Gonzalez fails to allay corruption fears: The PM has hinted he will resign if his bank chief is found guilty, writes Phil Davison in Madrid

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The Independent Online
WHEN a 37-year-old man recently drove a lorry through the gates of the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, the Prime Minister's official residence, Felipe Gonzalez's stunned security staff sought to bill the incident as an attempted suicide. In fact, the man was a depressed, unemployed lorry driver trying to get his message across to a Prime Minister seen as increasingly isolated behind the palace walls.

Yesterday, Mr Gonzalez was forced to emerge from the palace and from what his opponents call his 'ostrich syndrome'. On live television he addressed not only Spain's 3.5 million other depressed and unemployed people, but parliament and the entire country, in his annual State of the Nation address.

It was Mr Gonzalez's ninth such address, but despite the fact that he has three more scheduled years in government, bookmakers here were offering long odds on his still being in power next year to reach double figures.

The reason for the mistrust of not only bookmakers but many Spaniards, from brokers to bricklayers - including those who voted for Mr Gonzalez's Socialist Party last year - was not so much the distressing 24 per cent jobless figure, or the economic depression, as a spate of alleged corruption cases involving some of the country's senior public servants. No sooner had Mr Gonzalez stopped speaking yesterday than the opposition Popular Party (PP) leader, Jose Maria Aznar, taking his opportunity to respond to parliament, borrowed from the rock group the Moody Blues a phrase more from Mr Gonzalez's epoch than his own. 'Mr Gonzalez, go now.'

Aware that he does not have the support for victory in a no-confidence motion, an unusually-cool Mr Aznar simply suggested Mr Gonzalez resign. This time borrowing from another Sixties' singer, Mr Aznar turned to the Prime Minister and said: 'The times are changing. It's too late to wash your face. You've given us empty words. You're not telling the truth, Mr Gonzalez. You're not fit to keep governing. Mr Gonzalez, just go.'

Even Mr Gonzalez's staunchest media supporter over his 11 years in power, the daily El Pais, which has discreetly been distancing itself from the Prime Minister, had warned that yesterday's State of the Nation address was his 'hour of truth'. If he did not come up with concrete measures against the widening web of corruption he was finished, the paper had suggested in a weekend editorial.

As it turned out, in his key speech yesterday, it was Mr Gonzalez's expression, rather than his words, that bore any resemblance to concrete. In his one-hour address he spent an initial five minutes and a closing two on the corruption issues that had relegated even last week's Masters' triumph by the Spanish golfer, Jose Maria Olazabal, to the media's relative shadows.

Mr Gonzalez, 52, who narrowly won a fourth term last year to head a minority government that depends on the support of Catalan nationalists, conceded that recent corruption cases 'have created a climate of great preoccupation among public opinion'. He was referring mainly to a parliamentary investigation of Luis Roldan, former head of the paramilitary Guardia Civil police, for his unusuallyspeedy millionaire status, and alleged illegal enrichment by the former Central Bank chief Mariano Rubio during Mr Gonzalez's term.

As opposition deputies heckled, Mr Gonzalez dropped one of several recent veiled hints that he might consider either resigning or calling new elections if Mr Rubio were found guilty. 'I consider this (the Rubio) case of the utmost importance and I feel directly affected by it since it was I who proposed his nomination and, two years ago, supported his honour,' the Prime Minister said. He confirmed that a parliamentary committee would investigate Mr Rubio, 62, who has already faced questioning by two special prosecutors. The ex-Central Bank chief could face up to six years in prison for tax evasion alone.

Mr Gonzalez's speech confirmed what many here believed, that he had become aware of his increasing isolation and was prepared to step down if Mr Rubio were proved guilty. His Finance and Economy Minister during most of Mr Rubio's Central Bank tenure, Carlos Solchaga, a confidant and social companion of Mr Rubio, was widely expected to resign soon.

With 159 seats in the 350-seat parliament, Mr Gonzalez's future depends on the 17 seats of Catalonia's Convergencia i Unio coalition for a one-seat absolute majority. Had Mr Aznar been able to garner the support of the Catalans, led by the Catalan regional leader Jordi Pujol, he would undoubtedly have forced a no-confidence vote yesterday. Mr Pujol, however, who disguises his aim of full Catalonian autonomy only through word games, left no doubt he would go with the flow, that is, the prevailing majority.

'We are not going to open the door to the ungovernability of the country,' Mr Pujol said on Monday. 'If a moment arrives in which the situation is untenable for the central government and it calls new elections, depending on the situation, maybe it would be the right move,' the Catalan leader said.

(Photograph omitted)