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Socialist Spain

The Spanish people face the challenge of resisting what has been widely seen as the polarizing effect of last week's elections. But they could be aided in this task by a continuation of the campaign approach by the very leaders of the left and right who decisively defeated the center. For both the triumphant Socialists' Felipe Gonzalez and the runner-up Popular Alliance's Manuel Fraga Iribarne sought to appeal to the middle rather than the extremes of opinion.

To proceed on a moderate tack would promise an easing of Spain's economic and political tensions sufficient to forestall a return to authoritarianism. The latter outcome - even another attempted military coup - has been warned against as the possible result of any vacuum in the democratic solution of problems.

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Indeed, the incumbent center/right coalition's political downfall is attributed in part to doubts about the effectiveness of its response to last year's attempted coup. The coalition had also failed to prevent its own splintering let alone the lapsing of Spain's economy to a point of stagnation and the highest unemployment rate (16 percent) in Europe.

The missing comment in reaction to the elections is a word of recognition for what the coalition, the Union of the Democratic Center, did in its better days. Founded by Adolfo Suarez, who was Spain's prime minister for most of the seven years since dictator Franco's demise, the union helped Spain maintain its new democracy.

The flourishing of that democracy, despite vicissitudes, may be indicated by the large and peaceable turnout for elections that were shadowed by fears of violence and seen as a kind of plebiscite on democracy in themselves.

Only in a democracy could a once-outlawed party like Mr. Gonzalez's come back so resoundingly. By the same token, the democratic process of winning broad public support evidently led him to rein in the far-left elements of his party.

Mr. Gonzalez's own style and vigor cannot be discounted in the battle of personalities that played its part in the election - making him at 40 the youngest head of government in Europe. Yet his positions on issues and reforms also seem to have been calculated for uniting rather than divisive purposes. He is reported to believe that he must proceed with domestic change even more cautiously than the Socialist winners in France and Greece who have preceded him in something of a West European trend.

In foreign relations the Gonzalez party followed through after the election by reiterating its NATO ''freeze'' proposal, neither leaving the alliance nor going ahead with negotiating a military role in it. It appears there will be no immediate pressing for the referendum on membership which Mr. Gonzalez favors. Nor is it known now what priority he will give to such intentions as renegotiating United States use of Spanish military bases.

What is known is not only Mr. Gonzalez's remarkable democratic rise in Spain but his outreach to human rights and democratic movements elsewhere. Considering Spain's importance to the free world, he will have that world's best wishes in maintaining his nation's democratic course.

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