Spain's unbowed democracy

The gunfire of an attempted coup has starkly reminded the world of Spain's struggle to preserve its hard-won democratic advances since the Franco years. The growing pains of that process have tempted some inflammatory talk of going back to the good old days of tidy authoritarianism. But when a pro-Franco colonel tried to take matters into his own hands with an attack on the Spanish parliament, it was soon clear that the country was having none of it. In less than 24 hours the episode was over and the legislators had rescheduled the parliamentary voting that was interrupted by the invaders.

In a broad sense this was a triumph for democracy in a world where it remains under perennial threat. But it was also a triumph for King Juan Carlos, who had shepherded Spain's emergence from tyranny more effectively than some had expected and who now stood tall against the sharpest challenge during his reign. He told the nation that the crown, "symbol of the permanence and unity of the fatherland," could not tolerate any interruptions to the democratic process by force. He sent the military counterforce and the negotiators to bring about a quick surrender by the rebel leader, and no blood was shed. Some of the paramilitary civil guards attacking parliament said they had been tricked into it by the colonel, whose apparent ineptness must have made the King's victory easier. But that victory was particularly a tribute to the King's recognition as a representative of the people even though some of his policies have put off one group or another.

After this week's flare-up, Spanish democracy still faces the test it was undergoing when the bullets flew. The parliament was voting on a new prime minister after the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Suarez amid mounting economic and political problems. The test is whether a smooth transition of leaders of the same party can be made -- a smaller version of the future test when Spain may face the typical democratic possibility of changing governments.

Part of the context is the movement toward increased regional autonomy. Basque guerrillas, among others, are trying to force the issue. The leader of the abortive coup claimed to want to establish military rule until violence could be quelled. The rejection of this approach bodes well for Spain. But it must be accompanied by progress toward solving the problems that cause instability -- and thus, in their own way, threate n democracy.

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