IN Madrid's historic Puerta del Sol, a four-story-high campaign sign that looks to be the size of a basketball court garishly admonishes all of Spain that ahora - now - is time for Partido Popular, the country's conservative opposition party, to take the reins of government.
Spain's ruling Socialists failed in the days running up to Sunday's snap national elections to legally force the sign down, so it continues to stand in the capital's midst as a reminder of the threat that the Partido Popular (PP) poses to 11 years of Socialist Party (PSOE) rule.
Polls this week indicate and most political analysts expect that the Socialists' absolute parliamentary majority will be lost for the first time since 1982, and that a weak victory will force either Socialist leader Felipe Gonzalez or PP leader Jose Maria Aznar to form a minority or coalition government.
Yet simply by virtue of its size, the PP campaign sign is also a reminder of what has already changed in Spain - and how much like the rest of Western Europe Spain has become. That the Spanish may be on the verge of electing their first conservative government less than 20 years after the right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco suggests that old fears may have finally died.
Spain's transition to democratic maturity is almost complete, analysts suggest.
"This election indicates another leap forward, but the end of Spain's transition will be when a conservative government takes power and governs," says Luis Moreno, a political sociologist with the Institute for Advanced Social Studies here.
"A solid democracy means alternatives, and the closeness [in support levels] of PP and PSOE shows Spain's progress," adds political scientist Ramon Cotarelo. But the test, he continues, is "not just having [that alternative], but applying it." Critics of right
Recognizing that perhaps a decisive segment of the electorate still feels nervous about voting for the right, Socialist leaders have hammered hard with references to the old Franco regime. Leftist party leader Alfonso Guerra attacks PP posters, like the one in Puerta del Sol, for using "the blue of the old single [dictator] party," while a subtler Mr. Gonzalez calls Mr. Aznar "intolerant" and a "marionette" who dreams of "centralized" government.
Yet on another level, Sunday's national elections, the sixth since Franco's death, also reveal a Spain increasingly like the rest of Europe, confronting the same problems as most of its European neighbors.
Spain is in deep recession, accentuated in contrast to the economic boom of the 1980s. But also like other Western European countries, Spain is wracked by a debilitating leadership crisis, the result of an entrenched, single-party leadership worn down by long years in power. Another similar factor is a deep crisis in public confidence fanned by mounting revelations of government corruption.
"People feel that somehow the socialist project has broken down," says Mr. Cotarelo.
"The majority of Spaniards is still center-left," adds Mr. Moreno, "but they are tired of 11 years of Socialist government."
Despite Spain's quantum economic progress over the past decade, they would appear to have good reason for their fatigue. Unemployment has shot up this year to more than 20 percent, Spanish industries continue to lose competitiveness despite three devaluations of the peseta in less than a year. "In just four years [before 1990] Spain went from a small surplus to a high deficit country," notes Ignacio Gomez Montejo, general manager for strategy at FG Inversiones Bursatiles, Spain's largest independent stoc kbroker. "That may not be unique to Spain, but it influences the people's view of Socialist management."
Despite a dim view of the Socialists, though, Gonzalez remains by far Spain's most popular politician. Recent polls where the Spanish indicated a slight preference for a PP government showed at the same time a desire to retain Gonzalez as national leader. Gonzalez's skills
This is partly a testament to Gonzalez's skills. He is credited with bringing Spain through a decade of tremendous social and economic change, and is respected for his role in restoring Spain's international stature. But he is also seen as a man shackled by a divided party unwilling to make the difficult budget compromises the country needs.
"If the Socialists manage to win, it will be because of Gonzalez and despite his party," says Cotarelo.
But the situation also results from Aznar's weaknesses, evident in this week's televised debate, in which the young leader looked indecisive and immature. Aznar turns 40 this year.
Gonzalez skillfully berated him for giving no specifics, and Aznar's failure to respond indicated an inability to improvise and think on his feet.
On Wednesday, Aznar took time off to fly to Brussels to spend a few hours among Europe's conservative leaders, but it seems unlikely that photo opportunities with German leader Helmut Kohl will convince Spanish voters, especially traditional Socialist voters, who make up much of the undecided. Test for right
The election will be a test of Aznar's success in finally laying to rest the stigma attached to the right for four decades of dictatorship. Yet it is the young and urban voters - the "new Spain" - who most heavily support the PP despite the Socialists' efforts to paint themselves as the country's progressive force.
Aznar dreams of repeating the French experience, where March elections brought a crushing defeat for the Socialists, a wide parliamentary majority for the right, and a conservative prime minister with broad support.
But this is one area in which Spain is unlikely to follow a European neighbor. If no party wins the 160 or so seats (out of 350) to make even a minority government feasible, then the search for a governing coalition - something new for Spain - will begin.
In that case, the country's powerful regional parties could find themselves in a new spoiler role. The Socialists might also consider some kind of parliamentary agreement with the United Left, led by Spain's Communist Party. Some observers even suggest a short-term "grand coalition" between the Socialists and PP.
Another scenario, one business leaders especially hope does not materialize, suggests a period of instability if a splintered parliament delays naming a new president and government beyond early July. A deadlocked parliament, though unlikely, could force King Juan Carlos to call new elections in the fall.
With no single party expected to win a clear mandate, Spain appears headed for a rough road - and another test for the country's "democratic maturity."