Spain’s Military Has No Time for Democracy

Retired officers nostalgic for the Franco dictatorship are denouncing the country’s elected government. King Felipe should condemn these anti-democratic forces just as his father did in 1981.

King Felipe of Spain attends the National Day Military Parade on Oct. 12, 2019 in Madrid.
King Felipe of Spain attends the National Day Military Parade on Oct. 12, 2019 in Madrid. Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

At the end of November, retired members of Spain’s military sent two letters directly to the country’s King Felipe VI, expressing concerns about the “social-communist” government in Madrid and the danger it poses—or so they said—to Spanish unity. In these emotional missives—one signed by 73 formerly senior army officers, the other by 39 retired air force officers—the retirees address the monarch explicitly as head of the armed forces, and pledge their allegiance to the “homeland,” the “national cohesion” of which, they claim, has been weakened by the minority government led by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

These extraordinary letters were followed by a manifesto along similar lines, published on Dec. 6, the day on which Spaniards approved their 1978 Constitution in a national referendum. This one described Spain’s Socialist-led government as “a serious risk to the unity of Spain and its constitutional order,” and was signed by more than 400 former members of the Spanish military, as well as by one of former dictator Francisco Franco’s grandsons.

The outrage expressed in these documents was sparked by the deal that Sánchez cut in November with leftist, pro-independence groups from the Basque Country and Catalonia, in return for their votes for the 2021 budget. The irony, of course, is that historically, Spain’s unity and constitutional integrity has not been damaged or threatened by cross-party compromise, but rather by the military’s intervention in its politics.

For all but the most reactionary elements of Spain’s political class and military, these letters constitute an unpleasant reminder of the past. In July 1936, an armed rebellion led by Gen. Francisco Franco was launched against the Popular Front government, a leftist coalition of Socialists and communists that had won the general election in February that year. After three years of brutal civil war, Franco’s forces triumphed over the Republicans in 1939, replacing the elected government with a military dictatorship that lasted for the next four decades.

Ominously, the vision hinted at in the letters recently sent to the royal household and the open statement—of the military and monarchy standing united against Spain’s imperfect yet democratically elected government—sounds similar to that which inspired Franco’s rebellion 84 years ago.

Cross-party bartering is unavoidable in modern Spanish politics, especially for Sánchez’s minority coalition, which holds just 155 of the 350 seats in Congress (the Socialists have 120, Podemos 35). That said, the Socialist leader has ventured far from the center to secure sufficient support for his 2021 budget; in doing so, he’s made kingmakers of parties more accustomed to acting in the murky shadows of mainstream politics (the Republican Left of Catalonia, known as ERC, and the Basque EH Bildu occupy just 13 and 5 seats in congress, respectively).

In 1997, the current leader of EH Bildu, Arnaldo Otegi, took the helm of a leftist Basque pro-independence group called Herri Batasuna. Renamed Batasuna in 2001, it was banned by Spain’s Constitutional Court two years later for acting as the political wing of ETA, a radical group that committed bombings, kidnappings, and murders in its pursuit of an independent Basque Country.

Otegi’s attempt to restart Batasuna in 2009 earned him a 10-year jail sentence, which was reduced to six-and-a-half years by Spain’s Supreme Court in 2012. In the 1980s, the former ETA member also served half of a six-year term for his role in kidnapping Basque businessman Luis Abaitua.

The ERC is equally passionate about Catalan independence, but unlike ETA, it has never resorted to bombs or kidnapping in its quest for a Republic of Catalonia (although there were violent protests in Barcelona in the wake of the 2017 referendum). Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s former vice president, currently leads the party from jail after receiving a 13-year sentence for his role in organizing the region’s failed breakaway bid of October 2017. Along with then-Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, Junqueras orchestrated an independence referendum that was declared illegal in advance by Spain’s Constitutional Court, in which 90 percent of the 43 percent of voters who turned out voted for Catalan secession. As well as Junqueras, eight other Catalan separatists are doing time for arranging the vote, and for the unilateral declaration of independence that followed. Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid the same fate, where he’s remained ever since.

Sánchez’s budget deal is far too generous, especially to the ERC, which has secured more funding for Catalonia—the wealthiest region in Spain—and a tweaking of tax laws in Barcelona’s favor. But his budgetary wrangling with these parties in no way implies sympathy with their separatist tendencies.

Sánchez’s budgetary wrangling with these parties in no way implies sympathy with their separatist tendencies.

Sánchez has repeatedly stated his opposition to Catalan secessionism and, when the Supreme Court sentenced Junqueras and others in October 2019, he described it as the culmination of an “exemplary legal process.” ETA isn’t around to condemn anymore (it disarmed in 2017 and dissolved in 2018), but the Socialist Party’s leaders have always deplored its violence—so much so, in fact, that one wonders whether one of Sánchez’s predecessors would object to his deal with Otegi. After an ETA car bomb exploded in Madrid in 2005 and injured 42 people, then-Socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero declared that the group had “no place in politics or civil society.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to think of two parties—except for leftist Podemos, the Socialists’ junior partner in government—more likely to trigger the grumbling of Spain’s royalist old guard. The letters’ signatories appear nostalgic for the time when anti-establishment ideologies could be eradicated by force, and when the Socialists and Conservative Popular Party easily swapped power back and forth, without having to pander to secessionists or radicals. (After all, separatist and independent parties of any stripe were illegal during Franco’s dictatorship.)

This isn’t the first time since the Civil War that Spain’s military has intervened in, or at least expressed strong opinions on, the country’s territorial and constitutional disputes. In early 2006, José Mena Aguado, a lieutenant general in the Spanish army, shed his political neutrality and criticized a proposed Catalan Statute of Autonomy, which sought to augment the northeasterly region’s self-governance by modifying a similar statute from 1979. Among the more controversial additions was the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” in the document’s introduction.

Reactionary branches of the military, as well as the Conservative People’s Party, were incensed, claiming that the proposed statute was flagrantly anti-constitutional (the PP was the only force to oppose the statute in the national congress). Aguado was placed under house arrest for declaring that, if it was passed, he’d have no choice but to activate Article 8 of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which states that the armed forces are responsible for defending Spain’s “territorial integrity” and “constitutional order.”

Back in 2006, the new autonomy statute seemed to be a bigger deal for Aguado than it did for Catalans. When it was put to a referendum in June 2006, not even half of the regional population participated, although, of those that did, 74 percent voted in favor. The 2006 Statute aroused far greater interest four years later, when Spain’s Constitutional Court did what the military had wanted to do and effectively tore it up. The Court declared that the opening definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal significance, rewrote 14 of its laws, and heavily modified a further 27. In response, one million people protested on the streets of Barcelona.

One imagines that the authors of the letters recently sent to Felipe also interpret this section of the Constitution in the same way—as justifying unilateral action by a military that’s supposed to be politically neutral. If any current member of Spain’s armed forces were to act on this interpretation, though, one hopes they would face legal sanctions at least as tough, if not tougher, than those imposed upon the Catalan separatists responsible for 2017’s referendum.

If any current member of Spain’s armed forces were to act on this interpretation, one hopes they would face tough legal sanctions.

Aguado, clearly, still feels the same way about the Catalonia issue: Now retired, he added his signature to the manifesto published on Constitution Day. He, nor any other of the signatories of the letters or the open statement, face any legal sanctions for signing the documents, precisely because their retired status negates their obligation to be politically neutral. Spain’s chief of defense staff has said that, as such, their words should be read as expressing personal opinions that in no way represent “the collective to which they once belonged.”

The same goes for the retired air force officials who recently talked of “executing 26 million sons of bitches” in a WhatsApp group chat, in a reference to Catalan separatists (they also signed the letter to Felipe). Spain’s defense minister Margarita Robles isn’t so sure about their lack of legal culpability, though, and has sent details of the conversation to public prosecutors to determine whether a crime was committed.

Separatist tensions also played a part in the most notorious intervention in Spanish politics by the country’s military since the Civil War. In 1981, after six years of burgeoning democracy, military officers attempted a coup against the coalition government, which was struggling to contain hostilities in the Basque Country. In early February of that year, ETA murdered a kidnapped engineer and, a week later, one of its members was tortured and killed by police in Madrid. These two violent deaths proved a flashpoint, and on Feb. 23, 200 armed Civil Guard soldiers stormed Congress (one of them, Commander Ricardo Zancada, was among the 400 signatories of the anti-government manifesto of Dec. 6. He received a 12-year jail sentence for his role in the coup).

The captors held the assembled deputies hostage for almost a day, during which time King Juan Carlos I made a televised speech urging respect for democracy and the rule of law (a much-lauded intervention which has recently been overshadowed by fraud allegations against the former monarch). After 18 hours of high drama, some of it shown on live TV, the rebels surrendered without killing anyone.

Juan Carlos’s son Felipe made a similar appeal to the nation in the fall of 2017, in response to the escalating situation in Catalonia. It was an unprecedented excursion into politics for a usually low-key monarch, and one which may have led the retired generals to believe that he shares their concerns about the deterioration of national unity. Yet they are surely mistaken in thinking that Juan Carlos’s son would sanction any sort of armed uprising against Sánchez’s government, even if it is led by Socialists and reliant on radical secessionists to pass a budget.

An armed intervention, of course, has not been explicitly called for by the recent letters’ signatories, who, in any case, are no longer active members of Spain’s armed forces; but if another were attempted, it would deserve Felipe’s condemnation, not his encouragement—just as 1981’s assault on democracy deserved his father’s severest criticism.

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.

Tag: Spain

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