THE Spanish voters' surprise ``s'i'' vote to staying in NATO is welcome for the Western community and for Spain's own future. It is a sign of the growing recognition within Spain that the country's economic and technological progress, as well as its security, hinges increasingly on cooperation with its Western European neighbors. Spain, still a relatively new democracy, joined the European Common Market less than three months ago. Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez, who risked his political career with his intensive campaign for a ``yes'' vote on the NATO referendum, argued that a ``no'' would amount to a decisive rebuff of Spain's European allies. To stay in the Common Market and opt out of NATO, he reasoned, would be like moving into a house without paying rent. It was a successful appeal to national pride and Western commitment.
As much as anything the vote signals a personal victory for the popular prime minister. Spain joined NATO in 1982 over the objections of its own parliament. In the election campaign that followed, Mr. Gonz'alez argued against the alliance and promised a referendum. He stuck with the pledge but over the last four years changed his views on the merits of NATO. The 2-million-vote margin of victory for the position he took in this week's referendum should give his October reelection prospects an important boost.
Polls taken in Spain over much of the last year had indicated Spanish voters would reject NATO membership. But in recent weeks pollsters noted a slight favorable trend, coming largely from the ranks of the undecided. The fact that the general secretary of the Communist Party, never that strong a force in Spanish politics, advocated the ``no'' position in a last-minute televised debate may have played some role in the upset. Conservatives, though pro-NATO, had urged voters to stay away from the polls, arguing the vote was unnecessary.
Surely key in the voters' decision were the important qualifiers attached to a ``yes'' vote -- that the current ban on nuclear arms in Spanish territory would hold, that Spain, like France, would continue to stay out of NATO's military command structure, and that there would be a gradual reduction of the 12,500 American troops on Spanish soil. That about 40 percent of those voting said ``no'' despite such conditions -- and that opponents vowed a continued effort to dismantle US bases in Spain -- must be viewed as a sign that Spaniards are not yet as united in their support of NATO as the simple fact of victory suggests.
Still, Spain's referendum marks the first such test of public support for 36-year-old NATO. While a defection from such a new and militarily limited participant might have encouraged other less stable members such as Greece to follow suit, NATO's strength and survival was never really in question. The impact on Spain itself was always the more important issue.
Spanish voters, who have dodged extremes in most choices before them since late dictator Francisco Franco's rise to power in 1936, have cast their ballots in favor of a moderate and stable course.