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Spain - 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.

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. 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 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.

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

Officers of the Spanish armed forces have tended to regard themselves as highly patriotic, self-denying, and devoted to service. They attach importance to the symbols of Spanish unity and historical continuity. Sensitive to criticism and extremely conscious of perceived slights to honor, they have constantly sought reassurance that their role was appreciated by the government and by the public.

The military careerists' sense of forming a community set at a distance from civilian society has been heightened by their style of living. They usually have been housed on military compounds; they have shopped in military outlets, have obtained free education for their children at military schools, have used military hospitals, and have taken holidays at special facilities made available only to the armed forces. This isolated life has not been entirely a matter of choice, but has been necessitated by low wage scales. Until 1978 the majority of officers could maintain themselves only by holding second jobs, after finishing their military duties at midday.

Rates of intermarriage within the armed services community have always been high, as has been the ratio of sons of military personnel choosing military careers. As of 1979, about 67 percent of those entering the army military academy were following their fathers into the service. The corresponding ratio for the navy was 81 percent, and for the air force it was 54 percent. The future of the officers' group, as a distinctive social class, appeared to be in jeopardy by the mid-1980s. Uncompetitive salaries, greater career opportunities in the modern civilian economy, and reduced prospects in an officer corps that was faced with dramatic staff reductions presented a discouraging prospect to the sons of officers. A newer source of entrants to the military academies was developing among the sons of noncommissioned officers (NCOs), however, for whom the free education and the potential for social advancement were important inducements.

In terms of its status as a profession, military service has traditionally ranked high, below that of doctors and of engineers, but higher than that of lawyers, of deputies of the Cortes, and of members of the priesthood. In an opinion poll taken in late 1986, concerning the prestige of nineteen of the leading institutions of the nation, the armed services ranked seventh, below that of the monarchy, the Roman Catholic Church, the press, and the internal security forces, but above the Cortes, the central government, the courts, unions, universities, and the business community.

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Page last modified: 16-01-2013 19:01:07 ZULU