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King Juan Carlos' greatest legacy: Ordering an end to 1981 coup

Madrid: Two images stick in the minds of Spaniards from 23 February, 1981, the day Spain escaped a military coup.

The first shows politicians cowering under their benches as armed guards burst into parliament, shooting over their heads.

The second is that of King Juan Carlos, on television in his green military uniform hours later, ordering an end to the revolt.

"I have ordered the civil authorities and the chiefs of staff to take the necessary measures to maintain constitutional order," he said.

It proved to be the making of the king, 43 at the time and five years into his reign in a country still wary of him as the late dictator Francisco Franco's chosen successor.

Carlos on television condemning the coup: Getty

Carlos on television condemning the coup: Getty

Spain's young democracy was put to test when 200 Civil Guards, under Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero, stormed into the lower house of parliament as lawmakers were voting in a new prime minister.

"The first impression I had was surprise," said one man who witnessed the assault, Jose Bono, a young lawmaker of 30 at the time. "A Civil Guard came in, adjusting his tricorn hat, and started yelling and shooting," Bono, who later served as defence minister, told AFP.

"Everyone on the floor!" Tejero yelled at the lawmakers.

"The most tense moment was when they fired -- more than thirty shots," said Bono. "More than 30 bullet holes are still there in the walls of Congress. We decided not to get rid of them, so they would remain as the historic wounds of that coup."

As the deputies hid under their benches, just three people apart from the soldiers remained upright, as seen in the grainy pictures of the drama recorded by security cameras.

One was the deputy prime minister Manuel Gutierrez Mellado, himself a lieutenant colonel. He stayed on his feet and squared up to Tejero, who shoved him about.

Another was the outgoing prime minister Adolfo Suarez, and the third was the leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo, a seasoned political survivor -- both of whom stayed sitting up in their seats.

"It was possible they would kill us, but we had to save our honour," Carrillo said afterwards.

They were held there most of the night, uncertain of what was happening outside.

"Two of the deputies had radios and news passed by word of mouth," Bono said. "We heard that the king had spoken, but we heard it very late and it was very unclear."

In the Zarzuela palace on the outskirts of Madrid, Juan Carlos was undergoing a test of his own.

Aided by his royal secretary Sabino Fernandez Campos, the king was working the telephone, talking with various military leaders to gauge support for the coup.

Among those backing Tejero was the military commander of Valencia, Jaime Milans del Bosch, who sent tanks into the streets of the eastern city.

Tejero also wanted to occupy Madrid, but the commander in the capital, General Guillermo Quintana Lacaci, showed allegiance to the king.

"The whole evening was one long arm-wrestle, a tough fight in which the king and Sabino had to push all the way to get control of the regiments," the then state security chief Francisco Laina told El Pais newspaper later.

Juan Carlos kept his son and heir Prince Felipe, then aged 13, at his side throughout the crisis. "I wanted him to see what one has to do when one is king," he said later.

Juan Carlos appeared on television around 1:00 am on February 24 and his stern announcement heralded the beginning of the end of the short-lived coup.

"I knew that the soldiers were going to agree because I had been named by Franco... because I had been through the military academy and I had won the friendship of most of them," the king said later.

Later in the night, the civil guards who had stormed the chamber climbed out of the windows to give themselves up and Tejero and Milans del Bosch surrendered within hours.

Milans died in 1997 and another of the military leaders jailed for the coup, Alfonso Armada, died in 2013. A former tutor of Juan Carlos, Armada always denied masterminding the uprising.

"The king had been legitimised in the constitution, but his legitimacy from a popular point of view came from that night, when instead of opting for the coup leaders, he opted for the people," said Bono.

"In that sense, he did more for the monarchy than all of his predecessors."

AFP

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