Five weeks after Spanish general elections left the conservative Popular Party (PP) just short of a ruling majority, horse trading is intensifying to secure for the party leader, Jose Maria Aznar, enough parliamentary votes to become prime minister. Success hangs on the 16 Catalan nationalist MPs, and to a lesser degree the five moderate Basque nationalists, but neither grouping has yet opted for Mr Aznar and may take another two weeks to make up their mind.
Mr Aznar, in his passion for a deal, is being pushed to meet demands for regional autonomy that could surpass anything contemplated by the previous Socialist government. This would mark an extraordinary turnaround for a party born of Francoism ostensibly committed to the principle of a single Spanish nation. Powerful regional voices in the PP even urge constitutional reform to transform Spain into a German-style federation.
The Catalan leader, Jordi Pujol, said yesterday in Barcelona that the focus of talks between the two parties was regional autonomy. But nothing was in the bag. "We have received few requests from the PP, but those we have received don't amount to much. Things are still at an early stage," he said, and added: "We are not going to vote for Aznar in exchange for nothing."
Without the Catalans, Mr Aznar can kiss goodbye to power, and Mr Pujol is alive to the opportunity this offers. A deal will centre around a bigger Catalan share of tax revenues - wealthy Catalonia contributes 25 per cent more to Madrid than the national average and receives 25 per cent less.
The PP is agreeable to giving Catalonia more tax revenue, but will not say how much. Mr Pujol says he wants, in proportion to the size of Catalonia's population, as much as Spain's poorest regions. This would mean a vast increase that would stretch Madrid sorely and could prompt howls of resentment from the poorer regions.
Mr Pujol also wants Mr Aznar to recognise Catalonia as a nation, beyond the autonomy enjoyed by Spain's other regions, and to hand over to it powers on trade, penal, police and prison matters, coastal fishing, ports, railways and airports. The PP has swallowed the toad, as they say here, accepted the principle and is preparing detailed responses.
The move would transform the balance of forces between Madrid and the regions established in the 1978 constitution, but the constitution itself provides for such an eventuality and the Catalans say a parliamentary vote would be sufficient.
At the prospect of a juicy bilateral deal shaping up between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's other nationalities, the Basques and the Galicians, have put in their pennyworth. The conservative Basque National Party leader, Xabier Arzalluz, warned Mr Aznar this week that the Basques, too, wanted to be treated as a nation. He wants to complete a transfer of powers agreed by the Socialists.
The Galician leader, Manuel Fraga, a PP founder and heavyweight, complained that Galicia must not be marginalised, a plea that appears to have been heard by his party. Mr Fraga, a minister under Franco, has gone even further than the Basques and the Catalans in his zeal to decentralise. He proposes that Spain become a federal state along German lines and reform its constitution. Fellow conservatives, unnerved by his audacity, say such extremes are not yet necessary.
Mr Aznar and Mr Pujol, the men of the moment, appear an ill-matched pair, worlds apart in age, style and beliefs. The consummate operator, Mr Pujol, 65, was jailed by Franco for upholding Catalan rights, and has been a local hero for decades. Mr Aznar, 44, was swotting for his tax exams during upheavals that swept away the dictatorship, and despite his election victory, remains politically unproven.
Neither man achieved prominence through beauty contests or charm schools, the editor of El Mundo newspaper observed recently, and neither, he noted, is a natural host for peak-time television spectaculars. But, the editor concluded, with a nod to the close of Casablanca, where Humphrey Bogart and Claud Rains stand together on the tarmac watching the plane depart, pragmatism and propinquity could spark the beginning of a beautiful friendship.