IN the days before Spain's 1986 referendum on membership in NATO, polls showed the ballot measure a sure loser. When the votes were counted, however, Spain had said yes to the Atlantic alliance - and the result was attributed to Spanish leader Felipe Gonzalez's campaign conviction that a long-isolated Spain needed to show it was serious about rejoining the international community.
Mr. Gonzalez on June 6 pulled another ballot victory from between the bull's horns - this time for a fourth term as president - and the victory was again chalked up largely to the Gonzalez charisma. The outside world, it was said, played no role in the campaign.
Yet even though the economy and political corruption were dominant issues, signs multiplied as 21 million Spaniards went to the polls that the Gonzalez victory reflected a nation's collective desire to push ahead in developing its weight and influence in the world.
There was a multitude of evidence pointing to Spaniards' international ambitions: the vocabulary of the campaign and the picture presented by major newspapers in the days before and after the vote; the underlying reasons for Gonzalez's win; and even the two Spanish victories in international sports on the day of the vote.
"Even in a gloomy economy and all the temptations that presents for introspection and protectionism, Spain is keeping its eyes open to the rest of the world," says Emilio Fernandez-Castano, chief of staff at the Foreign Ministry's secretariat for European affairs.
Noting the vacuum of leadership currently plaguing Europe, he adds, "In this empty space is a new actor, playing not a leading role, but making a growing contribution in shaping the new Europe's policies and temperament."
The evidence is anecdotal, but not insignificant. A study of the vocabulary used in televised debates by Gonzalez and his conservative opponent, Jose-Maria Aznar, showed "Europe" to be the third most-used word.
The day after the election, the Madrid daily El Pais resisted the temptation to swim in national events and instead maintained its tradition of dedicating the first inside pages to international events - in this case focusing on the power struggle in Guatemala, of special interest to Spain because of historical and linguistic ties.
Another Madrid daily, ABC, gave lengthy editorial development to Portuguese-speaking Brazil's new policy of encouraging the use of Spanish.
Many average Spaniards, when asked why they supported "Felipe," referred to the respect he had built for Spain around the world.
With Spanish soldiers in Bosnia - three have been killed - and with Spain this month chairing the United Nations Security Council, the Spanish seemed reluctant to place this blooming international role in less-experienced hands.
Giving this interest for Spain's place in the world a historical perspective, Mr. Fernandez-Castano notes that for nearly a century following the 1898 defeat in the Spanish-American war, a pessimism and spiritual defeatism wracked the Spanish psyche, making possible an introverted dictatorship under Franco until his death in 1975.
"But now there is a confidence that Spain is an improving society again, and that is helping to restore a desire for a place in the world," the diplomat says.
Noting Sergi Bruguera's upset win in the French tennis open and Miguel Indurain's taking of the leader's "pink shirt" in the "Giro" Italian bicycle race on the day of Spain's vote, he adds, "These are little events, but they give the average Spaniard the feeling that Spain is a winner, and not a loser, once again."