Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez narrowly survived today the first censure motion against him by congressional opponents since democracy was restored to this nation four years ago.

The critical vote, however, indicated an extensive lack of confidence in the ruling Centrist Party, the peacemakers in the transition to democracy, and pointed to the possible radicalization of Spanish politics.

Suarez beat back the Socialist opposition, backed by the Communist Party, when the 350-member Congress rejected the motion by a vote of 166 to 152 with 21 abstentions and 11 members absent. The censure motion required an absolute majority of 176 votes to topple Suarez's government and replace him with Socialist Party chief Felipe Gonzalez.

Regional and right-wing parties that had until now support Suarez's Centrist government, abstained in the censure vote in an effort to force a readjustment in the Cabinet and a shift in policy to meet the serious political and economic problems in Spain.

The vote marked the coming of age of Spanish democracy and ended a period of consensus politics in which the Centrist government and the Socialist opposition avoided direct confrontation in order to consolidate the democratic system that replaced the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Today's vote was the first time that the censure device of the 1978 constitution was put into practice.

The prime minister could only count on the support of his own 166-member Centrist Party, which is short of an absolute majority in congress. However, given the fact that the regional and rightist parties abstained, Suarez was able to turn back the challenge.

Nevertheless, the voted showed that Congress seems ready to give majority support to a Socialist-based government headed by Gonzalez.

Politically, the result of the censure motion leaves things unchanged for the immediate future, but profoundly altered over the long-term. The stability of Suarez's government is seriously threatened after the demonstration that he lacks allies from other parties in Congress.

Right-wing parties abstained to show their disapproval of Suarez's handling of the terrorism that plagues the country and to protest the unemployment rate of nearly 11 percent, the highest in Western Europe.

The defection of regional parties appears to be linked to significant defeats for the government in regional elections this year. These votes in the Basquem Catalan and Audalusian provinces were a stinging rejection of Centrist policies on the delicate issue of provincial autonomy after the government had announced it intended to slow down on the shift of power to regions in the interests of the Spanish economy.

The extended congressional sessions, labeled the "Great Debate" by the media here, has been of extraordinary interest to the man in the street. This avid following of the event seems to belie the frequent charge that Spaniards have become "disenchanted" with the democratic process. An estimated 6 million people -- one fifth of the population -- followed the debate on radio and television. The networks broadcast the proceedings in their entirety -- often staying on the air until 3 a.m.

If legislative impasses arise as result of the censuring motion, an alliance between the rightist Democratic Coalition, which commands nine seats and the Centrist Party, may be the way out.

In the course of the debate, Democratic Coalition leader Manuel Fraga Irbarne, invited the government to form a "natural alliance" with conservative anti-Socialist parties. The Democratic Coalition's abstention in the censure vote was seen as an attempt to force such an alliance. But a union with rightists could well lead to defections among the Centrists, many of whom would prefer to mix with moderate Socialists rather than being identified with neo-Francoists.