Franco died, was it two years ago? No one remembers. I don't remember myself. He is really dead."
It was not just anybody talking. It was the man generally considered to be the most conservative member of the Spanish Cabinet, public Works Minister Jonquin Garrigues Walker, head of the Liberal Party and son-in-law of the count of Motrico, perhaps Franco's most distinguished ambassador.
A year after the first free parliamentary elections in 40 years, Spain enjoys one of the most vigorous democracies in the world, with the full spectrum of traditional European parties and a free press that sprang up like mushrooms after the rain.
Yet there is a growing sense that the smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy, miraculous as it has been, is exceedingly fragile, and that any of several major problems could touch off a reversal of the process.
Among the factors that could send the emerging democracy into the tailspin are:
A growing disillusionment with democracy itself because it has failed to provide overnight solutions to all the country's problems.
The rise of the Communist Party, which got what is generally considered to be an unnaturally low 9 percent in last year's elections.
A resurgence of fascism.
The two dominant parties' lack of cohesion. The Socialists and the ruling Center Democratic Union parties are both young, inexperienced and unstructured.
As economy which is having great difficulties converting from the state control to freedom, resulting in high unemployment, heavy inflation and insufficient investment.
The insistence by the traditional regions, led by Catalonia and the Basque country, on an autonomy that the political right suspects is only a step toward breaking up the country.
Political leaders are creating a consensus politics that is not natural to the Spanish political temperament. The most persistent criticism heard of Premier Aldofo Suarez, even voiced privately by some of his own Cabinet ministers, is that he is a pragmatists who cannot be classified on the left or the right.
"This country," said Fernando Onega, a noted columnist and until recently a spokesman for Suarez, "likes bulls and blood. When consensus is reached, people are disappointed."
The consensus stretches from the Communists through the "civilized right" of the count of Motrico and Manuel Fraga Iribarne, Franco's information minister and now the head of Popular Alliance, the most conservative party in the political establishment.
The Communist Party is the most ardent proponent of the national consensus and finds a willing partner in Premier Suarez. The other parties in the democratic part of the spectrum seem to feel that they have no choice but to go along.
A year of close Communist collaboration with the government is widely thought to have erased public hesitation as the Communists reach for an Italian-style "historic compromise" with the center-right.
There seems to be a blithe assumption, even among professional observers, that the Communists will increase their vote to 12 or 15 percent without taking anything from the Socialists. But in a recent by-election in the northern mining region of Austrias, the Socialists lost ground while the Communists won 22 percent of the vote.
"A Socialist-Communist coalition is out," said a Cabinet minister on the government's left. "The leaders of both parties oppose it. It would automatically produce another civil war."
The agreement on basics among the four main parties - the Communists and Socialists on the left and the Democratic Union and Popular Alliance on the right - has left opposition nowhere to express itself but the street. In most of Western Europe, the street means the left. In Spain today, it means the fascists.
They only got a tiny vote in last year's elections but the signs seem clear that after 40 years of fascist rule, it was as unnaturally small as the poor communist showing.
The fascists are playing on the nostalgia for law and the uninterrupted economic growth of the Franco times. For the broad-based political establishment, Franco may well be dead. But the youngsters of Blass Pinar's fascistic New Force spend a lot of their time painting graffiti saying "Franco is Among Us."
The fascist newspaper El Alessar is growing the most rapidly in circulation. The bustling atmosphere of New Force headquarters in central Madrid is like that of a major electoral campaign, with attrative young people jostling each other constantly on the stairs and landings.
Outside Pinar's offices stand relaxed but alert young bodyguards wearing the party's dark blue shirt, with red berets tucked in their epaulettes and large crucifixes hanging around their necks.
Pinar agrees that the country seems to want to be governed in the center, "but," he said, "not a center that is in the middle of a pendulum swing from left to right. They want a center that is a solid pole with a firm foundation."
If the political prospects seem uncertain, the economic outlook is even more clouded, with heavy political implications.
Under Franco, the economy grew steadily at about 6 percent a year in the decade 1965-75, making Spain the world's 10th industrial power. Since Franco's death Nov. 20, 1975, it has been suffering a severe recession. The average annual growth rate over the three years has been 1.7 percent.
The effects of the oil crisis, political uncertainty, a 26 percent inflation last year and, for Spain, a huge and rising unemployment rate of more than 6 percent, have also snapped business confidence.
"It's not a bright picture," said Garrigues Walker, 44, the works minister. "To control inflation, we're going to have to slow down the economy. That means more unemployment and more votes from the left and a backlash from the extreme right."
A proposed new constitution is a potential time bomb of another kind. In the name of consensus, it contains such anomalies as articles, advocating both socialism and a free market economy.
The peculiar political situtation is Spain," said Tierno Galvan, recognized by both left and right as Spain's leading constitutional lawyer, "forces us to accept a constitution that does not fit the national character. It tried to accomodate the past, the present and the future. . . The great argument for accepting it is that as soon as it is adopted, democracy will be affirmed in Spain."
Despite his own grave reservations, he predicted that the constitution will get the approval of about 80 percent of the voters when it is put "to national referendum, probably in October.
The current state of affairs, he said, stems from the country's choice of a transition from the Franco regime rather than a break with the past. "The knot that was tied by Franco," said Galvan, has not been cut. It has merely been loosened."
The strong suspicion lingers that the present consensus is based not so much on a determination to achieve a national reconciliation as on the fear of the consequences of disagreeing.What happens when that fear dies down?
For all that Franco is in general ill favor, it is thanks to him that essential ingredient of the smooth transition is in place. Franco personally groomed King Juan Carlos, now 40, as his successor. He had him trained as an officer in all the main branches of the armed forces.
"The old man knew exactly what he was doing," said a parliamentary leader of Premier Suarez's party. "The officers consider King Juan Carlos one of them. Franco knew things would have to be different after him. In his political testament, Franco told the armed forces to obey the king, even if he does things differently."
When Suarez legalized the Communist Party a year ago, there was a great deal of muttering in the army ranks. They are still muttering against autonomy for Spain's disparate regions. But undoubtedly because of their confidence in Juan Carlos, they have not rebelled.
The king also has rallied the left to him because the Socialists and Communists see him as a guarantor of the army's good behavior. So the king has come to symbolize the national consensus and to serve as a guarantor of the left's good behavior. Because of his presence the right accepts that the left will not pursue the kind of revolutionary extremism that led to the 1936-39 civil war.
As the chief engineer of Spain's return to democracy, Juan Carlos - apparently confident that political life is on the rails - went to visit China recently, the first Spanish monarch to do so.
Clearly sharing that confidence, the United States is leaving its Madrid embassy without an ambassador for three months before sending a replacement for Wells Stabler, a highly respected professional diplomat with a discreet but effective role in aiding the evolution to democracy.
The optimists may be whistling in the dark to think that the Spanish miracle can continue. But, said one interested by-stander, "after all, the very nature of miracles is that they defy statistical probability."