The Day King Juan Carlos Saved Spanish Democracy


James Joyner noted yesterday that Juan Carlos I, who has reigned as King of Spain since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, would be abdicating the throne in favor of his son, whole will reign as Philip VII. In light of that story, Matthew Yglegias notes the crucial role that the Spanish King played in preserving democracy in Spain in the early years of his monarchy:

Juan Carlos stands out among modern European monarchs for having played an important and constructive role in the political development of his country — especially Spain’s transition from military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

His greatest hour was the role he played in helping to foil the 1981 coup attempt that has gone down in history as 23-F. Spain democratic government was in a moment of crisis, when Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina and about 150 armed men from the Civil Guard stormed into parliament and disrupted the effort to install a new prime minister.

Yglesias posts video of Molina and his supporters storming the Spanish Parliament that day, but the coup quickly collapsed when Juan Carlos took the airwaves and denounced the coup in no uncertain terms:

English Translation:

Addressing all Spaniards, with brevity and conciseness, in the extraordinary circumstances that we are currently experiencing, I ask of everyone the greatest serenity and confidence and I inform you all that I have given the Captains General of the military, the navy, and the air force the following order:

Given the situation created by the events that took place in the Palace of Congress and to avoid any possible confusion, I confirm that I have ordered Civil Authorities and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take all necessary measures to maintain constitutional order, within the law.

Should any measure of a military nature need to be taken, it must be approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Crown, the symbol of the permanence and unity of the nation, cannot tolerate, in any form, actions or attitudes of people attempting by force to interrupt the democratic process. A process which the Constitution, voted for by the Spanish people, determined by referendum.

With the King firmly against them, the coup plotters quickly found their plans collapsing around them, and the coup came to an end.

These events occurred just six years after Juan Carlos had become King and the authoritarian dictatorship led by Francisco Franco for nearly forty years had come to an end. Representative democracy, which had only had a brief history in Spain before the Spanish Civil War led to Franco’s triumph, was still very much in its infancy. The coup attempt by Molina and his supporters could have easily been the beginning of another era of authoritarian, military rule in Spain. Instead, thanks largely to Juan Carlos, democracy was preserved. Whether this would have happened had there not been a monarch is an open question.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Europe, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Surreal American says:

    Spanish democracy saved. Military authoritarianism thwarted.

    At the time, the father of L. Brent Bozell III had a sad.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Thank you. I remembered vaguely from the time that Juan Carlos had taken a strong stand for democracy, but I had forgotten any detail. Good to know.