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The Military in Political Life

The armed forces have constituted a highly important and often decisive factor in Spanish politics throughout the modern history of the country as a constitutional monarchy and republic. During most of the nineteenth century, the military was considered to be a liberal influence, intervening to enforce necessary correctives against the failings of weak civilian governments, but not seeking to replace civilian institutions permanently. After about 1875, the army was less involved politically, and it often found itself on the side of maintaining public order against popular movements of peasants and the industrial working class. Although their outlook was little changed, the officers then occupied what had become the right side of the political spectrum in a period of rapidly evolving political ideas.

Until the Spanish Civil War, the range of acceptable political beliefs among army officers remained quite broad. One result of the conflict was that the most conservative officers tended to join the Nationalist forces. More than 10,000 Nationalist officers who had survived the war, or who had been commissioned during its course, decided to stay on as regulars. The officer corps was completely purged of those who had fought on the losing side. The army leadership during the next three decades thus was drawn from the group that had been the most conservative and the most closely identified with Franco's political ideology.

High-ranking soldiers were appointed by Franco to important state bodies and served in the Cortes. (Under the 1978 Constitution, officers are required to resign their commissions to run for parliamentary office.) Over one-third of the ministers in post-1939 cabinets had backgrounds as career officers. The ministers of the army, the navy, and the air force were invariably professional military, as was the minister of interior, who was responsible for internal security. Many officers also served in civilian ministries and in other agencies, in companies owned by the government, and on the boards of directors of leading private companies. Nevertheless, as modernization of the economy proceeded, the main functions of government fell increasingly under the control of civilian technocrats. The influence of the military in the final stages of the Franco regime was limited primarily to the prime minister and to the armed forces ministerial portfolios. In spite of its prominent representation in the ministries and in the industries connected with defense, the military establishment had little success in persuading Franco to earmark for it the resources needed to overcome the obsolescence of the armed forces.

The more senior officers remained extremely conservative, violently opposed to the left, and suspicious of any broadening of political expression. Certain military reforms were advanced by Diego Alegria, the army commander who took office in 1970. He aimed at more selective enlistments, at rationalization of troop deployments, and at promotion by merit rather than by seniority. Alegria's program was undermined, however, by right-wing commanders, who secured his removal in 1974.

In 1972 a secret society of younger army officers, the Democratic Military Union (Union Militar Democratica--UMD) grew quickly, numbering 300 in 1975 when many of its members were arrested and court-martialed. Most of the reforms they proposed--the unification of the three service ministries, a restriction in the scope of the military justice system, reductions in the length of obligatory military service, curbs on the military intelligence system, and a less prominent role for the captains general of the nine military regions--were adopted after Franco's death.

During the transition period after Franco's death, the civil government adopted a deferential attitude toward the military leadership which, as the national institution most loyal to the former regime and most able to intervene decisively, presented the greatest danger to the program of the new democratic leaders. The civilian authorities prudently consulted the military before adopting new proposals, seeking their implied consent. Many members of the officer corps willingly accepted the new constitutional order, but others--mainly in the army--who still identified with the Franco era, regarded it as a betrayal of the Civil War victory in 1939.

In spite of objections by the most vocal elements, the senior military acquiesced in the important changes to the military command structure needed to bring it unambiguously under civilian direction (see Jurisdiction over National Defense , this ch.). The military was dangerously antagonized by other actions, however, particularly by the legalization of the Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de Espana--PCE) in 1978 after the military had received what it had interpreted as a firm pledge against such a step.

The accumulating discontent of certain officers was made evident by a number of provocative incidents. The first of a series of plots against the government was uncovered in November 1978. The extremely light sentences imposed on the officers involved may have encouraged conspiracies. In late 1980 and early 1981, at least three further schemes appeared to be afoot. The conspiracy that came closest to success was the invasion of the Congress of Deputies (lower house of the Cortes) on February 23, 1981, by Civil Guardsmen and soldiers who took as hostages the entire body as well as the cabinet, which was present for a debate on a new government. The three principal plotters were Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina, an officer of the Civil Guard; Lieutenant General Jaime Milan del Bosch, captain general of Valencia; and Lieutenant General Alfonso Armada Comyn, a confidant of the king. Milan del Bosch had previously been commander of the elite Brunete Armored Division near Madrid, but he had been transferred, as a result of his well-known antipathy to the new political order, under suspicion of earlier plotting. Armada had been forced from a post in the royal household because of his political activities. The failure of other units to join the mutineers, the vacillation of a number of officers who had been counted on to join the revolt, and, most particularly, the denunciation of the attempt by King Juan Carlos de Borbon, who appeared in uniform on national television, brought the release of the civilian politicians, after twenty-two hours, and the surrender of the forces under the control of the conspirators.

At least one further plot was foiled when a group of colonels was discovered planning to seize power on the eve of the October 1982 general election. The subsequent accommodation of the military to the Socialist government of Gonzalez, the military's grudging acceptance of the major reforms of the armed forces, introduced in 1983, and of Spain's membership in NATO and in the European Community (EC--see Glossary) appeared to have moderated the danger of new attempts by right-wing officers to challenge civilian authority.

In spite of the government's success in establishing unequivocal authority over the principal issues of national security, certain matters continued to be sensitive for the military. Attacks by Basque terrorists on high-ranking officers and security personnel have been a source of bitterness. Government plans to devolve greater autonomy on regional governments were delayed; and, these plans were less extensive than originally foreseen, in deference to military objections to the decentralization process, especially as it applied to the Basque region. The inflexibly nationalistic stance of the military commanders was the primary factor determining government policy regarding the status of the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast as well as on negotiations with Britain over the status of Gibraltar (see Gibraltar, Ceuta, and Melilla , ch. 4).

By 1986 the authority of the defense minister was great enough to enable him to replace the JEMAD and the three service chiefs of staff, reportedly because they had failed to support the military reform program. Nevertheless, the military leaders continued to be treated with prudence. The government made a considerable effort to demonstrate sympathy and respect for the military in ceremonies and in official statements. The king, who had received training in the three military academies, had carefully forged links with the military. As supreme commander, he could in theory supersede the political authority of the country. His public addresses recognized the contribution of the military and were sensitive to the need to sustain its morale in the face of the fundamental changes that it had been obliged to accept. At the same time, the king stressed that, in a democracy, the armed forces must comport themselves with discipline and restraint (see Political Interest Groups , ch. 4).

Data as of December 1988

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