MADRID — Ten years ago, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, which was outlawed in Spain, met in a suburb of Paris and elected a 32-year-old labor lawyer with the code name "Isidro" as its new leader.
No national Spanish newspaper carried a line about the event. Even if the Spanish press thought the election of a new leader by an illegal party with uncertain prospects was newsworthy, all feared the wrath of the Fascist government of Gen. Francisco Franco.
When El Correo de Andalucia, a regional newspaper, defied the Franco government and published an interview with Isidro a few days later, the police confiscated all copies of the issue.
The new leader, an eager young man in open-necked shirt and leather jacket who soon moved from his home town of Seville to a small apartment in Madrid, was so little known that Socialists brought him quietly to the cafes of the city to introduce him to foreign correspondents.
Isidro's real name was Felipe Gonzalez. Today, Gonzalez, graying at the temples, often in a sport coat, sometimes in a suit, usually wearing a tie, is prime minister of the democratically elected government of Spain.
His party, which recently completed its latest convention in the comfort and respectability of Madrid's Palace of Congresses, is not only legal but so dominant that most analysts believe that Gonzalez will govern Spain for many years to come.
Gonzalez himself likes to joke that his "only real rival for power is still a senior in high school."
The Communists are divided and weak. The parties to the right are in disarray and without popular leaders. The most diehard followers of Franco are so weak that they disbanded their party after their last election.
The change in 10 years from dictatorship to democracy--with the death of Franco in 1975, the emergence of King Juan Carlos in 1976 as a champion of democracy, the first free elections in 1977, the collapse of an attempted right-wing military coup in 1981, the election of a majority Socialist government in 1982--has seemed so swift that Prime Minister Gonzalez told the convention that he and others "feel a real vertigo when we compare our situation today with where we were a decade ago."
Yet much of the criticism of Gonzalez these days comes from Socialists and other former sympathizers who complain that the prime minister is not changing Spain enough. They insist that he has betrayed his promises, that he has an innate conservatism that causes him to lose opportunities, that power pleases him more than principle, that he has bought stability at the price of too many compromises.
In short, the great debate in Spain, the European country of swiftest change, now centers on the issue of whether it has changed enough.
Jose Antonio Martinez Soler, a respected writer for El Pais, Spain's most influential newspaper, commented not long ago: "The Socialists have become like all political parties of the world. When they are out of power, they promise change. But when they are in power they promise stability instead."
Defenders of Gonzalez feel, however, that the stability of his government, especially for a new democracy, is for more important than any slowdown in the pace of change. Angel Vinas, a distinguished historian and adviser to the foreign minister, said recently:
"We now have a government that governs. The ministers have discipline. The government acts as one. There is no talk, no rumors of plots, of coups. There are no resignations, no ministerial battles in public. All this is an important achievement."
The debate has a healthy tone to it, for Spaniards are no longer arguing about the pace of change from dictatorship to democracy but about the pace of change within a democracy. Not every Spaniard, however, sees this difference.
"The problem is that Spain has become a normal country, just like any other," Vinas said. "It is a country like France or Italy or Germany or Holland. But the people do not believe it. When the government does not do exactly what they expect it to do, they think there is some terrible crisis."
No doubt because of the troubled economy and the Socialist economic policy, the popularity of the Socialist Workers' Party has been decreasing in the polls. Gonzalez and the Socialists came to power in October, 1982, with 48% of the popular vote, an extraordinary total in Spain, where there are many parties. The result gave the Socialists an overwhelming majority in Parliament.
According to the latest poll of Cambio 16, the Spanish news magazine, the Socialists would now get 39% of the popular vote. But the conservative Popular Alliance of Manuel Fraga, the main opposition party, would not pick up the percentage points lost by the Socialists, the poll showed. Moreover, it showed that 46% of Spanish voters still prefer Gonzalez as prime minister, while only 18% favor Fraga.