20 November 1975 – Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s Death
6 December 1978 – Ratification of the Spanish Constitution
17 November 1978 – “Operatión Galaxia” failed coup d’état
23 February 1981 – Coup d’état, lasted 17 hours
28 October 1982 – Electoral Victory by Socialist Workers Party (PSOE)

The Coup d'état of 23-F

Jason Pollack

025.jpgThere are three important events that mark the beginning of democracy in Spain: the ratification of the Spanish Constitution in 1978 and the victory by the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) in the general election of 1982. The events of February 23, 1981, or 23-F in Spain, is the single most important day in Spain’s road to democracy because a successful coup could have changed the course of Spanish politics. The coup showed the countries support for the king and diffused the military's power over politics. After the death of Spain’s leader, General Francisco Franco, there was anxiety about the military's future role in the government and fear among the military elite about the civilian governments ability to deal with a shrinking economy and further clashes with Basque separatists. Paul Preston outlines 23-F the best: “Brutally exposed the limitations of the government’s velvet-glove policy of avoiding injuring the officer class at all costs in the hope of carrying out political and military reforms on the quiet” (Preston 163).

The coup started at 6:30 p.m. with Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero leading 200 Civil Guards into the Cortes (Parliament), who at the time was voting Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo in as the new prime minister. Colonel Tejero had the intention of creating a power vacuum that would allow the military to declare martial law and again take control of Spain’s political system (Solís 2). At the same time as Tejero stormed the Cortes with his 200 Civil Guards, the Captain General of Valencia, Jaime Milans del Bosch was moving tanks into the streets and preparing for martial law. Soon after the coup, Milan was calling the country’s military leaders and asking support ‘in the name of the King’ while issuing an edict, which ordered a curfew and “militarizing all personnel belonging to the public services of civilian interest… prohibiting all public and private activity of all political parties” (Díaz-Ambrona 35). But while Milan was asking for support, King Juan Carlos was saying he did not stand by the plot of Tejero and Milan. The next morning the King appeared on national television stating: “The Crown would not tolerate any attacks on the democratic process” and 17 hours after Tejero entered the Cortes the coup was over (Solís 3).

The coup did not succeed because of the military's overall support for King Juan Carlos. This can be attributed to Franco’s decision of June 1973 to “separate the office of head of state from that of the president of the government” (Díaz-Ambrona 22). Additionally, upon Franco’s death, he made Prince Juan Carlos of Borbón the King of Spain, helping to legitimize the power of the Crown among the military leadership (Díaz-Ambrona 23). It is important to stress that there were many attempted coups by conservative generals within the military. But the 23-F coup actually happened and put citizens on the edge of their seat to see if Spain’s young democracy would succeed. Operatión Galaxia was a botched coup attempt before 23-F which was also the brainchild of Tejero. If there was to be one thing learned from Operatión Galaxia, it highlighted the importance and power of the Brunette Armored Division (DAC), which operated in and around Madrid. It was believed “if a Madrid based unit were to give a lead (to the coup attempt), then the rest of the Army would follow,” and right wing generals continued to ask to command the DAC after the signing of the constitution in 1978 in earnest (Preston 180). This is exactly what happened under the command of General Torres Rojas in 1979 with a plot centering on the “Brigade Paracaidista supported by helicopters would seize the Moncloa Palace while armored vehicles of the DAC neutralized the capitol” and almost went off if it was not for the lack of fuel and ammunition (Preston 181).


These missed chances by the military, lead to a cover up by the Spanish Army about the relief of Rojas from his command and helped to increase the importance of a future event or what would become of the 23-F coup within the cadre of conservative generals. Even after the events of 23-F, plans for a coup the day before elections in 1982 were uncovered. By itself extremely impressive “ the Moncloa Palace and headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were being bombarded by artillery… access roads occupied and the capitol sealed off” (Preston 183). The events of 23-F highlight the only partially successful coup attempt and a significant obstacle on the road to democracy in Spain.

Tanks being deployed in the the streets of Valencia in support of the Coup.


  1. Bregolat, Eugenio. "Spain's Transition to Democracy." The SAIS Review 19.2 (1999): n. pag. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/sais_review/v019/19.2bregolat.html>
  2. Díaz-Ambrona, Juan Antonio Ortega. "The Transition to Democracy in Spain." Spain, Conditional Democracy. By Christopher Abel and Nissa Torrents. London: Croom Helm, 1984. 21-39. Print.
  3. Preston, Paul. "Fear of Freedom: The Sapnish Army after Franco." Spain, Conditional Democracy. By Christopher Abel and Nissa Torrents. London: Croom Helm, 1984. 161-83. Print.
  4. Solís, Fernando León. "23 F – Redemption or Derailment of Spanish Democracy?" International Journal of Iberian Studies 20.3 (2007): 207-27. Print.