Gonzalez casts long shadow on Spain's left

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The Independent Online
DESPERATE to dispel the long shadow of the former leader Felipe Gonzalez, Spanish Socialists this weekend launched a campaign for primaries for the first time in their party's 120-year history.

A former Socialist minister, Josep Borrell, has challenged the party leader, Joaquin Almunia, to a duel over who should be Socialist candidate for prime minister, even though national elections are still two years away. Mr Borrell formally threw his hat into the ring - bullfighting metaphors have been stretched to preposterous lengths in recent days - on Saturday at a 20,000-strong rally of the party's mighty Andalusian federation in Mr Gonzalez's Seville heartland.

Mr Borrell muscled his way on to the platform to pledge his loyalty to Mr Almunia but, in the next breath, declared that the party's performance in opposition must be improved.

Felipe Gonzalez has been going about recently sporting his tan suede bomber jacket: a sure sign that he, too, is on the campaign trail. Mr Gonzalez quit as leader in a bombshell decision last June and is not standing again. His blessing has fallen upon his decent, competent successor, Joaquin Almunia.

Mr Gonzalez, who was narrowly ditched by the electorate two years ago, remains the favourite of the party faithful. He was star of the Seville rally and continues to dominate the Socialist scene. That suede bomber jacket has witnessed too many victories to be written off as a mere relic of past glories.

Spanish Socialists - like Britain's Tories - are still finding their feet in opposition after 14 years from 1982-96 in which Mr Gonzalez was prime minister. They often talk as if they are still in government. Many feel Mr Almunia lacks both charisma and new ideas. He is not the man, they argue, to forge a post-Gonzalez force that can see off the conservative Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar.

Step forward Josep "Pepe" Borrell, a smooth and pushy former public works minister in the last Socialist government. "We must stop pining for Felipe," he says. Mr Borrell's smug manner has been picked up by the television satire show Puppet News, which dubs him "Know-all" and "Mega-pepe". But the entry of a competing contender has spiced up the Socialist leadership process, which used to be a dreary affair of power-broking behind closed doors.

Party members will vote on 24 April, and surveys in yesterday's newspapers suggest Mr Borrell is breathing hard down Mr Almunia's neck. Mr Borrell - a Catalan - seeks to overturn the received wisdom that a Catalan Socialist could not be elected nationwide. He has not, however, sought explicit endorsement from the powerful Catalan Socialist Federation, led by the former defence secretary and devout "Felipista", Narcis Serra.

Even if Mr Borrell loses the nomination, his standing in the party has already been immeasurably strengthened, while that of Mr Almunia, even if he wins, has already been weakened, both by the challenge and the demonstration of support for his challenger.

The policy differences between the two are minimal - mutual buzzwords include employment, sustained development and openness - and are, as is customary in Spanish politics, coded and nuanced to court the party's various power blocks.

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