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Surprise win on NATO strengthens Gonz'alez for next election

Rafael Lopez Pintor changed his mind at the last moment and voted to keep Spain in NATO. ``I wanted to vote `no' -- no to a referendum on this question, no to the Socialists, and no to [Prime Minister Felipe] Gonz'alez,'' he said. ``But I closed my eyes and voted yes for Europe and yes for the West.''

Along with millions of other voters, Mr. Pintor endorsed Spain's continued participation in NATO Wednesday. In a sharp reversal of opinion polls, the referendum won by a margin of about 14 percent.

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The surprise outcome strengthens the possibility that Prime Minister Gonz'alez will win another four-year term after general elections scheduled for October. It also relieved Spain's allies who feared that a Spanish pullout would destroy NATO's solidarity.

But Gonz'alez still faces a delicate task in consolidating his victory. The referendum campaign opened up deep cleavages in Spanish society which still could prove explosive. It also delayed Spain's full integration into NATO and raised anti-American sentiments.

Gonz'alez has moved quickly to try to heal these wounds. In a brief television address after the results were announced late Wednesday night, he pleaded for ``a consensus on peace and security policy.''

The United States reaction to the vote was closely watched here, and many Spaniards were gratified to see the comment of Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is quoted in the newspaper El Pa'is as saying the vote will have ``a positive effect'' on negotiations of the four US military bases here.

The referendum campaign brought to the surface resentment of those bases, which were established under the dictatorship of the late Francisco Franco.

Ramon Tamames, the leader of the anti-NATO Civic Platform, told the Monitor after the vote that, despite defeat, his group would now mobilize massive street demonstrations ``for a bases-free Spain.''

In urging voters to support NATO, Gonz'alez had tied continued NATO membership to a reduction of the number of US soldiers based here. Last December the US and Spain agreed to begin renegotiating their 1982 agreement, which is due to expire in two years time. No negotiations have yet been conducted. Now the Spanish are sure to insist on results.

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Foreign Ministry official Inocencio-Felix Arias told the Monitor that a Spanish delegation would meet in Washington with US Secretary of State George Shultz on May 27. While Spain does not want to eliminate the bases, he said, Spain would demand some combination of troop reductions (from the present 12,500) and fighter-jet cutbacks, or perhaps even the complete closure of a base.

``The Americans must know we're serious,'' Mr. Arias said.

An agreement with the US would soothe Spain's internal divisions, Arias and other Spanish officials say. They cite three domestic challenges for Gonz'alez:

The campaign once again pitted the restive Basques and Catalans against the central government. Voters in those two regions came down decisively against NATO. In the Basque case, frustration could bring an increase of separatist violence.

Spain's conservative opposition has been weakened, creating doubts about whether they can constitute a credible democratic alternative to the Socialists.

Manuel Fraga Iribarne, leader of the opposition Popular Alliance, called on his supporters to abstain from the voting in the referendum, even though his party supports NATO. Mr. Fraga told the Monitor before the vote that he feared ``the dangerous situation'' created by the referendum would permit ``the extreme right to reemerge.'' However the large voter turnout seems to show that he could not beat the Socialists.

The campaign united what before looked like a divided and fading radical left. Also, young people tended to vote against NATO in greater numbers than older ones. The result, some analysts say, could be the creation of a strong alternative party like West Germany's Greens.

``We can become more important than the Greens,'' boasted anti-NATO activist Tamames. ``We have 8 million votes and four strong themes: peace, progress, ecology, and regional autonomy.''

Analysts across the political spectrum may support the statements of Fraga and Tamames -- but say they are slightly over-exaggerated. If Gonz'alez now moves carefully, they say, his victory will permit him to go forward with Spain's integration in the Western world and consolidation of its democracy at home.

After the vote, Prime Minister Gonz'alez promised to use the Parliament, not a public referendum, in making future foreign policy decisions.

``We have ended the NATO problem once and for all,'' said Angel Vinas, a key Foreign Ministry adviser. ``We have succeeded in recreating the experience of discovering European solidarity that the rest of Europe went through in the 1940s and 1950s, but which Franco's Spain skipped.''

With the NATO victory fresh in his pocket, Gonz'alez should be able to continue a course of providing a stable, strong government. While the previous centrist government floundered, the Socialists have administered the stiff austerity measures which many financial analysts believe necessary to boost the country's economy.

Before the NATO vote, analysts predicted that a ``no'' vote would force Gonz'alez's resignation and cause the Socialist Party to veer to the left. At the same time, some analysts, such as Pintor, a sociologist at the University of Madrid, predicted that a massive ``yes'' vote would make Gonz'alez overconfident.

But Pintor now believes that the referendum campaign scared Gonz'alez. ``He was too cocky,'' he said. ``He took a big gamble and almost lost.''

Hoping that Gonz'alez learned his lesson, Pintor concluded at the last moment that he could vote ``yes.'' After the results were announced, he was pleased.

``It was the best possible outcome of a bad situation,'' he said. ``Gonz'alez learns a lesson and we avoid prolonged political instability.''

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