -- the one the general reportedly rode up the steps -- has become a Spanish code word for military anticonstitutional plotting.
But when Tejero tried to repeat the trick, he was left to act alone and was humiliated.
The kidnaping of Congress will go down in Spanish folklore and history as the "23 of February events." Already two lessons can clearly be drawn: the continuing existence of the fanatic officer and the evidence that, for the present at least, he is acting in a vacuum.
Aside from the fact that the coup attempt was badly planned and generally bungled, the main reason that is failed is that the modern Spanish Army is strongly united and extremely reluctant to act in any way that would break that unity. This is the result of the Traumatic Spanish Civil War when the Army split in two.Spanish commentators on military affairs stress that the Army will not follow solitary, and therefore divisive, adventures.
They say the Army would only act politically as a whole, united institution and only if an intolerable situation had been reached. Tejero found himself isolated and unaided because there is no consensus among the armed forces that Spain has arrived at such a point.
Politically, Tejero is a man with no ideology or program other than an emotional patriotic desire to "rescue the fatherland," using as a reference point the last successful coup carried out in Spain -- Gen. Francisco Franco's rebellion that triggered the Spanish Civil War. Outside the small number of extreme rightists and others nostalgic for the days of Franco, few in Spain would agree that there is any analogy between the situation before the civil war and the present moment.
Tejero, however, when he spoke to deputies and journalists during the hostage drama, repeated the Francoist cliches of a Spain broken by separatism, Marxism and in need of patriots who would restore the nation's honor. Again Tejero was playing the part of the historic Spanish coup leader.
According to the penetrating essay "Invertebrate Spain" by the 20th century philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, the coup leader who brought out troops against the government was essentially convinced of the righteousness of his "idea" and saw little reason to justify or explain his actions. Tejero fits into that pattern.
Yesterday's Congress takeover was Tejero's second attempt at the classic pronunciamiento (literally pronouncement) of the 19the century mold. In 1978 he was arrested in the midst of a plot, known as Operation Galaxy, which also planned to hold the Cabinet hostage. A court-martial subsequently freed him after he had spent seven months in custody. It was generally believed that Tejero was treated leniently because his plotting reflected the Army's misgivings over Spain's transition to democracy.
Tejero can no longer expect such leniency nor such tacit support. This time he went too far. But at a time when historic parallel are being freely discussed in Spain, many point to the fact that Franco's 1936 coup was itself preceded by a failure four years earlier when another general mistimed a rebellion against the republic.
Underlining the intense debate on the military now enveloping Spain, the newspaper Diario 16 said in an editorial today, "The country must once and for all break free from the sword of Damocles hanging over its head and the government must take drastic measures."
Also urging strong action against present and future plotters, the Madrid daily El Pais blamed the "weakness, complicity and cowardice" that at the time prevented the government from taking a firm line over the Galaxy court-martial. El Pais said the failure to act then was "at least as responsible as the Congress attackers in contributing to yesterday's unprecedented spectacle."