Regional leader looks forward to role as Spain's power-broker: In Sunday's general elections the Catalans could tip the balance, writes Phil Davison in Barcelona

ALONG Barcelona's tree-lined Passeig de Gracia, where the world watched Olympic marathon runners battle towards the Montjuic stadium last summer, the election campaign posters of the local Catalan nationalists pretty much say it all: 'Ara, decidirem' (Now, we will decide).

To Catalans, the meaning is clear. Whatever happens in Spain's general elections on Sunday, the Catalans will, for the first time in Spain's young democracy, be far more than just a regional factor. In what looks like being a hung parliament, they may well hold the balance of power in Madrid.

The nationalist Convergencia i Unio coalition (CiU), headed by one of Spain's shrewdest politicians, Jordi Pujol, has long been the driving force in Catalonia. On the national level, however, with a Socialist Party (PSOE) majority government since 1982, the Catalans have been confined to the role of a fringe party. Now, with the country's Socialist rulers and conservative opposition both far short of an absolute parliamentary majority, the Catalans look set for a key role as power-brokers on the national stage.

Mr Pujol, CiU leader and prime minister of Catalonia's autonomous regional government, said yesterday he expected his party to be 'the determining factor' in the likely event of a hung parliament on 6 June. It is difficult to disagree. He said his party, expected to win around 20 seats in the 350-seat Madrid Congreso de Diputados (Lower House), was prepared to back a government of either the Socialists or the conservative PP, but on strict conditions.

Essentially, these were a total about-turn in the present government's economic policy, 'gradually' lowered interest rates, increased state financing in areas such as health, allowing Catalonia to control at least 15 per cent of locally raised taxes, and a swifter follow-through on outright Catalonian autonomy.

He at first suggested further devaluation of the peseta, but quickly rephrased this to 'it certainly shouldn't be raised'. From some politicians, the devaluation call might have appeared as the sort of slip of the tongue that damages the currency on the exchange markets. The wily Mr Pujol, however, has been around far too long to let his tongue slip in front of foreign journalists. If, as expected, he is calling the shots as of the night of 6 June, the next prime minister is unlikely to be able to maintain an artificially high peseta rate and still rely on the Catalans' support.

Add to this the fact that Mr Pujol's deputy and CiU candidate for prime minister, Miquel Roca, has called for direct European military intervention in Bosnia and you see that the Catalans' role in the next Spanish legislature, or even government, could be significant. Many analysts see Mr Roca as a potential economy minister in a coalition government.

Like the leading Basque nationalist party, Mr Pujol played down the independence issue. He is the undisputed master of keeping alive Catalonia's independence dream while reassuring Madrid that 'any decision we take after June 6 will ensure Spain's stability'. No Catalan doubts, however, that, like the Basque Nationalist Party leader, Xabier Arzalluz, he sees a changing Europe, rather than any negotiation with Madrid, as Catalonia's best route towards complete autonomy.

Although Mr Pujol said he had no preference for either the Socialists or the PP, he is said to be leaning heavily towards the latter. The PP may have been less amenable to Catalonia's autonomous aspirations but the Catalan leader clearly feels his likely new national muscle will allow him to sort out the inexperienced PP leader, Jose Maria Aznar. Economic crisis, more than autonomy, is the name of the present game and on that Mr Aznar and Mr Pujol are far more likely to see eye to eye.

Spain's Deputy Prime Minister, Narcis Serra, a Socialist and himself a Catalan, this week accused the CiU of 'treason' for allegedly negotiating a deal with the PP in advance of Sunday's vote. It is not impossible that Mr Gonzalez could win a seat or two more than Mr Aznar but, even if he were to swallow his pride and do a deal with the Communist-led Izquierda Unida (United Left), he might still fall short of a working majority.

Mr Aznar, though with fewer seats than the Socialists, could be asked by the King to form a government if Basque and Catalan support swings the balance in his favour.

Mr Pujol insisted he was not yet thinking of the possible post-election permutations. His party's priority, he said, was to win in Catalonia. Under Spain's post-Franco democracy, the CiU has emerged as clear winner in regional elections but has come second to the Socialists in national balloting. In the present Congress, the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) - the local branch of Mr Gonzalez's PSOE - has 20 of the 46 Catalan seats to the CiU's 18. Polls suggest that situation could be reversed and the local nationalists could win more national seats than the Socialists for the first time. The joker in the pack, however, is the PP. It has not so far been a factor - currently holding only four seats - but that was before its recent upsurge under Mr Aznar. Now seen as more than just here to make up the numbers, the PP could at least double its representation, the polls suggest.

The nationalists are therefore fighting two parties, either of which they may have to hold hands with for the next four years.

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