Spanish democracy has come under its most severe threat since the demise of the late Francisco Franco in 1975 and the subsequent dismantling of the right-wing authoritarian regime that he had imposed on his country for 39 years.
The threat is from the extreme right -- more particularly from the uniformed officers of the paramilitary civil guards, who have sympathizers among the officers of the armed forces and the police.
Together they represent a minority segment of society at one extreme of the political spectrum. They are disillusioned with democracy and impatient for a return to the certainties and law-and-order of the Franco years. Their impatience erupted in a coup attempt on the very floor of the Cortes (Parliament) in Madrid Feb. 23.
The outcome of his violent challenge to Spanish democracy -- still not clear at the time of writing -- hangs on the ultimate loyalty of the armed forces as a whole to their commander-in-chief, King Juan Carlos. He has been more responsible than any other single individual for Spain's shift from dictatorship to a parliamentary system over the past five years. He quickly issued a statement condemning those trying to seize power by force.
Just as a vote was to be taken in the Cortes to confirm Prime Minister-designate Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo in the premiership, armed civil guards took over the floor. Mr. Calvo Sotelo and his predecessor, Adolfo Suarez, were among those in the chamber. So too were opposition Socialist leader Felipe Gonzales and Communist leader Santiago Carillo. As the intruders fired at the ceiling, the parliamentarians fell to the ground or ducked for cover. Other civil guards surrounded the Parliament building on the outside.
In Valencia, a controversial right-wing survivor of the Franco heyday, sexagenarian Captain General Jaime Milans del Bosch, declared a state of emergency.
The Dismantling of the Franco apparatus by King Juan Carlos since 1975 was a more complicated process than just replacing dictatorship with democracy. It has simultaneously involved devolution of central power and recognition of languages other than Castilian Spanish.
By the beginning of this year, most of the new framework was in place. But that soon became the cue for some of the old passions that had so often wracked Spain in the past to show themselves at the edges. The challenge to the new free system was all the greater because, with the waning of the euphoria attending its new-found freedoms, democratic Spain was finding it had to face up to those disruptive forces besetting much of the Western Europe it had rejoined.
These were: a worsening economic situation; permissiveness and pornography; and a reasserting of regionalisms.
The Army, long the main buttress of Franco's authoritarianism, deplores the devolution of power to the Basque and Catalan regions (which, with Madrid, have the highest per capita incomes in Spain) -- and the persistent terrorism of a Basque hard-core handful.
The Roman Catholic Church deplores the move toward legalizing divorce initiated by Mr. Suarez before he resigned last month. And Spain's first truly democratic government in a generation -- whether led by Mr. Suarez or Mr. Calvo Sotelo -- was inevitably getting the blame for the economic situation.
Small wonder then that graffiti have appeared on walls in Spain saying in effect how much Franco was missed.
The last straw for the Civil guards and police prompting their coup attempt Feb. 23 was the civilian government's challenging of their treatment of political prisoners after the death in custody last week of a suspected Basque terrorist.
Till now, the troubles of this winter had seemed no more than the continued growing pains at Spaniards faced up to an unavoidable step in all democracies: transferring power from one incumbent government to another, perhaps of a different party, and yet preserving both civil peace and political stability.
The transfer of the premiership from Mr. Suarez to Mr. Calvo Sotelo is not that step.
They are of the same party, even if the change of prime ministers suggests a move to the right within that party, the Democratic Center Union (UCD). Instead , the test was expected at the next election, not due for two more years -- unless the Calvo Sotelo government lost the confidence of parliament before then.
In the election, the main challenge was likely to come from the Socialists, currently the main opposition party, led by the youthful and personally popular Felipe Gonzales. There are those who think that Mr. Suarez, as Premier, made a mistake by trying to steal some of the Socialists' clothes by tugging his UCD leftward -- both in his economic policies and, for example, on the question of divorce. That produced the sniping against him from the right within his party, which in turn contributed to his resignation.
Simultaneously, King Juan Carlos seems to have deliberately allowed distance to develop between himself and Mr. Suarez since the electorate confirmed the latter as Prime Minister in the 1977 election. The King's apparent aim has been to unhitch himself from identification with any one party and strengthen his image as a truly constitutional monarch. Conceivably he has had his eye on a situation down the line where he might have found himself calling on Mr. Gonzales and the Socialists to form a governme nt.