Gonzalez opts for early election: Prime Minister gambles on timing as Spanish parties ready for their 'dirtiest' campaign

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BUFFETED by corruption allegations and rattled by a split within his ruling Socialist Party, the Spanish Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, yesterday called an early general election for 6 June, four months ahead of schedule.

It was one of the biggest political gambles of Mr Gonzalez's career. He billed his move as one made with the good of the country in mind - 'to restore a climate of calm' for dealing with the country's number one priority, the economic crisis. But there was little doubt the darkening clouds of corruption, his party's disorder and more specifically the opposition's constant harassment over both issues, had finally forced his hand.

The success or failure of his gamble will depend on the direction of the economic graph and the extent to which the corruption charges blossom over the next two months. With the Socialists and the main opposition, the conservative Popular Party (PP), neck-and-neck in the polls, analysts predict the 'dirtiest' campaign in Spain's short democratic history.

Spain has perhaps not been so evenly divided since the civil war of the Thirties and, to a large extent, the divide of today runs along the same family, religious, social and geographic lines as of the war-time era. If, as most Spaniards undoubtedly hope, old passions are not inflamed anew, they are unlikely to have the campaigning politicians to thank.

'I have just asked His Majesty the King for permission to call a general election for the 6th of June,' Mr Gonzalez said, at a press conference. King Juan Carlos had flown back briefly from a holiday in the Canaries, where he and his family have been recovering from the death of his father.

'As you know, I have always defended a legislature completing its maximum term, which I believe is important to the institutional stability of the country,' the Prime Minister said, looking relaxed, even relieved after an extraordinary cabinet session and a weekend of tough deliberations within his party. But his decision had become necessary, he said, because of 'a quite irrational climate . . . of unease and tension'.

The latest crisis heightened earlier this month as increasing details emerged over the use of what appeared to be a 'front' company, Filesa, to raise finances for the Socialist Party in the Eighties. An existing split in the party then widened as Mr Gonzalez admitted there appeared to have been 'irregularities' while the faction headed by his deputy, Alfonso Guerra, favoured hanging tough and admitting nothing. An investigating magistrate is expected to make a report on his findings in the Filesa case later this week.

In a thinly veiled reference to the PP and its leader, Jose Maria Aznar, Mr Gonzalez attacked 'an opposition group for attitudes of rejection, without any attempt at analysis, towards any economic proposals'.

Mr Gonzalez swept to power for the first time in 1982 in a wave of euphoria after a cautious transition to democracy in the wake of 40 years of Franco's dictatorship. On 6 June he will be seeking a fourth term in office. The Prime Minister has admitted he is tired after more than 10 years at the helm but reluctantly accepted the party's nomination.

The question now is whether his charisma can overcome such factors as the corruption scandal, the party's disorder, 20 per cent unemployment and the general European swing from socialism towards the centre or right. The last important opinion poll gave the PP 29.95 per cent of the vote and the Socialists 28.35 per cent. In 1989, Mr Gonzalez's party won 39.8 per cent, against the PP's 26 percent.