Spain, Portugal cling to democracy

Europe's two youngest democracies, Spain and Portugal, are struggling to hang on to democracy.

This week's visit by US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. to these two Iberian countries comes at a time of great uncertainty for these neighbors, which have experienced many parallel political developments.

While both host strategic US bases, they face difficult political hurdles that may threaten their fragile democracies. Both established democracy after mid-1970s switches from dictatorships.

If Spain and Portugal have spent most of the 20th century under right-wing dictatorships, and if politicians in both countries still hold the military in great awe, it is partly because, for purely geographical reasons, Portugal cannot remain impervious to what happens across its frontiers--and neither can Spain.

It is natural that the history of two neighbors should be intertwined, although the Portuguese and the Spaniards try to have as little to do with one another as possible.

Spain is bracing itself for entry this year into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This is seen in Moscow as a major shift in the postwar European balance of power, one they have tried to resist.

Spain will also put on trial within the next few weeks the cream of its officer corps on charges of plotting last year's failed Feb. 23 military coup.

It is a tense moment for Spain's fragile democratic institutions, especially since a stream of desertions from Prime Minister Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo's Union of the Democratic Center Party (UCD) has eroded his parliamentary majority. This raises the specter of early general elections that nobody except the Francoist right is likely to benefit from.

In Portugal the outlook seems bleak. The day after Mr. Haig leaves Portugal for Morocco, the communists and their allies are staging the country's first general strike, described by the government as a dress rehearsal for a general uprising.

However, when the government comes out of the Feb. 12 general strike, other problems still lie ahead. Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemao has already said 1982 is a make-or-break year for Portugal's negotiations over joining the European Community.

Portuguese Socialist leader Mario Soares has accused the Soviet Union of trying to destabilize the Iberian Peninsula to prevent Spain's entry into NATO. According to the former premier, the Kremlin would be delighted if the Spanish military could be panicked into staging another coup and has given the Portuguese Communist Party the task of spreading chaos this side of the border.

Between now and the eighth anniversary of the overthrow of Portugal's former dictatorship on April 25, parliament is due to revise the Constitution to purge it of its revolutionary ideas and terminology.

The Portuguese Communist Party says the government's plan for revising the Constitution amounts to a coup d'etat.

And Portuguese President Antonio Ramalho Eanes has warned parliament that if the deputies try to strip him of his powers, he will resign and form his own party, throwing the country's already complicated politics into complete disarray.

Politicians report signs of unrest among both left-wing and right-wing sectors of the armed forces. A growing discontent with serving conditions among junior officers is said to be the reason, but it seldom is long before complaints like these over pay take on political overtones.

All these problems are being juggled with an economic crisis that is forcing the government to cut spending and take drastic measures such as increasing medical charges, thus adding to its unpopularity.

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