Gonzalez out to rout critics in his party: Phil Davison in Madrid says the Spanish leader will use the Socialists' convention to reassert his authority

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ON THE EVE of the Spanish Socialist Party's first convention since 1990, the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, is not on speaking terms with his party number two, Alfonso Guerra. It was Mr Guerra who recruited the long-haired, baby-faced law student to the clandestine Socialists under the dictator Franco 30 years ago, and he has long controlled the party apparatus. A showdown at the convention is a distinct possibility.

The 'split party' headlines, however, divert from the point. Is Mr Gonzalez, in his 12th year in power, on speaking terms with the nation? Having seen his dramatic 1982 landslide whittled to a narrow victory and a minority government last June, he increasingly resembles a Hamlet-like figure who roams the ramparts of his Moncloa Palace in Madrid, gazing dreamily towards Brussels but increasingly out of touch with the nation outside his palace walls.

Mr Gonzalez has remained strangely aloof as Spain goes through its worst economic crisis since the 1950s, 24 per cent unemployment and corruption scandals for which no one ever seems to go to jail.

His increasingly inappropriately named Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) is being investigated for allegedly getting millions of pounds' worth of contributions from banks and big business in return for phoney reports; a former Civil Guard chief, Luis Roldan, is being investigated for getting rich on a modest salary; agents of the military intelligence service, Cesid, were found to have links with phone-taps at the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia; and only last week, the daily El Mundo reported that part of millions of pounds in 'slush funds' - officially described here as 'reserved funds' - had gone to former senior officials to top up their salaries, tax-free. Also last week, the Socialists won a key parliamentary vote on labour reforms with the help of at least one deputy who was not present. A colleague is alleged to have pressed the deputy's voting button.

The fact that Mr Gonzalez has ruled from the Moncloa Palace, all but ignoring his party, has to some extent rendered the three-day convention, which starts tomorrow, irrelevant. Nevertheless, he has made clear that this time he, not the more left-wing Mr Guerra, will call the shots.

Although the party is split between 'renovators' (supporters of Mr Gonzalez), 'Guerristas' (Mr Guerra's followers) and 'integrators' (somewhere in between but mostly loyal to the Prime Minister), supporters of Mr Gonzalez's increasingly centrist, sometimes even rightist position will hold sway among the 890 convention delegates. Mr Guerra's supporters, in the majority at the 1990 convention, have lost ground - not least because Mr Guerra was forced to resign as deputy prime minister in 1991 after it was discovered that his brother, Juan, a Seville businessman, was using government offices and allegedly cashing in on his brother's position.

Demonstrating his new 'I'm in charge' philosophy, and to offset Mr Guerra's influence, Mr Gonzalez is, for the first time, expected to draw up personally a 'closed list' of candidates for the party's 31-member executive, to be approved in an open 'yes' or 'no' vote. Previously, delegates could vote for anyone of their choice in a secret ballot.

Given the fact that he appears to view his party with increasing disdain, Mr Gonzalez may well propose Mr Guerra's continuation as deputy secretary-general. Whether Mr Guerra will accept, kiss and make up, or decline and fight on to widen his power base is the question.

Mr Gonzalez's charm, and his impending-doom warnings of a return of La Derecha (The Right, but a term still strongly identified with Francoism), were widely credited with swinging last June's narrow general election victory. Mr Guerra notes, however, that it was his, Mr Guerra's, grass- roots support in Andalucia that tipped the balance.

Andalucia may prove the next battlefield. Its regional elections are due in June amid signs of widespread disenchantment with Mr Gonzalez, a native son, and swings to both the left - to Mr Guerra or the Communist-led United Left - and the right, the conservative People's Party (PP).

A violent clash between workers and police yesterday near the Andalucian town of Linares, where the Japanese company Suzuki is winding down its investment and calling for the dismissal of 60 per cent of workers at its local plant building Vitara and Samurai models, may have been the first broadside.