``If you want to punish me, wait for the elections,'' begged Premier Felipe Gonz'alez during the referendum campaign last spring on continuing Spanish membership in NATO. Voters then backed Mr. Gonz'alez and approved the referendum. And as Sunday's general elections draw near, it looks equally unlikely that Spanish voters are about to punish Mr. Gonz'alez now.
Most opinion polls show his Socialist Party winning a majority and keeping most of the seats in parliament that it gained in a landslide victory in 1982.
``Presently the Socialists enjoy a huge backing,'' says Eduardo Punset, an economist and minister with the former centrist government. ``It's the first time Spain's vast middle class has emerged and taken office. But there's one problem: There's no strong alternative to the Socialists which might ensure that parties take turns in power.''
The prospect of the Socialists governing virtually unopposed for the next four years worries many political analysts. As leaders of opposing parties scramble to attract voters, the issue of the campaign has become how to stop the Socialists from gaining an absolute majority.
In an attempt to extend its influence, the Spanish Communist Party has opted for going into a coalition with other forces which mustered ``no'' votes in the NATO referendum last March: pacifists, ecologists, and a traditionally conservative party of so-called humanists and Carlists. However, this fragile coalition, the United Left no longer has a strong base such as the NATO issue on which to anchor its campaign.
Meanwhile, the June elections may mean the survival test for the right-wing Popular Coalition, the main opposition group, headed by former Franco Minister Manuel Fraga. Mr. Fraga has been the one leader to organize Spain's right-wing forces, yet he has also been seen as hindering a much-needed renewal of the right.
``Certain sectors of the right now realize that conservative Fraga is incompatible with the new scenario in modern Spain,'' says Mr. Punset.
The center has now become the battle ground of the campaign as two political leaders, Miguel Roca, a Catalan nationalist, and Adolfo Suarez, the former centrist premier, maneuver their parties into place. Their aim: to become a strong alternative and break up the two-party system implicitly installed after the 1982 elections.
With a progressive image untainted by links to the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, Mr. Roca and his Democratic Reform Party propose to encourage more part-time employment and more private investment to solve Spain's severe unemployment. However his ties with the Catalan nationalist party may make Roca rather difficult to accept to the rest of Spain.
Meanwhile opinion polls have shown a surprising surge forward for Mr. Suarez and his Democratic and Social Center. Suarez enjoys a reputation as the the leader who dismantled the Franco regime. Yet the collapse of his previous party and a low-key stance since (even on the crucial NATO issue) have made voters until now view him as a figure of the past. Suarez himself once said, ``People applaud for me, but don't vote.''
Suarez proposes more public spending and higher taxes to combat unemployment. He also takes a tough stand on the popular issue of reducing United States military bases in Spain.
The ``historical project'' to build up a strong center party faces only one problem: Mr. Gonz'alez's Socialists.
``In a country like Spain where there has been a civil war, there is a historical rejection of radical positions and a generalized demand for centrist policies,'' says Eduardo Punset. ``The Socialists have realized this and have satisfied the need.''
The economic policies carried out by the Socialists can scarcely be branded as orthodox leftist. Their strict monetary policy, a tough approach to overmanned state industry, and attempts to contain government spending have gained the approval of the business community.
Although unemployment has risen to almost 3 million people -- at 22 percent the highest in Europe -- the Socialists hope sustained growth will ease the situation. In recent months, employment has started to pick up.