Gonzalez fights to bridge the gulf: Spain's once-popular leader finds support ebbing, writes Phil Davison in Madrid

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The Independent Online
EVEN BEFORE he surged to power as leader of the Socialist Party in October 1982, Felipe Gonzalez was widely known simply as 'Felipe'.

It was partly a reaction to the formality demanded by Spain's previously best-known 20th-century leader, Francisco Franco, who liked to be referred to as 'the General of all generals'. More so, it was a symbol of trust in a man who had promised an ethical and economic revolution in a nation whose four decades of dictatorship had consigned it to a position barely on the substitute's bench of a fast-unifying Europe.

Now, more than 10 years on, Spain has changed beyond recognition. But even many of those who supported Felipe are still awaiting with increasing impatience the promised ethical and economic revolution. Felipe is more often than not referred to in the streets as 'Gonzalez'.

After seeing his overwhelming 1982 majority whittled in 1986 and 1989, and now forced to call an early general election, Felipe, now 51, looks increasingly like a man who wishes he had followed through on what he told an interviewer last year: 'Fifty seems to me like a good age to retire.'

The image of the 40-year-old lawyer who, clutching a red rose, leaned from a window of Madrid's posh Palace Hotel to greet euphoric supporters after his 1982 victory has been all but forgotten. As it happens, the pretender to Mr Gonzalez's office as Prime Minister, and as moral cleanser of the nation, is himself now 40, the leader of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), Jose Maria Aznar. Weekend polls suggest it is not inconceivable that Mr Aznar could be the one waving from hotel balconies after general election results appear in the wee hours after Sunday 6 June.

The polls, though diverse, show Mr Gonzalez's Socialists and the PP neck-and-neck. That suggests intense post-election horse-trading most likely to produce a fragile coalition, with Basque and Catalan nationalists holding the keys. The Socialists formally named Mr Gonzalez yesterday as their prime ministerial candidate but he has more than hinted he may step down in mid-term if he manages to haul the party to a fourth successive victory.

A year ago, there was little doubt he had his eyes on Jacques Delors' job as would-be European supremo but a year is a long time in politics and, perhaps not surprisingly, Mr Gonzalez is said to see it now as a less attractive position.

Like many of his career contemporaries - George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand - Mr Gonzalez has increasingly focused his vision abroad. His opponents, even many of his long-time supporters, say he has lost touch with those who voted him to power.

His central vision, to take Spain into a united Europe as an equal partner by 1997, has been derailed, or at least slowed by the delays to Maastricht, plunging him back to the reality of 3 million unemployed at home, a government corruption scandal and a split within his party that is fundamental to Spain's future direction.

The remarkable thing, as reflected by the opinion polls, is that the decade of achievements of Mr Gonzalez and the Socialists appears to have been forgotten - or overruled - even by many of his long-time supporters. Taking over just over a year and a half after a military coup attempt, Mr Gonzalez tamed the armed forces' ambitions and stamped true democracy on Spain for the first time. Only those who lived under Franco's dictatorship can truly understand how Spain has changed.

Under Mr Gonzalez, Spain has taken giant leaps forward in education, health and social welfare and has opened up to the outside world. The country's infrastructure has been modernised beyond recognition, the economy opened up in many sectors and women have won increasing rights at work and in the home.

Some would say, Mr Gonzalez himself said so recently, that the boom years of the Eighties are what make it so hard for Spaniards to cope now, in the first months of recession and with a worse economic crisis ahead.

Given the advances of the past decade, how can Mr Gonzalez find himself on the run, facing possible defeat by forces politically not a million miles away from those he appeared to have buried 10 years ago? Is it that he has moved gradually to the right? Some supporters have never forgiven him for his about-turn on Nato membership - he vowed in his 1982 election campaign to pull Spain out but later became a pragmatic advocate of staying in.

But it is the twin problems of unemployment and corruption that appear to have turned voters against the man many used to idolise. 'He promised an ethical revolution. We wanted honesty. He was honest,' said Angel, 35, a lawyer who has so far voted for the Socialists but is considering the options. 'Then there was Guerra.'

He was referring to the case of Juan Guerra, brother of the then deputy prime minister, Alfonso Guerra. Juan was found to be using a government office for private purposes in Seville and is on trial for illegal use of his brother's influence. Alfonso Guerra was forced to resign as deputy premier but remains Mr Gonzalez's number two in the Socialist Party.

'Filesa also came as a shock,' Angel said, referring to the case of an alleged front company set up by the Socialists to get pounds 6m of campaign funds for the 1989 general election. 'Of course we knew these things happened. The shock was . . . that the Socialists were doing it.

'This is going to be the first negative vote of our recent history,' Angel added. 'People are not going to vote for a party. They're going to vote against the Socialists. The result is going to lead to the first true test of democracy in this country.'

(Photograph omitted)