As Facism Fades, Spain Debates Pace Change

Stanley Meisler, The Times' correspondent in Paris, has been on assignment in Spain.

Ten years ago, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, which was outlawed in Spain, met in a suburb of Paris and elected a 32-year-old labor lawyer with the code name "Isidro" as its new leader.

No national Spanish newspaper carried a line about the event. Even if the Spanish press thought the election of a new leader by an illegal party with uncertain prospects was newsworthy, all feared the wrath of the Fascist government of Gen. Francisco Franco.

When El Correo de Andalucia, a regional newspaper, defied the Franco government and published an interview with Isidro a few days later, the police confiscated all copies of the issue.

The new leader, an eager young man in open-necked shirt and leather jacket who soon moved from his home town of Seville to a small apartment in Madrid, was so little known that Socialists brought him quietly to the cafes of the city to introduce him to foreign correspondents.

Isidro's real name was Felipe Gonzalez. Today, Gonzalez, graying at the temples, often in a sport coat, sometimes in a suit, usually wearing a tie, is prime minister of the democratically elected government of Spain.

His party, which recently completed its latest convention in the comfort and respectability of Madrid's Palace of Congresses, is not only legal but so dominant that most analysts believe that Gonzalez will govern Spain for many years to come.

Gonzalez himself likes to joke that his "only real rival for power is still a senior in high school."

The Communists are divided and weak. The parties to the right are in disarray and without popular leaders. The most diehard followers of Franco are so weak that they disbanded their party after their last election.

The change in 10 years from dictatorship to democracy--with the death of Franco in 1975, the emergence of King Juan Carlos in 1976 as a champion of democracy, the first free elections in 1977, the collapse of an attempted right-wing military coup in 1981, the election of a majority Socialist government in 1982--has seemed so swift that Prime Minister Gonzalez told the convention that he and others "feel a real vertigo when we compare our situation today with where we were a decade ago."

Yet much of the criticism of Gonzalez these days comes from Socialists and other former sympathizers who complain that the prime minister is not changing Spain enough. They insist that he has betrayed his promises, that he has an innate conservatism that causes him to lose opportunities, that power pleases him more than principle, that he has bought stability at the price of too many compromises.

In short, the great debate in Spain, the European country of swiftest change, now centers on the issue of whether it has changed enough.

Jose Antonio Martinez Soler, a respected writer for El Pais, Spain's most influential newspaper, commented not long ago: "The Socialists have become like all political parties of the world. When they are out of power, they promise change. But when they are in power they promise stability instead."

Defenders of Gonzalez feel, however, that the stability of his government, especially for a new democracy, is for more important than any slowdown in the pace of change. Angel Vinas, a distinguished historian and adviser to the foreign minister, said recently:

"We now have a government that governs. The ministers have discipline. The government acts as one. There is no talk, no rumors of plots, of coups. There are no resignations, no ministerial battles in public. All this is an important achievement."

The debate has a healthy tone to it, for Spaniards are no longer arguing about the pace of change from dictatorship to democracy but about the pace of change within a democracy. Not every Spaniard, however, sees this difference.

"The problem is that Spain has become a normal country, just like any other," Vinas said. "It is a country like France or Italy or Germany or Holland. But the people do not believe it. When the government does not do exactly what they expect it to do, they think there is some terrible crisis."

No doubt because of the troubled economy and the Socialist economic policy, the popularity of the Socialist Workers' Party has been decreasing in the polls. Gonzalez and the Socialists came to power in October, 1982, with 48% of the popular vote, an extraordinary total in Spain, where there are many parties. The result gave the Socialists an overwhelming majority in Parliament.

According to the latest poll of Cambio 16, the Spanish news magazine, the Socialists would now get 39% of the popular vote. But the conservative Popular Alliance of Manuel Fraga, the main opposition party, would not pick up the percentage points lost by the Socialists, the poll showed. Moreover, it showed that 46% of Spanish voters still prefer Gonzalez as prime minister, while only 18% favor Fraga.

So long as Gonzalez retains this kind of personal appeal and Fraga, a politician tainted by his service as a Cabinet minister under Franco, remains the main opposition candidate, analysts believe the Socialists will have little trouble winning the next parliamentary elections, which must be held by 1986.

That is one reason why Gonzalez, thinking in terms of a long administration, dismisses critics who expected more from his first two years. While speaking at the convention, he held two fingers close together and described two years as "a drop of water."

In the election campaign, Gonzalez promised to create 800,000 jobs. Not only did the Socialists fail to do that, they adopted a modernization program that is eliminating jobs in inefficient industries.

The government estimated unemployment this year at 2.7 million, or 20% of the labor force. Although these figures overstate the problem by ignoring Spain's large "black" economy, where small companies fail to report even their existence, the statistics obviously reflect a depressing situation.

In fact, Socialist policies, with the government trying to modify some of the old protections laid down by fascism that make it almost impossible for a company to fire anyone, have been more pleasing to private enterprise than to labor unions.

Leftists, upset by a Socialist government adopting conservative policies to climb out of a recession, might have taken solace in the government's foreign policy if Gonzalez had kept to the party's traditional neutralist stance.

But after campaigning on a promise to conduct a referendum to take Spain out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Gonzalez announced recently that although he plans to go ahead with the referendum, he will ask voters to approve of Spain's remaining in the alliance. Gonzalez, arguing that continued membership in NATO would take Spain out of isolation and help modernize the Spanish army, persuaded reluctant Socialists to support his stand at the convention.

On social issues, the Socialists enacted legislation legalizing abortion in special cases and exerting some regulation over the government-subsidized schools of the Catholic Church. Yet, although conservatives strongly opposed the changes, many supporters of Gonzalez believe he did not go far enough.

The supporters and critics of Gonzalez agree on one issue. The atmosphere of less than three years ago, when everyone whispered and listened to rumors about coups, when people feared for the survival of their fragile democracy, has dissipated.

In an editorial in a recent issue of El Pais, Juan Luis Cebrian, the newspaper's editor in chief, accused Gonzalez of sacrificing needed change to achieve this stability.

"You can't deny that there are fewer risks now of a coup d'etat, " he said, " . . . But there are also fewer hopes for the modernization of our society. The government has achieved the security of remaining in power . . . on the basis of a pact with the forces that oppose the promised changes.

". . . In short, one could say that the Socialists have bettered the physical health of the government at the cost of weakening the social body that sustains it. They have strengthened the political structure but have decreased the democratic vigor of the society."

During the week of the Socialist convention, many Spaniards were troubled by two examples of police repression in Madrid. In one incident, the police, evidently without provocation, broke up a legal demonstration that was protesting the alleged use of torture in the questioning of prisoners in the Basque area. Fifteen people were injured in a police charge.

In the second incident, the police shot and wounded one of a group of students carrying out a rowdy, illegal demonstration at the site of a demonstration five years earlier where two students had been killed.

El Pais was quick to recall that Gonzalez, when he was in the opposition, had protested the original shootings, noting that the police in other countries managed to repress illegal demonstrations without shooting anyone.

El Pais noted too that there were differences under the Socialist government. The student was wounded, not killed, and the authorities suspended the two policemen who fired their guns. Nevertheless, El Pais condemned the police for excessive use of force and headlined its editorial, "Just Like Old Times."

No one in Spain who lived under the dictatorship believes that the present is like old times. The headline was obviously exaggerated for ironic impact. But there is little doubt that the headline symbolized what the present debate in Spain is all about--just how fast and far should Spain move away from its past.

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