Power slips through the fingers of Spain's ruling Socialists

The leadership, from Felipe Gonzalez down, is afflicted by a deep exhaustion, writes Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
Click to follow
Spain's Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, yesterday brushed off an opposition MP's request for an explanation of why he had reopened the investigation into the Gal anti-terrorist death squads, after 10 years.

The wider question about the future of Spain's Socialist Party also remains unanswered. The party, led by Mr Gonzalez, is aware that a chapter is closing but seems fearful about what may happen next, if Mr Gonzalez is forced out by the Gal scandal, or if voters simply decide that they want a change.

Party leaders acknowledge the impasse. In 12 years of government they have packed in a number of reforms but have suffered an inevitable erosion of support. "What has happened to us as a Socialist Party is similar to what has happened to other Socialist parties in Europe," Joaquin Almunia, the spokesman for Socialist MPs, said this week. "We haven't elaborated the new instruments, the new tools, so that we can keep on offering reforms in a world and a society different from the Sixties and Seventies. Our official manuals of social democratic policy are written for a world of 15 or 20 years ago and there is no new collection of social democratic tools for the next 10 or 15 years."

This is the official version. The popular version, on both right and left, runs something like this: "The party is clapped out, drained of ideas, cut off from the people, corrupt and desperately clinging to power." Mr Gonzalez, at 52, is to many Spaniards as old politically as Franois Mitterrand. Like the ailing French President, Mr Gonzalez and his close allies put together the fragments of a historic party and revitalised it to suit new conditions, but now both he and it are exhausted.

The Spain which the Socialists inherited in 1982 after decades of repression and isolation under Franco looked much like a Third World country. "We were in Mediterranean underdevelopment," Ludolfo Paramio, a sociologist and a member of the Socialist Party's executive, said. For social democrats struggling free of dictatorship, northern Europe, particularly Sweden, offered the model. But that was in the days of closed economies and before conservative rulers started to dismantle the Swedish welfare state. "Now there is nowhere to look for an example. With the integration of the economies of Europe it is impossible to have social democracy in one country," Mr Paramio said.

Europe is the new theatre of operation for social democracy, he added, but the problem is that public opinion does not have a clear idea of what social democracy means in a European context. A survey last month showed that Spaniards' former passion for Europe - forged when links beyond the Pyrenees were seen as a vital guarantee for the new democracy - has faded. The poll showed that 68 per cent of Spaniards thought Spain had little or no influence within the European Union and 44 per cent thought European integration had not been as beneficial as they had hoped when Spain joined the European Community in 1986.

Another problem is that of recruiting new blood to refresh the sclerotic arteries of the old guard and counter the haemorrhaging of disaffected members, particularly on the left. On the one hand, the upper and middle ranks of the party are still occupied by the generation that flocked in during the Seventies and Eighties. On the other hand, today's youngsters see little point in party activity, Mr Paramio said.

The Socialists may have become comfortable, even complacent, in power, but Mr Paramio denied that they ever bonded with the traditional structure of economic power in Spain. "We were the wrong class - the lower middle class with education - so the system has punished `arrivistas' like the bankers Mario Conde and Javier de la Rosa [who are on trial for corruption]." This is an opinion shared from the opposite side of the spectrum by a banking executive who said this week: "The holders of old money in Spain will never allow anyone new to enter their club."

The opposition conservative Popular Party, a more natural partner for the establishment, ranges from the extreme right wing of old Francoists to the new middle class. The party's leader, Jose Maria Aznar, keeps his programme close to his chest, perhaps reflecting the disparity of his party's interests. But his low-intensity leadership is giving the Socialists some badly needed time as the sand slips swiftly through their fingers.

Recession in the late Eighties and the reconstruction of east Germany had more impact on Spanish socialism than the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr Paramio said. "The investments that might have come here or to other European countries have gone to Germany. After the euphoria of the Eighties, the recession of 1992 came as a big shock to us." Even if the economy recovers this year, the Socialists may not reap the benefit. "Many people voted for us in 1993 because they were worried about how the PP would handle the economic crisis. But if there is a recovery, people might feel it was time for a change."

Would not a spot of opposition be a good thing? Mr Paramio was adamant. "As any Briton knows, being in opposition can be fatal. It gives disproportionate strength to more organised and rhetorically radical groups. The party would become more separated from society and would never recover its strength in the working class."

Mr Almunia is more confident. "There is no erosion of the hard nucleus of the Socialist vote, which has never dropped below 28 per cent," he said. "Any party, whether in government or in opposition that keeps above 25 per cent has a solid base and is not going to disappear like the [now defunct conservative] UCD or the French Socialist Party.''

The shadow of the Gal affair lengthens over Mr Gonzalez, but within the party, discussion of a possible successor is taboo. There is the sinking feeling that without "Felipe" the whole outfit might fall apart.

The Gal affair shows that in the transition to democracy, the institutional continuity of the security forces since Franco's day was never broken. This oversight, which many believe led the state to continue undercover actions, may destroy Mr Gonzalez, possibly his party, and wreak long-term damage to Spanish democacy.