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Elections in Spain: why the US should care

By Richard J. BloomfieldRichard J. Bloomfield, director of the World Peace Foundation, was US Ambassador to Portugal in 1978-82. / October 25, 1982

Spaniards go to the polls this week to choose a government. It will be the third national election since democracy was reestab-lished in 1977. It may well be the first in which the ''outs,'' in this case the Socialist Party, oust the ''ins,'' the crumbling centrist coalition which has governed for the past five years. If that happens, the elections will be of signal importance: One of the tests of a democracy is whether there can be peaceful alternation of parties in power.

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The reemergence of democracy in Spain after 40 years of dictatorship should be a cause for rejoicing in the Western world. The Spanish Civil War marked the first of a series of betrayals of freedom by the leaders of the Western democracies that contributed to the spread of Nazism. The survival of fascism on the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal as well as Spain, for three decades after the fall of Hitler and Mussolini was a blot on the Allied victory in World War II.

Yet Americans seem largely indifferent to what has been happening on the peninsula. Only in 1974-75, when there was chaos in Portugal in the wake of the fall of the Salazar/Caetano regime and the Communists seemed poised to grasp total power, did the rest of the world pay attention. As soon as democratic forces seemed to have things in Lisbon under control, Portugal disappeared from the American press.

Similarly, in Spain it is only the high drama, such as the sporadic terrorist attacks or the coup attempt in 1981, that merit the occasional headline. Sad to say, this indifference is reflected in Washington, where attention to Spain and Portugal focuses almost exclusively on the problems of securing the continuation of US base rights in both countries.

Does this benign neglect matter? Yes, it does. Important Western interests are at stake in the fate of free institutions on the Iberian Peninsula:

* Democracy in both Portugal and Spain is still a fragile plant, struggling against the blight of economic recession and centuries of authoritarian tradition and habits. Because of the sorry story of the 1930s, the failure of democracy in either country would be a blow to Western morale. It would also have an impact on perceptions in the third world, especially since Portugal and Spain supposedly enjoy a special relationship to the stronger Western democracies. Americans and Europeans should care even more about how democracy fares in Portugal and Spain than in places like El Salvador.

* The collapse of democracy in either country would produce severe strains within the Western alliance. Both countries are NATO allies, both are candidates for membership in the European Community. A number of West European democracies would feel compelled to ostracize a Spanish or a Portuguese dictatorship, much as was done when the two countries were ruled by Franco and Salazar. A NATO alliance divided on the issue of dictatorship vs. democracy would be a weaker alliance.

* Even America's narrow interest in maintaining base rights would be jeopardized if democratic institutions did not succeed in the two countries.

If an authoritarian regime were to take over in either Spain or Portugal, the US would not easily go back to the situation prevailing before 1974-75, when it was able to maintain bases in the Iberian nations in spite of the undemocratic character of their governments. Base rights require money and the US Congress is no longer the compliant provider of funds to an expedient Executive Branch foreign policy that it once was. The issue would be as divisive in the US as El Salvador has been.