The week democracy nearly fell

With hindsight, Spain's transition to free elections after Franco's death seemed inevitable But 35 years ago the fragile process came under sustained attack from extremists Former Interior Minister Rodolfo Martín Villa remembers seven days in January 1977

Ex-Interior Minister Rodolfo Martín Villa.
Ex-Interior Minister Rodolfo Martín Villa.SANTI BURGOS

The week beginning Monday, January 24, 1977 was a particularly dangerous period for Spain's fledgling democracy. General Franco had been dead for 14 months when the achievements of the reformist government led by Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez were threatened by extremists from both ends of the political spectrum.

On the Sunday, Arturo Ruiz, a 19-year-old student, had been shot in cold blood by a member of a far-right Catholic group during a demonstration on Madrid's Gran Vía calling for an amnesty for political prisoners. The march had been banned by Suárez's interior minister, Rodolfo Martín Villa, with the police breaking up the march violently, forcing demonstrators into the narrow side streets on either side of the main thoroughfare, where many were attacked by right-wing extremists acting with the support of the police.

In Madrid that same night, members of the armed far-left terror group GRAPO kidnapped General Emilio Villaescusa, the head of the military courts responsible for the convictions of many political prisoners. Two months earlier, GRAPO had kidnapped Antonio de María Oriol, the head of the Council of State.

On the Monday, in protest at the killing of Arturo Ruiz, another demonstration was held on Gran Vía. Police again broke the march up violently, and a young student called María Luz Nájera was killed after she was hit in the face by a smoke grenade fired at point blank range by security forces. Other demonstrators suffered serious injuries at the hands of the police.

But worse was to come before the day was out: just before 10.30pm, in the street running up from Madrid's Atocha railway station, three men armed with machine guns calmly walked into the offices of a team of labor lawyers associated with the outlawed Communist Party and killed five people, as well as injuring another four.

"The only time I feared for the Transition was during those days in January," says Rodolfo Martín Villa, who came under intense pressure as he sought to prevent the country subsiding into widespread violence, and with it, the likelihood of a military takeover to restore "40 years of peace."

Martín Villa says the details of that frenetic week are still fresh in his mind. He had been the minister responsible for labor relations in the first government after the death of Franco, and Adolfo Suárez had no hesitation in appointing the 42-year-old to the top job in his cabinet.

King Juan Carlos had appointed Suárez prime minister after sacking his predecessor, Carlos Arias Navarro, who had been premier under Franco. Arias had made vague promises of political reform, but the hopes and expectations aroused by the long-awaited demise of Franco were frustrated in the initial months of the monarchy, and a wave of demonstrations, industrial strikes and terrorist activity challenged the country's stability. The government responded with repressive measures to restore law and order. These measures inflamed and united the liberal opposition. At the same time, the cautious reforms that the Arias Navarro government proposed met with hostile reaction from orthodox Franco supporters, who pledged resistance to any form of change.

As soon as Suárez took office in July 1976, his government declared a partial amnesty that freed approximately 400 political prisoners. On September 10, Suárez announced a program of political reform, calling for a bicameral legislature based on universal suffrage. This would be put to a referendum in December. Through skillful maneuvering he was able to persuade Cortes members to approve a law, which if approved in the referendum, would bring about their disappearance.

"That first Suárez government made great strides that were later consecrated in the Constitution," says Martín Villa. The Interior Ministry was in charge of internal security, local administration and also responsible for civil rights. The government, following Suárez's surprise win in the March 1976 elections, was, with the exception of four members of the military, made up of men who had not participated in the Civil War, although many of them had occupied positions in Franco's administrations.

Suárez's government enjoyed a few months of calm, until ETA murdered Juan María Araluce, the head of the provincial administration in Gipuzkoa, in the Basque Country, along with his driver and three police bodyguards. Martín Villa attended the funeral, which attracted hardline elements that shouted for a return to military rule and sang fascist marching songs. He was obliged to leave the church where the service was held by a side door. This was his first experience of the growing unrest in the country.

"We were not a democratically elected government as such: our legal basis was still rooted in the laws of the Franco era. I am sure that many people suspected we would not be able to maintain law and order," he says. Worse, much worse, was to come as Spain faced a winter of discontent unparalleled since the final months of the Second Republic in 1935-36.

On September 8, 1976, Suárez met with the military leadership to sound out their mood on legalizing the Communist Party, assuring them he had no plans to do so.

On November 12, a general strike was called by the three main labor unions; among them the Communist Party-led Workers Commissions and the Socialist Party's General Union of Workers. "It was a political strike. My feeling was that we had to stand up to them, and that the government had to do everything possible to make sure that the country worked normally that day. The administration worked, and the strike was a failure. This was very important because it showed that the government was able to maintain law and order and to guarantee that the country could function normally," says Martín Villa. He says this image of firmness and efficiency played a key role in convincing people that Suárez had things under control and deserved to be allowed to get on with the task of moving Spain toward democracy.

"There's no reason why a government should necessarily have to take on a general strike, but in this case it was important to make sure that older people didn't associate us with the governments of the Second Republic that were unable to keep order," says Martín Villa.

On December 11, the GRAPO kidnapped Antonio María de Oriol y Urquijo. The tiny, armed group had struck a major blow at the government, putting it on the defensive.

The kidnapping had been timed to undermine Suárez ahead of a referendum on December 15 on continued political reform. The Spanish people voted overwhelmingly in favor of reform: about 94 percent of voters (78 percent of the electorate took part in the referendum) gave their approval. The results of the referendum strengthened the position of the Suárez government and of the king and represented a vindication for those who favored reform from above rather than revolution.

Suárez and King Juan Carlos pressed ahead with preparations for the first free elections since the Civil War, to be held on June 15, 1977. But it would be a bitter winter.

Two days later, on December 17, hundreds of police and Civil Guard officers marched in Madrid to demand pay rises and the right to Social Security benefits. In response to what was perceived as a challenge from elements within the right, and taking advantage of the popular mood, the government sacked the entire police high command.

On December 22, Santiago Carrillo, the head of the still-illegal Spanish Communist Party, was arrested, further increasing tension.

"Things had been building up steadily since the assassination of Araluce and his bodyguards. I had no experience of police or Civil Guard command aside from a brief period when I had been civil governor in Barcelona in 1974," says Martín Villa. The kidnapping of Oriol was a baptism of fire, and he was unsure who he could trust to help with the investigation. In the end he turned to Mariano Nicolás, the recently named head of state security.

"Mariano told me that the investigation was very disorganized and needed somebody to oversee it. He said he knew somebody who could do the job." This turned out to be Roberto Conesa, then in charge of Valencia's police force, who had put many left-wing activists behind bars. "Conesa got on the case and soon found leads that led to an apartment where Oriol had been held during his kidnapping," says Martín Villa.

As Spain entered 1977, things were set to get much worse following the events of January 23 and 24.

"It was a black week," says Martín Villa.

"Yesterday, Madrid suffered its own version [...] of the Night of the Long Knives. We have just witnessed a conspiracy against the state," read an editorial in EL PAÍS on January 25, adding: "The transformation by peaceful means from a dictatorship to a democracy has yet to take place anywhere, and had it happened, it would have entered the annals of political science. It was necessary, for some, to try to destroy it, and this attempt is what we are currently witnessing."

The funeral of the murdered labor lawyers, on the Wednesday, was attended by more than 100,000 people, making it the largest left-wing gathering since before the Civil War. The day before, a general strike had been called.

Martín Villa now faced the double task of finding both the killers of the lawyers, as well as the whereabouts of Oriol and Villaescusa. Martín Villa says that while the police were fully focused on locating Oriol and Villaescusa, "it was less clear that they were that bothered about finding the murderers of the labor lawyers." Juan José Rosón, at that time the civil governor of Madrid, recommended that Martín Villa put Francisco de Asís Pastor in charge of the investigation, rather than Conesa, whose support for the Franco regime and enthusiasm for hunting down left-wing opposition put in question his commitment to pursuing far-right extremists.

Martín Villa worked round the clock that week, sleeping in short snatches in an armchair in his office at the Interior Ministry. "During those days in January, the Transition really looked under threat," he says. Unknown to him, Prime Minister Suárez came under pressure from different quarters to sack Martín Villa, "although I was aware that the military was calling on the king to remove me from my post," he says.

On February 11, the police found both Oriol and Villaescusa in two apartments in Madrid. But there was still no progress in finding the men responsible for the Atocha killings.

"There were many people who believed that we weren't going to find them," says Martín Villa. It turned out that the three men directly responsible for the attack had not bothered to flee Madrid, presumably believing they would enjoy political protection. But they had miscalculated.

On March 11, the trio - Carlos García Juliá, José Fernández Cerrá and Fernando Lerdo de Tejada (nephew of the personal secretary of far-right party Fuerza Nueva's leader Blas Piñar) - were arrested by National Police, while Francisco Albadalejo Corredera, provincial secretary of a Franco-era labor union, was arrested as the mastermind of the attack.

"The capture of the Atocha killers was a mortal blow to the far right," says Martín Villa, adding that the murders also created an unstoppable momentum in favor of the legalization of the Communist Party, which took place on April 9. As the political arena opened up, Martín Villa says he took advantage of the popular mood to begin replacing the senior leadership of the police and the Civil Guard.

In the first six months of 1977, significant reforms were enacted in rapid succession. There were further pardons for political prisoners in March; independent trade unions replaced vertical and labor syndicates; and the right to strike was restored. In April the National Movement was disbanded.

The general elections of June 15, 1977, the first free vote in more than 40 years, were a resounding endorsement for Suárez and his reformist approach. He was elected prime minister with 166 seats in Congress, while Felipe González's Socialist Party led the opposition with 118 seats of the 350. Martín Villa remained in his post as Interior Minister.

The threat of instability continued over the next four years, although there was also a gradual normalization within Spanish politics. There was no attempt to address the crimes committed by members of the military under Franco, with three amnesties that mainly benefited the armed forces as well as some ETA activists. The GRAPO continued small-scale attacks and kidnappings, while ETA stepped up its campaign of bombings and shootings. The far right carried out a wave of attacks in 1980, and in February 1981, elements within the armed forces launched their failed coup, which petered out within 24 hours. A year later, in general elections, the Socialist Party was swept to power, concluding what most historians agree is the first phase of Spain's Transition to democracy.

The democratization that King Juan Carlos, Suárez, and ministers such as Martín Villa peacefully and legally brought to Spain between 1976 and 1982 was unprecedented. Never before had a dictatorial regime been transformed into a pluralistic, parliamentary democracy without civil war, revolutionary overthrow, or defeat by a foreign power. The Transition is all the more remarkable because the institutional mechanisms designed to maintain Franco's authoritarian system made it possible to legislate a democratic constitutional monarchy into existence.

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