Gonz'alez stumbles over NATO. Spanish leader heading for defeat in membership vote

In Spanish politics, the only people who seem satisfied are the anti-NATO stalwarts. After nearly four years of Socialist rule, they at last have what they want: a referendum to decide whether Spain will remain in NATO. Everyone else is worried -- most of all, the ruling Socialists. The government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez has locked itself into holding a referendum March 12 in which it hopes its former anti-NATO comrades will be defeated. Once the rallying cry of the left, the referendum has become the major stumbling block of the Socialist government which has decided, since coming to power, that Spain should remain in NATO.

A march by hundreds of thousands of anti-NATO activists here Sunday further challenged the government's hopes of winning the referendum. Opinion polls released over the weekend show that a majority of Spaniards favor pullout.

Just one of the many mind-boggling aspects of the issue is how the government managed to get itself into such a mess.

Mr. Gonz'alez's party rode to a landslide victory in the 1982 general elections, in good part by promising to hold a referendum on NATO membership -- to correct what was seen as a precipitated entry into NATO earlier in 1982 by the former centrist government. But while the promise for a popular vote took root in public opinion, the new government's outlook on NATO gradually shifted.

``I took two years to analyze our situation in the Atlantic alliance; . . . I honestly believe we better defend the interests of Spain by participating in the alliance,'' Gonz'alez said only a few months ago.

In a recent TV interview, Gonz'alez played up the theme of defense interests and solidarity with European and Western institutions. Moreover, to leave NATO would provoke a breach of confidence with the NATO countries to which Spain sends 75 percent of its exports and from which it hopes to receive technology to modernize the country, Gonz'alez said.

However, many critics of Gonz'alez acidly point out that he could have hardly failed to see that from the beginning.

The result is that the referendum has been transformed into a political confrontation both inside and outside the parties.

For one, Gonz'alez will have to hold his own followers together, including the powerful Socialist General Worker's Union, which has threatened to vote no. Rank-and-file Socialists who would have voted no now have to swallow hard and vote yes. A right-wing opposition party, the Popular Alliance, longtime supporter of NATO, has decided not to vote at all, calling the referendum unnecessary.

Then there are a good many disgruntled Socialist Party sympathizers who may vote no simply to censure the government's performance on NATO and in general. The only group that has been steadfast in its opinions is the anti-NATO force made up of pacifists and various communist parties.

However, NATO has long been unpopular with Spaniards generally. NATO has been linked to the defense agreement the late Gen. Francisco Franco first signed with the United States in 1953 and which, for many, helped prolong the life of the dictatorship. As such, the NATO issue carries with it latent anti-US feeling.

Gonz'alez has appealed to the public's sense of reality. Over the past month, Gonz'alez has offered three conditions to persuade Spaniards to vote yes. He promises to maintain Spain's status in the alliance and not join the integrated military command, to continue the policy of non-nuclearization of Spanish territory, and to cut the US military presence in Spain.

The ballot sheet in the March 12 referendum will contain a preamble with these conditions followed by the question: ``Do you think it advisable for Spain to remain in the Atlantic alliance under the terms set down by the government?''

Recent opinion polls have shown that the gap between the those against NATO and those in favor is narrowing. But the majority is opposed. About 40 percent are reported undecided.

The big question is, what happens if the government loses? The Constitution states that a referendum is only consultative. However, to bolster the government's shaken credibility, Vice-President Alfonso Guerra said the goverment would be bound by the results.

The government appears to be working on the idea that it could recover by calling early elections on a pro-NATO platform. Once reelected, it could withdraw its demand to leave NATO.

A negative vote and a subsequent withdrawal from NATO would deal Western solidarity a heavy blow. It would also deal NATO a political blow at a time of delicate East-West relations and ongoing internal strife such as the dispute between Greece and Turkey.

Now that Greece has backed down from its earlier threat of leaving NATO and closing US bases, Spain has become the main potential weakness in the alliance. A Spanish withdrawal would leave Europe's southern flank vulnerable.

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