Madrid — Only that errant knight Don Quixote might understand today's referendum on NATO membership. In 10 short years, Spain has made a remarkable leap from a dictatorship to a democracy. The glue seems to have been an extraordinary will to compromise.
But the NATO referendum has broken that consensus -- and sent Spaniards flailing away at imaginary windmills. The campaign has aroused strong anti-US sentiments and rekindled the debate over Spain's role in Europe. Regardless of the outcome, the vote could set a damaging precedent for NATO and is likely to lead the country into a period of political instability.
Anti-NATO demonstrators burned park chairs and battled police Tuesday night in Madrid as Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez delivered a final speech asking voters to support NATO. Opinion polls forecast that a majority are likely to vote against remaining in the alliance.
Whichever way the vote goes, analysts predict a period of prolonged political instability.
``The confusion is total,'' says Vincente Verdu, editorial page editor of the daily El Pa'is. ``We are showing our instinct for destruction.''
United States diplomats are watching the spectacle with concern. Because many Spaniards believe the US kept the late dictator Francisco Franco in power by establishing US military bases here in 1953, much of the anti-NATO feeling is in fact disguised anti-Americanism. In order to swing votes in favor of NATO, Prime Minister Gonz'alez has pledged to negotiate a reduction of the 12,500 US troops here.
More distressing to NATO supporters is the potential political precedent of a Spanish withdrawl from the organization. The referendum represents the first time a member country has voted on NATO membership.
``You don't do this sort of thing,'' says one US diplomat. ``If America held a referendum on NATO, I'm sure NATO would lose.''
Then why hold the referendum? Like a majority of Spaniards, Gonz'alez came to office hoping to complete the country's integration in the Western world. He also believed this could be achieved while remaining outside East-West bloc alliances. To resolve this dilemma, Gonz'alez made a campaign promise to hold a referendum on continuing NATO membership. Spain officially joined NATO only a few months before Gonz'alez took office in 1982.
But after taking power he decided that military alignment underpinned economic intergration. To support this turn-around, he went ahead with the referendum, convinced he could win.
Both Gonz'alez's supporters and opponents now say that that was a disastrous decision. Until the decision was made, most agree that Spain was on the right track.
Since coming to power in 1982, Gonz'alez has proved a tough, dynamic leader. His centrist predecessors had proved too weak to impose needed economic rigor. The Socialists applied stiff austerity measures. Although unemployment soared to 22 percent, economists are now pleased by falling inflation and foreign debt, and increasing exports and economic growth.
The prime minister explained that his priorities were to avoid civil strife and solidify democracy. His formula worked. Whispers of coups disappeared. And through all the about-faces, Gonz'alez remained overwhelmingly popular. ``It was incredible, a three-year honeymoon,'' says Conservative sociologist Rafael Lopez Pintor.
The NATO referendum ended the vacation. Radical leftists who had almost disappeared from the electoral scene were given an issue with a deep popular resonance. Even the Socialist Party was torn apart.
``This is a referendum on Gonz'alez,'' explains anti-NATO leader Ramon Tamames. ``It is a vote against his Thatcher economics, his Reagan politics, and his Mitterrand militarism.''
At the same time, pro-NATO conservatives have refused to cooperate. Manuel Fraga Iribarne, leader of the Popular Alliance, called for his supporters to abstain from the vote. He told the Monitor in an interview that ``we want no responsibility for this foolish decision to hold a referendum.''
The result of all this controversy is a shattered political landscape. Before the referendum, Gonz'alez's Socialists and Mr. Fraga's conservatives, both leaning toward the center, dominated the political scene. Now Socialists are feeling pressure from the left, while conservative leader Fraga complains of pressure from the far right. The effect may be to move the two groups further apart.
The prospect of a military coup has even been raised. Sociologist Pintor says, ``If Gonz'alez loses, then is forced to resign, [and] a period of weak government results, the army could get ideas.''
A vote to remain in NATO could calm these extreme fears. But Mr. Verdu of El Pa'is says he still fears it would leave Gonz'alez and the democracy weakened. ``Gonz'alez has lost his grip over the electorate and over his party,'' he says. ``The next general election could be confusing.''