Francoist PM set for new term: The Galician leader with a despotic image faces tomorrow's poll with confidence, writes Phil Davison from Santiago de Compostela

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HE WAS a Falangist, a key minister under Franco and is now, perhaps, Fidel Castro's best friend. He is also Prime Minister of Galicia, one of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions, and likely to remain so for a further four years after elections in the north-west region tomorrow.

Manuel Fraga Iribarne, 71 next month, is nothing if not a survivor. Although Galicia, with its own language, Celtic culture and archaic road links, is still seen as Spain's own little Third World, Mr Fraga's political astuteness makes him one of Spain's three most influential men after the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, and alongside the Catalonian leader, Jordi Pujol.

Although he has handed over leadership of the conservative People's Party he founded to his protege, Jose Maria Aznar, Mr Fraga remains the power behind the throne. His office at party headquarters in Madrid remains as he left it four years ago. Not even Mr Aznar dared to move in or move the old man's furniture out.

Mr Fraga bowed out as leader when he realised his past was blocking the party's progress. With a younger leadership, he reckoned, the party could cast off the Francoist image and win back the votes of what is probably a natural centre-right majority nationwide. Watching Mr Gonzalez flounder with a minority national government since June, he and Mr Aznar believe the Prime Minister will not survive his four-year term. They predict early elections and a conservative victory.

The Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Galician Nationalist Block (BNG) have tried every trick in the book to wipe out Mr Fraga's one-seat absolute majority in the 75-seat Galician parliament. But they are unlikely to succeed.

'The man is a despot. He treats us like his subjects,' the BNG's white-bearded leader Jose Manuel Beiras said yesterday. The 'despot' theme is at the heart of a controversy over a clandestine videotape of Mr Fraga going the rounds over the last few days. It comprises 'out-takes' filmed by Galicia's autonomous public television station while the Prime Minister was preparing to make his Christmas broadcast last December.

The television station has taken legal action, saying the tape was stolen, and a judge has ordered all 75 Socialist Party election candidates to attend a hearing next week on suspicion that the party copied and leaked the tape. 'Why is the camera moving around. This is intolerable,' says Mr Fraga on the tape, interrupting his text. 'Once I start reading, nobody moves that camera or else I'm off home.

'This is useless. It's a joke. I can't read a word of it,' he says of the teleprompter during another pause. Later, he shouts at an aide who tries to help him on with his jacket and adjust his tie. 'Leave it alone, the tie's not important,' he says.

The opposition accuses Mr Fraga of running Galician television the way he ran Franco's Ministry of Information and Tourism, as a one-party propaganda machine. They refer to the station disparagingly as Telegaitas (tele-bagpipes). Like the opposition's references to Mr Fraga's Francoist past, however, the leaking of the tape may backfire.

Mr Fraga defends his term as Franco's minister, from 1962-69, saying he played a key role in opening up the dictator's regime. He was behind Spain's Sixties' tourism boom, although row after row of poorly constructed high-rise hotels in many beach areas taint his pride in that achievement. 'No one did more for the transition to democracy than I,' he has often said.

Mr Fraga's friendship with Fidel Castro is a result of Galicia's traditional ties with the Caribbean island, a favourite destination for Galician emigrants during the 19th century. Mr Castro's father was born in Galicia and Mr Fraga's parents met there.

Not surprisingly to those who know the Galician leader, who, despite his image, has a tendency to weep and have nose-bleeds in public, it was he, not the Cuban leader who burst into tears when the latter visited his father's birthplace last year. Mr Fraga is said to have offered Mr Castro a retirement home in Galicia but there is no sign of the Cuban President accepting.