Gonzalez will attempt to go it alone: Spain's Socialists confound the polls to emerge as the biggest party, but they need friends and a 'new look'

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FELIPE GONZALEZ closeted himself with the national executive of his Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) last night and was said to be planning to rule with a minority government rather than seek a coalition with smaller parties. There will be no announcement until after the new legislature convenes on 29 June and the King formally asks someone, logically Mr Gonzalez, to form a government. It is likely to be around 1 July before Mr Gonzalez's plans are known.

After confounding opinion polls by remaining the largest single party in Sunday's general election, despite a 10 per cent swing towards the conservative opposition, Mr Gonzalez reportedly intended to try to tough it out with a minority single-party government, albeit with a 'new look' to include independents and many more women. That would mean seeking other parties' votes bill by bill. He said before the election that 160 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, the lower house, would make a minority government viable. In the end, with more than 99 per cent of votes counted, the PSOE won 159, a loss of 16, and the conservative People's Party (PP) 141, a gain of 34.

The surprise 'victory' in remaining the strongest single party gives Mr Gonzalez, 51, considerable leeway in his options were he to opt for, or be forced into, a coalition - arithmetically, that is. Policy-wise, he would have to swallow his pride and make concessions on key issues.

If he feels the need for a firm coalition, the 18 seats of the country's third-placed grouping, the Communist-led United Left (IU), would provide an absolute majority in the Congress. The IU is amenable, but its leader, Julio Anguita, who is Secretary-General of its strongest component, the Spanish Communist Party, is strongly opposed to European unity and would demand a complete pro-labour shift in economic policies.

Many businessmen say a PSOE-IU coalition would be seen as 'catastrophic' by potential domestic and foreign investors. Mr Gonzalez would be likely to see any such deal as a last resort, a stage he has by no means reached. The fact that the fiery Mr Anguita, once known as the Red Caliph, is in hospital after a heart attack could eventually influence coalition haggling. Mr Gonzalez said before the elections that he could conceivably deal with the IU's moderate wing but not with the Communist chief.

The 17 seats won by the Catalan nationalist coalition, Convergencia i Unio (CiU) - late results showed them dropping from 18 to 17 seats despite appearing to make gains earlier - would provide him with the magic 176 figure for an absolute majority. There are, however, at least two obstacles to that scenario. First, CiU leaders had made much of the fact that they were, they thought, going to win several more seats, that the PSOE was going to lose many more than it did and that they would therefore hold the balance of power in Madrid. Their campaign slogan, 'Now, we will decide,' reflected their over-confidence. Their tails are between their legs after the results and Mr Gonzalez, though perhaps needing their support on individual bills, may not offer them a formal role in the government.

Secondly, the CiU, itself a coalition of two Catalan parties, was split over whether it would be best to join a national coalition, or simply try to influence individual legislation. The feeling in Barcelona last night was that the CiU, at the behest of its leader, Jordi Pujol, would take the latter course, even if Mr Gonzalez came calling, to avoid the restraints of a direct commitment to central government.

The Catalans' and Basques' disappointing showing - the Basques retained their five seats - appeared to be the result of the feeling that the vote, even in the semi-autonomous regions, was a left-right contest. Many Catalans appear to have voted for the Socialists to keep the PP out at the national level.

The regional nationalists will not therefore, as one Basque recently put it to me, 'have Felipe by the balls'. But Mr Gonzalez's weakened position will give them more muscle in their calls for greater autonomy. Both groupings say publicly that they are not seeking independence, at least for now, but want total control of their own finances and of such matters as foreign affairs and transport, still controlled from Madrid.

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE FINAL RESULTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Party Votes % Seats '89 % Seats Socialists 9,076,218 38.8 159 39.8 175 People's Party 8,169,585 34.8 141 25.9 107 United Left 2,246,107 9.5 18 9.1 17 Catalan Nats 1,162,534 4.9 17 5 18 PNV (Basque Nats) 290,386 1.2 5 1.2 5 Centrists 413,213 1.7 0 7.9 14 Canary Is Coalition 206,953 0.9 4 0.3 1 Basque Pro-Independence 206,296 0.9 2 1.1 4 Catalan Pro-Independence 188,800 0.8 1 Aragon Reg 144,261 0.6 1 EA-EUE (Basque Nats) 129,263 0.6 1 UV (Valencia Reg) 112,032 0.5 1 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Turn-out 77.28 per cent (69.9 per cent in 1989). Source: AFP -----------------------------------------------------------------

A man who decided to fight, page 23

Hamish McRae, page 30