Spaniards of all political persuasions, however, were shocked last night to learn that Julio Anguita, 51, Secretary-General of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) and leader of the Izquierda Unida (IU, or United Left) coalition, had suffered an angina attack while campaigning for the 6 June general elections in Barcelona. An IU spokesman said he would remain in hospital for a week and had been forced to withdraw as the coalition's Prime Ministerial candidate.
Mr Anguita, a father of four, had looked like he might soon be playing something of a caliph's role nationwide. The IU is Spain's third political force and, with the big two - the Socialists and the conservative opposition Popular Party (PP) - neck and neck but both far short of an absolute parliamentary majority, the Communist-led grouping looked like calling lots of shots on the morning after the 6 June elections. The IU currently has 17 seats in the 350-seat Congreso (Lower House). Polls suggested it has cashed in on the disillusion of many past Socialist voters and could win around 28 seats a week tomorrow.
Without Mr Anguita's charismatic leadership, however, the IU may forfeit much of those gains. Ironically, Felipe Gonzalez's Socialist Party, from which Mr Anguita was picking up votes from those disillusioned with widespread Socialist corruption, may regain some lost voter support as a result of Mr Anguita's illness.
It is not that Spaniards were turning 'red'. But they have been turning against the Socialists in droves. For many, not prepared to register their anti-Socialist protest by going as far as voting for the right - although some are - that makes the United Left the least of various evils. Add to that the fact that Mr Anguita, a former history teacher, is intelligent, coherent, relatively humorous - a rare blessing among current Spanish politicians - and has a personal popularity rating second only to Mr Gonzalez. Whether the IU will win anywhere near as many votes without him is doubtful.
To most Spaniards' surprise, Mr Anguita is not one of the many Andalucians of Arab stock, from the 700-year Moorish occupation that ended only at the turn of the 16th century. He is partly Basque, partly Jewish and was born in the Mediterranean Costa del Sol resort of Fuengirola. Above, all, though, he is an unrepentant communist who says his Marxist coalition will be 'ready to govern' by the time the next elections are held in four years' time. Although he was the IU's candidate for prime minister, he admitted privately that he sees his role simply 'to keep on trying to change the world'.
For most of us, that proves difficult in the short term. But if the polls are accurate, Mr Anguita's IU may at least have a significant effect on Spanish politics over the next four years. Various polls published yesterday showed the Socialists and PP tied or with the PP fractionally ahead, giving each around 145 seats, 31 short of an absolute majority. The stalemate would leave the IU and the regional nationalists from the Basque Country and Catalonia - with a projected 25 or so seats between them - holding the keys to power. The latter say publicly they would be prepared to help either party govern, presumably the one that wins more seats than the other. The IU, on the other hand, could realistically only join the Socialists, presumably only if Felipe Gonzalez's party wins more seats than the PP.
A problem with that was that Mr Gonzalez and Mr Anguita cannot stand each other. While the latter has remained much the way he was, the Prime Minister has been gravitating to the Right throughout his 10 years in power: even before, when he pragmatically dumped Marxism from the then up-and-coming Socialist Party's programme. The metamorphosed Mr Gonzalez - who switched from anti- to pro- Nato, confronted the trade unions, opted for free-market economic policies and increasingly looked at home in banquets with world leaders - has a Thatcherite horror of sharing a table with a rojo (red), and a bearded one at that. Late last night, Mr Anguita's successor as IU candidate was not known. Mr Gonzalez said recently he might be able to deal with IU moderates, such as outgoing MP, Nicolas Sartorius, who recently split with Mr Anguita.
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