Democracy masks Spain's divisions

With a new constitution, a constitutionally elected Parliament, and the first democratically elected municipalities in 40 years, Spain has finally passed beyond that uneasy transition period that followed the death of General Franco.

Perhaps the most important achievement of Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez's government last year was approving the Basque autonomy statute. Mr. Suarez had to negotiate through a mine field of vested interests -- between tough pressure from the Army and from the right wing committed to national unity on the one hand, and the continuous provocation of the Basque separatist organization Euzkadi to Azkatasuna (ETA) on the other.

Besides Mr. Suarez, the other key figure in the transition was King Juan Carlos. By staying above political affiliations the King brought a surprising, and often vital sense of moderation and unity to the process.

But now, the traditional divisions of Spanish society are coming to the surface.

For a start , right-wing sectors in the armed forces have still to learn the constraints of a democracy. According to the Diario-16 newspaper, the general of the 1st Armored Division, which is stationed on the outskirts of Madrid, was transferred to Coruna last week after allegedly holding discussions with Army officers considered subversive by civilian authorities.

Divorce and educational reform are extremely divisive because of opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Spanish students are showing a renewed militancy and have called a general strike this week. Strikes are spreading from factories to farms and the continuing campaign of violence by ETA terrorists in the Basque country has provoked a right-wing backlash.

Indeed, the regional issue continues to be the main challenge to stability.

The majority middle-of-the-road Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has withdrawn its group from the Parliament. The only other occasion when the PNV took such serious action was in 1978, after which the party launched a successful campaign of abstention in the constitutional referendum.

Officials say the move is "electoralist," aimed at catching votes on its weak left flank before elections for an all-Basque Parliament March 9.

The PNV, however, says the move is a protest because the government has defaulted on agreements and is delaying the transfer of powers to the region.

A more serious development is the government turnabout on devolution policies. From a situation in which all of Spain's 13 regions were entitled to autonomy, the government has now established grades of autonomy, with treatment of the Basques and Catalans singled out as special cases.

The region most immediately affected by the decision is Andalucia. Rather than the simple majority now required for Andalucia's autonomy referendum on Feb. 8, an absolute majority would be required.

The government's change has also led to the first resignation of one of Mr. Suarez' Cabinet Ministers, and to threats of resignation by other ruling- party deputies in Andalucia.

Finally there have been demonstrations in Galicia in the northwest. The government's unilateral ratification of its autonomy statute last November has led to grumbling by nationalists, socialists, and communists that Galicia has obtained less than the Basques and Catalans.

The logic, however, is on the government's side. "Where," officials ask, "is the money going to come from to finance a proliferation of autonomous institutions at a time of nationwide recession?"

Officials are also concerned over what they see as a dangerous buildup of left-wing and nationalist pressure outside Madrid, and at the prospect of a further endorsement of left-wing parties in Catalonia's March 20 parliamentary elections.

What officials ignore, however, is that in poverty-striken regions like Andalucia, the devolution program has raised expectations and become highly emotional.

Taken in isolation none of these problems is crucial, but were they to reach flash point simultaneously, democracy in Spain would face a most serious threat.

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