Gonzalez in search of a partner: Catalans and Basques ask a high price for their support in Spain's new government

SOME have predicted a 'Persian carpet bazaar'. The Catalan leader, Jordi Pujol, opted for a slightly more graceful image: 'Let the dance begin,' he said. 'It's up to Felipe Gonzalez to choose his partner and take the first steps.'

The dance began yesterday when Mr Gonzalez, now strictly speaking Spain's 'Acting Prime Minister' initiated contacts with other parliamentary groups to find a partner or partners to allow him to govern.

Although his Socialist Party won most seats in the 6 June elections, it fell 17 short of the absolute majority required to guarantee the passing of legislation in the 350-seat Congreso de Diputados (Lower House). Numerically, he is not short of options, but each would represent mixed blessings and force him into varying degrees of compromise. He is said to be aiming for a 'stable pact' covering the four- year legislature, rather than a formal coalition government or a bill-by-bill approach.

Although the appointment of a new prime minister is up to King Juan Carlos, based on discussions with the new legislators when they first meet on 29 June, the parliamentary arithmetic means Mr Gonzalez will have to get the first shot at the job.

Mr Gonzalez first met Francisco Frutos, a leader of the Communist-dominated coalition known as Izquierda Unida (IU, or United Left), in the government's Moncloa Palace yesterday. The IU's 18 seats would bring Mr Gonzalez's Socialists, who hold 159, beyond the magic majority figure of 176 seats in the House. When the music stopped, however, neither man gave any hint that yesterday's discussions might lead to a lasting romance.

Although Mr Gonzalez was once, at least nominally, a Marxist and close to the IU, he has drifted ever further from the left, through the centre and in many ways to the right in recent years.

The 'Acting' Prime Minister was next planning to see Mr Pujol, the wily regional Prime Minister of Catalonia and leader of its nationalist coalition, Convergencia i Unio (CiU, or Convergence and Union), and the Basque nationalist leader, Xabier Arzalluz. The CiU will have 17 seats in the new chamber - enough to give Mr Gonzalez that majority - and the Basques five.

Mr Gonzalez is known to favour a deal with CiU or with them and the Basques together. Both are conservative and pro- European. But both will demand dowries, essentially aimed at outright autonomy.

Mr Pujol has said Mr Gonzalez will have to agree to give Catalonia control of at least 15 per cent of its own income tax revenue 'and that before we will even say 'good morning' '. And both Catalans and Basques will push for more control of their foreign policy, including direct representation in European bodies. Both have talked of their own regional public banks.