The fragility of Spanish democracy becomes painfully apparent whenever there is a noticeable increase of Basque terrorism. Rising terrorism was one of the main justifications used by the ringleaders of the frustrated coup of 1981 to seize power.
Last week, Spaniards were worried again about the destabilizing effect of Basque terrorism, which is now the most serious threat facing Spain's 11 -month-old Socialist government.
Today the government is expected to approve a new antiterrorist bill that will have the enthusiastic support of the right-wing opposition party, Popular Alliance.
Premier Felipe Gonzalez met Monday with opposition leader Manuel Fraga to put together the package of antiterrorist measures. At the same time, the top brass of the Army are polishing a detailed plan to create their own antiterrorist command, similar to those of other European countries.
And on Oct. 28, the top police commands and the minister of the interior are to hold a special meeting in Madrid to study new ways to battle the recent escalation of terrorism, which in the last two months has claimed the lives of eight victims in more than 30 guerrilla attacks.
While Europeans demonstrated against missile deployment this past weekend, more than half a million Spaniards demonstrated in Madrid, and tens of thousands throughout the nation, against the Basque terrorist organization ETA. (The initials stand for the Basque words for Basque Homeland and Freedom.) The terrorist group brutally murdered a young Army captain it had kidnapped several weeks ago as well as a baker whom the terrorists accused of being a police informant.
''Terrorism isn't a threat for the survival of democracy in Spain,'' wrote Juan Luis Cebrian, editor of Madrid's independent and largest circulation daily, El Pais, on the front page of the Sunday issue, ''but the threat does reside in the compulsion against it, the social tension created, the sensation of collective impotence, and the fear that all this will serve as a pretext for a military intervention or a militarization of political attitudes of the government.''
Even US President Ronald Reagan sent a telegram Oct. 24 to Prime Minister Gonzalez expressing condolences for the victims of ETA terrorism and support for Spanish democracy. Termed ''an unusual gesture'' by the Spanish press, the telegram is interpreted here as Washington's awareness that an escalation of ETA violence could bring on another coup.
The latest killing was by a minority group (known as ETA, political-military branch, viii assembly) that had split off from the ETA-PM (political-military) faction, which has abandoned armed struggle. The group originally demanded the release of eight ETA-PM prisoners in exchange for Army Capt. Alberto Martin Barrios. This unrealistic demand was later changed to merely demanding that Spanish television broadcast a lengthy ETA communique.
Captain Martin Barrios was shot by the ETA after television stations said they would broadcast the message only after his release.
To drive home the government's sincerity about fighting ETA, Interior Minister Jose Barrionuevo blurted a startling confession in parliament directed at Communist leader Santiago Carrillo.
''I want to say here, today, that all of us in leftist parties made an initial mistake about ETA. At one time we thought this movement could help democracy, but this has never been true. . . . ETA was bad from the beginning, bad in its roots. It was always guilty. Be it known that under the [Franco] dictatorship, ETA assassinated 20 people and in democracy 500. . . .
''The violence of ETA has always been negative. Without ETA, democracy would have advanced more and better. And because of ETA, the democratic system is not complete, precisely in the Basque country.''
Neither Premier Gonzalez nor opposition leader Fraga disclosed the content of the new antiterrorist package. But government officials have leaked information indicating that punishment for terrorist crimes will be stiffened, groups or parties that apologize for or glorify armed struggle will be made illegal, and ETA prisoners will be concentrated in one or two high security prisons.
The opposition Popular Alliance and the armed forces had long been calling for banning Herri Batasuna (the People's Unity Party), which has open links with ETA, but which won from 5 to 20 percent of the vote in the last municipal elections in the Basque country.