Conservatives score victory in Galician poll

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The Independent Online
MANUEL Fraga Iribarne, 70, a former minister under the dictator Francisco Franco, led the conservative People's Party (PP) to an overwhelming victory in the north-western region of Galicia in weekend elections. The conservatives inflicted on the nationally ruling Socialists their heaviest defeat in the region since Felipe Gonzalez swept to power nationally in 1982.

Mr Fraga, Prime Minister of the Galician xunta (government) for the past four years, won 52 per cent of votes cast, for 43 seats in the 75-seat regional parliament. The PP previously held 38 seats.

The Socialist Party (PSOE), despite last-minute campaigning by Mr Gonzalez on behalf of his candidate, plunged from 28 seats to 19 - 23.5 per cent of the vote - seen as a reflection of disillusionment with his handling of the economic crisis. The Galician vote was the first since June's general elections, when Mr Gonzalez scraped through to form a minority government while the PP, led nationally by Jose Maria Aznar, came a close second. Mr Fraga and Mr Aznar yesterday billed the Galician success as a prelude to nationwide victory next time round.

While the PP clearly picked up some former Socialist votes, most of the latter went to the independence-minded Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), which surpassed its wildest hopes by going from five seats to 13. The Bloc, headed by a university professor, Xose Manuel Beiras, includes Marxist- Leninists and social democrats who want varying degrees of greater autonomy, some of them independence.

The extent of the nationalists' surge came as a greater surprise than Mr Fraga's advances, which, in Franco's home region, were not entirely unexpected. Regional nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the country, notably Catalonia, whose nationalist coalition, Convergencia i Unio, holds the balance of power in Madrid and where the Spanish language was recently banned from primary school education in favour of Catalan. Many Spaniards believe such developments threaten the very existence of the Spanish state.

Mr Fraga played the nationalist card, usually speaking Galician rather than Spanish during his campaign. But, while pushing for yet greater local powers, he has astutely avoided taking on an anti- Spanish-state image in his dealings with Madrid.

Mr Fraga was Franco's minister of tourism and information from 1962-69, and ambassador to London from 1973-75.

After Franco's death in 1975, he formed the People's Alliance, later named the People's Party, and led it until handing over to Mr Aznar and running in his native Galicia. Mr Aznar was his protege and Mr Fraga is still widely seen as the power behind the People's Party throne.