The drama played out in Madrid was a 17-hour cliff-hanger from which Spain's youthful constitution democracy has emerged intact -- if understandably shaken. For a brief interlude the stark passions, so much a part of Spain's rich history, burst loose from the extreme near-fascist right in a vain effort to demolish at gunpoint the parliamentary system painstaking put together over the past five years under the enlightened patronage of King Juan Carlos. But the system held, with the young King again in a key role in support of it.
The frustrated right-wingers set on putting the clock back saw an opening for themselves in the growing awareness across the board in Spain that democracy carries with it what can often seem liabilities and disadvantages.
* The recent devolution of power from the once all- powerful center to autonomous local governments in Catalonia, the Basque region, and Galicia can seem to the authoritarian-inclined as the beginning of the breakup of the splendid Spain of Philip and Isabella. It has led Andalusians to press (still unsuccesfully) for parallel autonomy, and a handful of revolutionary Basque separatists persists in terrorism despite the concessions granted their region.
* Against the background of a worsening Spanish economy as a whole, regional autonomy for Catalonia and the Basque region has disturbed much of the rest of Spain on economic rather than political grounds. The reason? It raises the question of division of the national pie, since Catalonia and the Basque region (together with Madrid) have the highest per capita incomes in the country.
* The recognition of languages other than Castilian Spanish in the autonomous regions runs counter to a tradition zealously protected by the conservative right and again raises the specter of the disintegration of "holy" Spain.
* The general liberalizing of society inevitably accompanying the introduction of democracy after 39 years of Franco's authoritarianism and censorship has opened the door to the spread of the permissiveness and pornography, so much a feature of the rest of the Western world over the past two decades.
* That same liberalizing has had an impact on traditional Spanish Roman Catholicism, depicted at its most ecstatic in the gripping canvases of El Greco. The Spanish Catholic Church resented in particular outgoing Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez's move to liberalize Spain's hitherto restrictive divorce laws.
It was on all this that insurrection leader Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero de Molina and his associates -- all men nostalgic for the no-nonsense authoritarian decades of Francisco Franco's Spain -- were trying to capitalize. They felt particularly stung by the persistence of Basque terrorist activity in which fellow-members of the Civil Guard and senior military officers have been frequent targets. And it was for them a last straw when the government responded with some sympathy earlier this month to a public outcry against alleged police brutality in dealing with suspected terrorists.
For any outsider concentrating his gaze only on the violent intrusion into the Cortes (parliament) Feb. 23, it looked at the outset as if force might succeed. Colonel Tejero de Molina and his men were holding hostage under their guns the entire civilian political leadership of Spain. All the top men in the conservative Center Democratic Union government and in the Socialist and less numerous Communist opposition parties were on their faces on the floor or crouching nervously under benches. Other armed civil guards sympathetic to the coup attempt ringed the outside of the building.
But the rest of Spain remained calm. Only one of nine regional military commanders, a dinosaur holdover in Valencia, rushed to support the insurrection. And he beat a hasty and ignominious retreat after King Juan Carlos had gone on television, in full uniform, to denounce the coup attempt and order all service commanders to take whatever action was needed to defend the democratic Constitution.