Jesus Maria Leizaola is 83 years old and he has been waiting since 1937 to return to his home across the Spanish border in the Basque cultural center of San Sebastian.

After Thursday, when the Basques of Spain vote to recover the short-lived regional autonomy that Gen. Francisco Franco took away in the Spanish Civil War, Leizaola will be ready to go back any time.

Meanwhile, the frail-looking president of the Basque government-in-exile stays here in a clean but inexpensive hotel in the main town of the French Basque region, waiting for the call from the Spanish side to return and transfer the legitimacy he embodies to the new Basque authorities.

"My wife died 12 years ago," Leizaola says. "She is waiting for me in the family tomb in San Sebastian. I want to return."

The Basque voters on the Spanish side are being called upon to approve in a referendum an agreement negotiated this summer with the Spanish central government. The agreement gives an autonomous Basque regional government a parliament and control of tax revenues, public education and police. It leaves open whether Navarre, a historic part of the Basque country, later will join the administrative provinces voting on Thursday. Many people also anticipate problems with Madrid over how the autonomy statute is applied in practice.

In many ways, the Basque powers under the statute are greater than what the Basques had in 1936. Madrid has granted broader powers to the 2.5 million Basques than it has to Catalonia, the other major region with a language and culture of its own. The Catalans also are voting Thursday on their autonomy statute but a positive outcome in Catalonia, a region of 7 million, is considered a foregone conclusion.

The leaders of the mainstream Basque National Party obviously are worried about the response to the call for boycott of the vote issued by ETA, the party's terrorist Marxist-Leninist offshoot. The National Party forecasts a 60 percent turnout, with almost all voting yes.

ETA's above-ground political arm has a proven voting strength of about 10 percent, but there are a number of Basque nationalists who do not like the idea of the autonomy statute's coming not as an automatic right but as a grant from Spanish Premier Adolfo Suarez under the Spanish constitution.

In addition, there is a lot of voter apathy. This will be the seventh time in two years that voters here have been called to the polls, and the Basque country's nationalism is not an issue expected to bring people out, even though the main political parties, have also called for a yes vote.

The disputes among the Basques can be largely summed up in the conflicting attitudes of the selfeffacing Leizaola and the charismatic Telesforo de Monzon, a septuagenarian aristocrat who is also one of the four surviving members of the 11-man Basque government that had to flee from Franco in 1937.

Monzon split with the National Party to found Herri Batasuna, the legal pro-ETA party.

When the news came this summer that a deal had finally been made between Suarez and the National Party, Monzon said, "Tell me who is rubbing his hands in glee, and I'll tell you who should cry." The autonomy statute, he said, would bring more joy in the board rooms of the big banks of Bilbao and the ministries in Madrid than "in the modest houses of Basque patriots."

The National Party passed over Monzon for Leizaola, when the first president of the Basque government died in 1960. Leizaola takes a charitable view of his old colleague: "He's not a revolutionary. Maybe he is trying to save all those impetuous young people for nationalism. I understand them. I saw it in my own family. They started out as nationalists."

Until recently, the interests of the National Party and ETA converged. The National Party negotiated with Madrid, and ETA violence demonstrated how bad things could get if Basque nationalism were not satisfied. Since the deal was made, however, the National Party has been issuing the first really clearcut condemnations of terrorism. Now that its only real effect can be to provoke the restive Spanish armed forces, terror could boomerang against the National Party.

"What the National Party fears is clear enough," said a foreign observer in Bilbao. "Remember that the military rebellion that started the Civil War began the day in 1936 that the Spanish Republic let the Basques proclaim their first statute."

The Monzon group says it looks forward to a repetition of just that sort of thing. It is the classic extreme leftist argument used by the German Communists who wanted Adolf Hitler to come to power on the assumption that things would get so bad that they would lead next to a radical leftist revolution.

Monzon's political evolution is offered by National Party workers as proof that they were right to distrust a man who is not satisfied to be a major Basque language playwright but also wants to play the lead role in his own plays.

By contrast, said Ramon de la Sota, 32, a National Party senator in the Madrid parliament, "Leizaola is the perfect embodiment of the Basque ethos. The Basque nation recognizes no heros. The rest of us in the National Party know we'll all end up like Leizaola."

Leizaola says that he does not want to play a role in the new government because of his age.

Wearing a charcoal gray pin-stripe suit and carrying a black fedora under his arm, Leizaola came all alone to an interview.

"I didn't have the pretension to be the head of the movement," he said. "Someone had to keep the flag flying outside the country." Then, he added, unafraid to mix a metaphor, "I was the periscope of the submarine."

But the question arises about what happens to the National Party now that it is on the verge of power. Founded at the turn of the century, it survived 40 years of Franco repression to emerge intact as a well-oiled patronage political machine. In less than three years, it has opened dozens of party clubhouses. The National Party's objectives are different, but the methods would be familiar to any Tammany Hall leader.

Carlos Garaicoechea, the 40-year-old party leader and heir-presumptive to Leizaola, was very much in the traditional National Party mold of collective leadership until this summer, when he made the autonomy deal with Suarez after establishing a close personal relationship. Since then, Garaicoechea has been showing a definite taste for the limelight. And some-Basques are beginning to ask whether he, too, wants to be considered a hero in his own right.