Scarlet-and-gold flags emblazoned with the fascist eagle fluttered in the midday sun as the veteran nationalist Blas Pinar ranted at the foot of Madrid's only equestrian statue of Francisco Franco. "Democracy is weak, the country is sad. Let us revive the dreams of a great and united Spain. Arriba Espana!"
Among up to 5,000 enthusiasts, including old and young, arms shot aloft in fervent response. A smart-suited woman turned to her companion, her carmine lips trembling: "They should never have handed over power to the King. That was the big mistake." But those who rallied yesterday to mark today's 20th anniversary of the death of the dictator are a small, splintered minority dubbed nostalgicos by the media. "We've been inoculated against fascism," shrugged a Spanish friend this week.
Most Spaniards - 76 per cent according to a survey published yesterday - overwhelmingly support the democratic system. Just 15 years ago, the proportion was 49 per cent. And the standing of King Juan Carlos has never been higher. Some 73 per cent think the transition to democracy would not have been possible without him and 79 per cent see the monarchy as a guarantee of order and stability.
If the diminishing numbers of Franco's followers, flanked yesterday by a clutch of German visitors in jackboots, remain intransigent, many Spaniards have softened their attitude towards Franco's 36-year rule. Franquismo, the survey found, is seen by 63 per cent of young Spaniards as having both good and bad aspects.
Gregorio Peces-Barba, a Socialist who fought Franco and became one of the founders of the 1978 democratic constitution, said recently that the peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy was made possible only by the consensus reached among all political forces after Franco's death.
"Of course not everyone agreed with everything in the constitution," Mr Peces-Barba says. "But we tried to avoid including anything that was intolerable to anyone." This pursuit of consensus broke the pattern of more than a century during which Spanish constitutions had been forcibly imposed and reimposed by one half of the country on the other, culminating in civil war and dictatorship costing hundreds of thousands of lives.
Part of the price of a consensus that stretched from republican Communists to Franco's ministers was what became known as "the pact of forgetting": what most participants in the transition process saw as a necessary sweeping away of old rivalries and feelings of blame and revenge in favour of a clean slate. "To keep making history you have to forget the past," said the Basque commentator and philosopher Fernando Savater recently.
But many feel that the pact of forgetting left corners of Spanish politics unreformed. Among them were the police and the civil guard, enabling illegal government anti-terrorist squads to wage a campaign of covert aggression against suspected Basque separatists in the Eighties. Twelve years on, disclosures about the dirty war are causing the worst crisis to face today's Socialist government.
Many old rivalries and feelings of blame and revenge were not forgotten at all. In a casual conversation about voting intentions, a public relations executive in his early 50s who seemed studiously apolitical, which in Spain usually indicates conservative sympathies, suddenly became agitated. "I could never vote for the [conservative] People's Party because it contains ministers of Franco who were responsible for executing people," he said.
His comment illustrates a widely held view: if Spain's fascists no longer have a constituency, it is partly because the vestiges of the far right can find a home in the democratic opposition. Which, if true, perhaps indicates the strength, rather than the weakness, of Spain's 20-year-old democracy.