Five years after Franco, political potholes slow Spain's drive to democracy

Spanish democracy, which appeared so buoyant in 1978, is now in a delicate, fragile state. The most striking evidence of this is that five years after Franco's death the democracy is only half consolidated. Although sweeping political changes have been enacted during this period, the process has been stymied since 1978.

The breakdown of a consensus between the leading political parties has meant that key reforms of the security forces, the judiciary, and the civil service, which are needed to flesh out the 1978 constitution, have not been embarked on.

This situation stems principally from the decision of the ruling Democratic Center Union Party (UDC) to break off the consensus with the Socialists and the Communists in 1978, and from the serious internal disputes that have since afflicted the main parties.

The politician whose image has most suffered from this issue this year has been Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez. To halt the growing criticism of his isolated, aloof style of government, early in September Mr. Suarez reshuffled his Cabinet for the fifth time in four years and announced that this would be the definitive Cabinet carrying the government through to general elections in 1983.

But by October, bankers, trade unions, and opposition politicians were all skeptical that the UCD could complete its mandate on its own, and in the party itself there has been renewed criticism of Mr. Suarez's leadership.

Meanwhile, adding to the uncertainty, Socialist Workers' Party leader Felipe Gonzalez announced in November that he was prepared to join the UCD in a coalition government to save the process from further deterioration.

In these circumstances, Spain's leading politicians have not just lost credibility, they are also appearing increasingly incapable of solving the country's principal problems. One of these is unemployment, which has reached higher rates in Spain than in any other Western democracy.

The principal threat to the democracy, however, continues to be Basque terrorism. In the course of this year the government has dealt the militant Basque separatist organization, Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA), severe blows and now 516 suspected ETA members have been detained. However during this time, the ETA has claimed responsibility for stealing seven tons of explosives and for killing more than 90 people in the region.

Further aggravating the situation, there are signs that the delays in granting the Basques effective autonomy have alienated the majority middle-of-the-road Basque Nationalist Party, which previously supported the government. On Nov. 20, this party, while condemning the violence in the region , emphasized that this "stems from specific political causes and if there is a reason why some Basques still support the ETA, it is because they do not see or believe that real autonomy has been established."

The continued inability of the leading parties to sort out the Basque problem has, in turn, resulted in a strengthening of the extreme right. Proof of this was the record 300,000 turnout by Spaniards over the weekend in Madrid to commemorate the fifth anniversary of General Franco's death.

Meanwhile, reflecting extreme right-wing pressure, Spain's parliament has completely shelved a long-promised amnesty for nine former Army officers who were sentenced in 1976 to between three and 12 years in prison for attempting to promote democratic ideas in the Army during the dictatorship. This compares with the light sentences of between six and seven months passed in May by a military tribunal for two Army officers accused of plotting to overthrow the Suarez government in November 1978.

A final source of concern for the young democracy has been the recent sharp erosion of civil liberties. Amnesty International, the London-based human-rights organization, has warned the government about continued widespread torture in Spanish jails. In addition, in the first four months of this year a total of 60 people -- intellectuals, film directors, independent journalists, writers, and photographers -- were charged by either civilian or military courts with such crimes as "disrespect toward the legal authorities" and "disrespect toward the civil guard and the police."

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