Spanish democracy strengthened by abortive coup -- but will it last?

Last week's abortive coup has strengthened Spanish democracy though the long term outcome remains in the balance. An immediate consequence has been the arrest of many of the ringleaders in the right-wing military Putsch and the appointment of a leading judge as head of the Supreme Court of Military Justice with powers to pursue investigations on a nationwide basis.

The aim of this appointment, according to a government official, "Is to arrange matters that the [military] institution itself neutralizes its tarnished members and rejects what they stand for."

The announcement was followed by another development. For the first time ever the more moderate political wing of the Basque separatist organization, Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA), has called for an unconditional cease-fire in the northern region. The announcement was made at a clandestine press conference in the Basque country's Vizcaya province Feb. 28 shortly after the political wing of ETA released three consuls --representing Austria, El Salvador, and Uruguay -- whom they had kidnapped Feb. 19.

But only hours after the truce was announced three policemen on patrol were ambushed in Bilbao. The attackers were suspected of belonging to the hard-line military wing of ETA, the group responsible for 110 political murders in the Basque region last year.

As a result, the cease-fire and the latest ambush will further separate the two wings of the terrorist organization and it is bound to further isolate the Basque country's most militant separatist guerrillas.

A third boost of the democratic institutions came Feb. 27 when millions of people took to the streets of major cities in Spain's biggest-ever demonstration in defense of liberty the democracy, and the new Constitution. The demonstration was called by all of Spain's political parties -- with the exception of extreme right-wing groups -- to celebrate the collapse of the Feb. 23 coup.

But can limited arrests, a partial cease-fire, and a massive demonstration, deter the armed forces from making another bid?

The abortive coup involved at least 4 top-ranking generals, one Navy captain, 22 Army and Civil Guard officers, and one civilian who was a known agitator in extreme right-wing circles. In addition, dramatizing the knife-edge position of the King, two of the top-ranking generals -- Gen. Alfonso Armada, deputy head of the Army Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Jaime Milans del Bosch, division commander of the southeast Valencia region -- used to be the King's closest aides. Another senior member of the armed forces arrested -- Col. Ignacio san Martin -- was the commander of Madrid's Strategic Armored Division, which is the only Army unit in the country now considered up to NATO standards of efficiency.

In this context with general disaffection in the armed forces King Juan Carlos made a conciliatory speech to Army cadets and the general chiefs of staff over the weekend in which he appeared to be trying to boost his own popularity as commander in chief.

The King heaped praises on the armed forces for their action against the ETA; he warned Spanish politicians not to engage in extensive investigations into the armed forces; he warned the Spanish press not to criticize military institutions; and referring to the abortive coup he gave an extremely restrained warning of the dangers of more "impulsive acts."

"The Army must learn," he said, "how to interpret the Constitution in a precise and definite way. It should be appreciated that impulsive acts may not contribute to the security of the nation. Rather [these acts] place the armed forces and the state as a whole in a critical situation from which there is no dignified or easy way out."

In these circumstances, with the King's position weakened in the armed forces because of opposition to his decision to deter last week's coup, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, the new premier has wasted no time in selecting his Cabinet.

Many of the key ministries will remain the same, but the Ministry of Defense will go to former Health Minister Alberto Oliari, ousting Gen. Manuel Gutierrez Mellado. General Mellado provoked the wrath of right-wing Army officers for his modest reforms aimed at depoliticizing the military.

Former Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, the other principal enemy of the Army for having introduced democracy in Spain, has also disappeared from the political scene.

Mr. Suarez flew to the United States Feb. 27 for a long holiday accompanied by his wife and his closest aides. But it was noticed that his personal luggage at Madrid's airport consisted of 20 suitcases.

It is now evident that the only reason the coup failed at all was because the King defended the Constitution and because many generals simply were not convinced that the coup would succeed. There is little to suggest that the armed forces as a whole support democracy.

On the other hand, all the issues that the Army grumbles about -- the legalization of the Spanish Communist Party in 1977; the absence of martial law in the northern Basque region with unlimited powers to crack down on the ETA; press reports of continued police torture against Basque prisoners; regional autonomy measures; and mild government measures aimed at pushing the Army to the sidelines, are all an intrinsic part of the democratic process.

Against this background, with the country's most powerful institution still not accepting the democracy's ground rules, Spain's future looks extremely uncertain.

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