A front-page commentary in the prestigious Madrid daily El Pais yesterday compared Spain as it heads toward general elections this week to Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez's most recent book, "Chronicle of an Announced Death."

Everyone in the book, except the victim, knows a man is about to be assassinated. No one wants him to be killed, but no one does anything to stop it.

The title of the commentary, written by El Pais Editor Juan Luis Cebrian, was "The Announced Coup."

"We all know that a crime is being prepared," Cebrian wrote. "We pretty much know who the protagonists are, the place and the time. But what is being done about it?"

After 40 years of dictatorship, Spain's seven-year-old democracy still seems remarkably fragile. Spaniards speak of their Army, still largely identical in personnel and philosophy to the force that ruled under Francisco Franco, as an entity apart, an immutable fact of life that is neither to be understood nor tamed.

Coup plots are regularly rumored, and occasionally declared uncovered by the outgoing centrist government. To a large extent, the perceived willingness of a political party or leader to welcome or tolerate a coup defines the electoral debate -- the front-running Socialists led by Felipe Gonzalez regularly denounce their adversaries to the right, led by former Franco minister Manuel Fraga of the Popular Alliance, as golpistas, or coup-makers.

But although the Socialists, the minority Communists and much of the center rail against the apparent timidity of the government as it occasionally arrests a few officers, transfers a few others and declares the threat contained, no one seems seriously to expect more to be done.

Instead, the advocates of democracy here, by most accounts the vast majority of Spaniards, have chosen to deal with the threat indirectly. During the brief three-week campaign that will end with Thursday's vote, they have thrown themselves into partisan rallies, meetings, discussions of issues and exhortations to get out and vote.

"A high level of abstention could facilitate demagoguery," Cebrian warned. "The mobilization of the people is always the only valid response to those who provoke, and, in a democracy, elections are the most genuine, effective and peaceful kind of mobilization."

"The reason why so many people are going to vote for Felipe Gonzalez," one Spanish woman of conservative leanings said disdainfully, "is because he's handsome."

The 40-year-old Socialist candidate has changed his image considerably since his emergence from Franco-inspired clandestineness seven years ago, when he was identified by longish, untamed hair curling over an open collar. Today, the Socialist leader wears suits, and the image he wants to present is that of youthful capability -- "a husband and a lover," says Alfonso Guerra, his adviser and alter ego.

In the absence of long political records, most of the campaign to head Spain's next government appears to be based less on ideology than on image -- youth versus experience, change versus stability, energy versus inertia.

At a debate last Friday evening among five local candidates for Madrid seats in the Cortes, or parliament, the speakers were conveniently seated according to their political persuasions. On the audience's far left was Communist Juan Pla, a heavily bearded, serious-looking young man. Next came Socialist Javier Solana, his beard shorter and more neatly clipped. A young physics professor with U.S. training, Solana wore plaid and smiled frequently.

Seated in the center were Jose Maria de Areilza, a subdued, prosperous-looking elderly man representing the governing Union of the Democratic Center (UCD), whose disintegration this year as defectors moved left and right provoked the early elections, and Rafael Calvo Ortega, whose Social Democratic Center party was formed by UCD drop out and former prime minister Adolfo Suarez.

A man who held several posts under Franco, including mayor of Bilbao in the often violent Basque country, Areilza represents the "transition" -- the period of Union of the Democratic Center rule bridging the gap between Franco and Spain's future, a gap the Socialists argue should come to an end. Calvo Ortega, like Suarez an attorney, said little during the debate.

To the extreme right sat Fernando Suarez, of Fraga's Popular Alliance. Suarez, who served as labor minister in one of Franco's governments, radiates well-to-do conservatism and the sophistication of a smoke-filled board room.

The topic of the debate, a reflection of the scope of the principal issue the election will decide, was "the social model" -- the social, political and economic system under which Spaniards should live. "Fraga says the Socialists want to change everything about the way the country works," said one local observer. "The Socialists say they don't intend that at all--that the change already is incorporated in the Constitution" but has never been carried out.

There are, of course, more specific issues, chief among them the economy. Unemployment in Spain is 16 percent overall, reaching 25 percent in some industrial areas, and negative growth is expected this year. In addition to fears of a military coup, there is nervousness that a Socialist win could provoke total financial collapse as Spain's conservative banks and industry refuse to cooperate with a government of the left.

Giving few details, the Socialists propose to create 800,000 jobs in the next four years, priming industry through public investment funds that they say will accrue through tightening Spain's currently lax tax collection. Business so far has been unimpressed and has largely endorsed the Popular Alliance.

Other issues include education, with the Socialists proposing more local control over public schools and less public money to private schools; regional autonomy, which the Socialists propose rapidly to regularize beyond the Basque and Catalan regions, and foreign policy. All parties support Spain's entry into the European Community. The Socialists and Communists want to withdraw Spain from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But although these things are endlessly discussed, there is always a larger question. Can a country that fought a civil war over the acceptability of a leftist government and suffered four decades of subsequent rightist dictatorship now tolerate a real democracy that would bring the left back to power?

"Say what you want," Communist Pla warned the Friday night audience, "the transition" from Francoism "is not over." He and the Socialists agree Franco will not be truly dead and buried and the threat of coups stopped until the left once again triumphs.

"There is a democratic right capable of governing this country," answered Fernando Suarez of the Popular Alliance. Areilza spoke of the need for continuity, for the continuation of the center. "The dangers of terrorism, the dangers of polarization that threaten Spain" are things that "all parties have to take into consideration."

If the Spanish Communist Party, steadily losing votes since the last elections in 1979, represents one side of that polarization, its counterpart on the right is not Fraga's Popular Alliance, which hotly denies golpista tendencies, but the New Force party, which openly espouses them.

Its heroes are Franco and Col. Antonio Tejero, who launched an abortive coup attempt in February 1981 and is believed to have helped orchestrate, from jail, another alleged plot uncovered several weeks ago.

The images of both as well as 15th century Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, were invoked under bright skies at a New Force rally yesterday in Madrid's main Plaza de Espana.

"October 28," election day, "is going to be a difficult, anxious moment," New Force leader Blas Pinar told a crowd estimated at tens of thousands.

After "seven years of parliamentary chaos," Pinar said, and the growth of the "liberal virus . . . Spain is sick in body and soul."

Guarded by dozens of blue-shirted, red-bereted youths, Pinar extended his right arm in the Fascist salute and began the Falange anthem,"Face to the Sun."

As the faces of Cervantes and Don Quixote, the bemused character he created, looked down from the plaza's main statue, thousands of arms in the crowd were raised to join him.