In just over one week King Juan Carlos, the Spanish monarch, has shown that he is both an arbiter above political factions and a conciliator "king of all Spaniards."
With the resignation of Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez last week, it is now the King who holds the key to the resolution of Spain's present crisis. It is Juan Carlos who in empowered to present parliament with a successor after consulting with all the political parties on the left and the right.
At the same time, what monarch in these circumstances would have left Madrid and gone ahead with a planned visit to the Basque country? It's as if Queen Elizabeth of England had gone to Ulster just after Mrs. Thatcher had resigned. Of all of Spain's regions, the northern Basque country is now the only one where Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia and their son, Prince Felipe, cannot count on a friendly reception.
For over a century Basque nationalists have questioned the surpemacy of Madrid. Today, even though a broad measure of home rule has been restored, Basque separatists still are pursuing independence through the barrel of a gun.
Such a move was therefore not just bold. It was risky. So why did the King go?
First, the visit was a major act of reconciliation. It was typical of a king who has worked tirelessly for democracy and who knows that the pacification of the Basques is crucial for democracy's consolidation.
Second, unlike the royal household's decision to cancel next week's visit to the United States, the King was fully aware that any further postponement of a trip to Euskadi, as the Basques call their homeland, would have given rise to all kinds of conjectures -- not least that he was bowing to pressure from the Spanish armed forces.
Third, the decision probably appealed precisely because it was bold. It was, after all, the king's audacity that was instrumental in getting the democratic process rolling.
In little more than 4 1/2 years, Juan Carlos has performed one of the boldest about-turns in modern European history: He has turned his back on his Francoist past and displaying a high degree of political skill and cool nerve he has not just secured his own position but has injected new life into that seemingly old-fashioned institution, constitutional monarchy.
Despite the republican rumblings on the left when he assumed the throne, nobody in Spain talks of "Juan Carlos the Brief." In 1975 Santiago Carrillo, then the exiled Communist leader, said, "Juan Carlos has had a fascist upbringing and he has not the slightest idea what democracy is."
Mr. Carrillo has been forced to eat his words. In 1977 he admitted, probably correctly: "Without the king, the shooting would have already begun."
The boldest of all the king's moves came in 1976. To everyone's amazement, the King sacked Carlos Arias Navarro, Franco's last prime minister, and replaced him with a complete unknown: Adolfo Suarez Gonzales, a Franco functionary who in his youth had been a member of the secret Roman Catholic organization, Opus Dei. When he assumed office, he was the youngest prmier in Europe.
In picking Suarez, the king displayed a wisdom beyond his year. But to understand how and why he made his choice, thus setting Spain on a democratic course, it is necessary to look at his past.
Juan Carlos's earliest years, as the grandson of the exiled Alfonso XIII, were restless. He spent his childhood wandering between Italy and Switzerland and it was not until he was eight that the family finally settled in Estoril -- a fashionable refuge of exiled royals outside Lisbon where his father, Don Juan, an outgoing man with a tattoo on his forearm (a reminder of a spell with the British Navy) still owns a house. It impressionable years. His friends remember him as a small, rather obstreperous boy with wavy blond hair.
He quickly developed a taste for fast motorcars, and his favorite ride even these days is a motorcycle (which he occasionally dismantles) driven at great speed around the Zarzuela Palace grounds on the outskirts of Madrid.
He is also a great sportsman, traveler, and a gadget man. His royal helicopter and the motorboat are filled with the latest in telecommunications so that he can talk to anyone anywhere. He has a taste for photography, but unlike his wife, Sofia, sister of the exiled King Constantine of Greece, a keen dislike of the arts. In short he is a bit of a Philistine.
He is not, however, a snob. One of his closest friends in Portugal was the son of a local bank manager in Estoril.
One family tragety had a profound effect on his life. When the Prince was 16 , home in Portugal for holidays, he killed his younger brother accidentally when the two boys were playing with an airgun. From being a rather extrovert child, this accident made Juan Carlos far more introverted and somber.
By the time of the accident he was already more than halfway through a scheme jointly devised by Don Juan, his father, and the dictator, General Franco. In a series of meetings started in 1948 when Juan Carlos was 10, it was agreed that the Prince should not be brought up in exile but educated in Spain; that he should be trained in all three branches of the Spanish armed forces; and that only then should he move on to part-time university study.
The influences of these two men on Juan Carlos's life contrasted greatly. For Franco, Juan Carlos represented an opportunity for consolidating and perpetuating his regime -- for sanctifying it, as it were, with an aura of royalty. For Don Juan, his son offered the chance of a restoration of the monarchy.
In this tug of war, family ties were strained. The biggest strain came in 1969 when, against his father's wishes, Juan Carlos accepted Franco's gift of the throne on the condition he swore allegiance to the dictator's basic laws.
Don Juan was heartbroken. However it soon became apparent that the difference between father and son was one of tactics, not strategy. Juan Carlos realized that unless he accepted the throne on Franco's terms he might never have the opportunity of introducing some form of democracy. Cautious reform from within the system rather than revolution from without was the king's guiding principle then as now. The real problem always was how far and fast to go.
In choosing Adolfo Suarez the King found a man who shared his own instinct for survival. As minister in charge of the National Movement, Franco's only legal political organization, Suarez had acquired an intimate understanding of the system: He knew exactly whom to threaten, cajole, or manipulate.
With Suarez's help, Juan Carlos successfully ushered in the first stage of Spain's democratic reform. The Spain of today is unrecognizable as the country General Franco left behind. There are political parties, trade unions, a democratic Cortes (parliament), and statutes of autonomy for the regions -- all things Franco would not tolerate.
But the process is far from complete; and in the last few months it became evident that the king, who had handpicked Suarez in 1976, no longer found him the most suitable leader for the young democracy's consolidation. Mr. Suarez's resignation on Jan. 29 therefore has offered a fresh opportunity.
Is the King going to choose a future prime minister from Mr. Suarez's own party, the ruling Democratic Center Union?Or will Juan Carlos decide that it is time now for a coalition government either with the Socialists, Spain's second-largest party, or with the small right-wing neo-Francoist party?
The choice is a key one for the future of the democracy because it will change the political balance. But with Juan Carlos having the last word, few Spaniards appear to doubt that the choice will be a wise one.